Nowhere in the world are veterans honored as sincerely as in France

D-Day commemorations in Normandy

President Ronald Reagan at the Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument in 1984

The world was ready for peacetime as World War II ended in 1945. Consumed by war for so long that many could not remember peacetime, thoughts were focused on how to improve on the treaties that caused so much consternation at the end of the Great War, how to dole out justice for war crimes, and how to rebuild so many devastated nations. The victors certainly celebrated the end of the war, but few were concerned with how to remember it.

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By his own account, Michel de Vallavieille, mayor of the small French town of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont from 1949 to 1991, fought off calls to develop commercially the Normandy coast. He instead preserved the area known as Utah Beach for posterity, christening the Utah Beach Landing Museum in 1962. Shot by confused American paratroopers while exiting his home, which had been commandeered by the Germans, de Vallavieille never held a grudge against the Allied liberators. He instead built a museum in their honor out of the German bunker known as WN5 (Widerstandsnest in German, “resistance nest” in English), which remains its foundation.

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Utah Beach

The land above Omaha Beach became the region’s primary cemetery for fallen Americans. The next of kin were given a choice of leaving a soldier’s remains in Europe or having them sent home. Soon after the war, temporary cemeteries were consolidated into larger ones around the world, maintained by the U.S. Government through the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). The Normandy American Cemetery contains 9,385 remains resting just a short distance from the temporary cemetery established on June 8, 1944 as the first American cemetery in Europe in WWII.

Normandy American Cemetery
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As the world moved on from the war, and the Cold War dampened relations between former Allies, the D-Day landings and other historic operations largely sank from public consciousness. Memories in Western Europe were kept alive by the liberated, and the French appreciation for the D-Day landings made Normandy a gathering point for enthusiasts. Soon, politicians and ambassadors were honoring the veterans, and in 1984, Ronald Reagan became the first U.S. president to attend a D-Day commemoration in Normandy when he spoke at the 40th Anniversary of the landings. Bill Clinton attended the 50th, George W. Bush the 60th, Barack Obama the 65th and 70th, and Donald Trump the 75th as sitting presidents.  

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Veterans of D-Day returned home after the war to start families, continue their education, and move into brand new GI housing, often remaining tight-lipped about their experiences in northwestern Europe. As the commemorations grew in the 1980s and 1990s, veterans returned in larger numbers and realized what is still true today: nowhere in the world are veterans honored as sincerely as in Normandy during the D-Day commemorations. They are at the center of the commemorations, are asked to raise flags and are thanked and photographed non-stop.

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