NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Sixty-eight years after Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, historians and veterans at the National World War II Museum Wednesday recalled the sacrifices made as troops under the command of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower started the final push that led to the defeat of Nazi Germany.
A crowd of several hundred people waved miniature American flags, clapped and cheered for two dozen veterans of the events surrounding the June 6, 1944, invasion of France by American, British and Commonwealth troops — known as D-Day.
They gathered in the museum’s huge pavilion that houses World War II-era military boats and planes in downtown New Orleans, where they were treated to kisses and serenaded by a trio in 1940s-era dresses and makeup.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you so much,” the Victory Belles sang before leaving bright red lipstick on the cheeks of the era’s aging heroes.
Veteran Tom Blakey, 91, of New Orleans, had the honor of ringing the Normandy Liberty Bell during the ceremony.
“That gave me quite a thrill,” said Blakey. “Not many people have had the privilege of ringing that bell.”
The bell is a replica of Philadelphia’s original Liberty Bell, which is tuned to the same E-flat note the Liberty Bell once sounded before it cracked in 1846. The Normandy bell was first rung June 6, 2004, on the shores of Normandy to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day. It was presented to the museum by France.
There was a moment of silence for the fallen soldiers who didn’t return after Allied forces began the assault by parachuting troops behind the coast shortly after midnight, and infantry and armored divisions began hitting the beach about 6:30 a.m. the day of the attack.
Blakey said he was in the 82nd Airborne Division when he jumped at Normandy. He saw combat from France to the Netherlands, including the surprise German offensive in the Ardennes Forest, the Battle of the Bulge. He parachuted into France six hours before the first Allied troops came ashore at a strip of Normandy coast designated as Omaha Beach. The operation was the largest single-day amphibious invasion of all time, with 160,000 troops landing along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast.
“I landed in a cemetery,” recalled Blakey, sporting a replica of the jacket he wore during the invasion. “I had no idea where I was, but I knew I had to get to a bridge. Our mission was to get to the bridges and villages to keep the beaches from being resupplied” with enemy forces.
More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion. More than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded even though German leader Adolf Hitler was convinced Gen. George Patton would lead troops further north near Calais, where the English Channel is narrow.
“They were 18- and 19-year-olds who should have been going to their prom, but they were fighting to defend our freedom,” said the museum’s president and CEO Gordon “Nick” Mueller, who spoke during the ceremony. “We must always be grateful.”
Linda George wiped tears with a tissue. The 61-year-old from Raleigh, N.C., said her father served in the Army during World War II but hadn’t talked much about his war experience before dying of a heart attack at age 44.
“I didn’t really have a chance to talk to him about what he went through,” she said. “This was very touching for me, very emotional. I wanted to honor his service in some way, so I feel blessed to have been here. It’s made me feel a little closer to him.”
Mueller took a moment during the ceremony to also recognize the 12th anniversary of the museum, which was founded in 2000 as the National D-Day Museum and later designated by Congress as America’s National World War II Museum. It is privately operated as a nonprofit museum.
Mueller said the museum is in the midst of an ongoing expansion, and two new buildings are expected to open next year.