Sunday marks the 77th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied forces landed in Normandy, France, to help liberate Europe from German forces and turn the course of World War II.
The June 6, 1944, operation was the largest seaborne invasion in history, involving land, sea and air forces.
Nearly 160,000 troops took part in the landing, including those from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada.
The anniversary of the landmark day usually draws thousands of visitors to Normandy, but for a second year, the celebrations have been scaled back because of the coronavirus pandemic.
A veteran’s memories
In Carentan, France, Charles Shay, 96, commemorated the anniversary at a ceremony Saturday, the only U.S. veteran there. Shay was 19 and a U.S. Army medic when he landed on Omaha Beach, according to The Associated Press. The Penobscot Native American from Maine now lives in Normandy, and said he lost “many good friends” there.
On Friday, the U.S. military honored retired Master Sergeant Shay during a small ceremony on Omaha Beach in Normandy, according to the Stars and Stripes newspaper.
With D-Day veterans now mostly in their mid-90s or older, there are likely only a few hundred veterans still alive, said April Cheek-Messier, the president of the U.S. National D-Day Memorial Foundation.
“If you think about the fact that there are 16 million who served during World War II, there are only around 325,000 World War II veterans still living today, and of that, a very small percentage would be D-Day veterans, and we don’t know the exact number, but you can imagine they would probably only be in a few hundred,” Cheek-Messier told Fox News.
Only one veteran now remains from the French commando unit that joined U.S, British, Canadian and other Allied troops in storming Normandy’s code-named beaches, the AP reported.
With most of France still under strict travel restrictions for international visitors, the tourists who usually flock to Normandy to mark the D-Day anniversary will be few this year.
U.S. Army Colonel Kevin Sharp and three other U.S. military officers from the 101st Airborne Division — the same division that took part in the D-Day operations — were given special, last-minute permission to attend Friday’s commemorations in Carentan.
The U.S. military “really values the legacy of the soldiers and the paratroopers who came before us,” he told the AP. “It was important enough to send a small representation here to ensure that our appreciation for their sacrifices is made known.”
Tourism may be restricted, but local residents are coming out in greater numbers, the AP said.
“In France, people who remember these men, they kept them close to their heart,” Shay said. “And they remember what they did for them. And I don’t think the French people will ever forget.”
By contrast, two years ago, U.S. President Donald Trump joined French President Emmanuel Macron, along with tens of thousands of international visitors, to pay their respects to D-Day soldiers on the 75th anniversary of the landing.
The French government announced Friday that it planned to open its borders to foreign tourists on June 9, using a color-coded system. The new rules allow vaccinated travelers from Europe and the United States to enter the country without having to be tested for COVID-19.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.