The 60th Anniversary of D-Day Commemoration
June 3rd thru June 09th 2004.
I had attended the 40, 45, 50 and 55th Anniversary and this would be my 20th visit to Normandy, so I thought I knew what to expect. But the things I saw in Normandy in June 2004 were beyond imagination. I had never seen a crowd there as then!! I had opted to drive over in a minivan and took some vintage military bicycles to avoid traffic jams over there. This turned out to be a very good idea. On the 5th and 6th when all roads were either blocked by traffic or Gendarmes; we cycled to where we wanted to be and we managed to do all we had set out to do. I was accompanied by my father and Geert, a fellow collector and we had a great time!
Our WW2 vintage bicycles proved to be the fastest way around town
We left Belgium very early on Thursday June 3rd to arrive in time for the first commemorations in Normandy. At 1030Hr we witnessed a 29th Division Memorial Service at the Vierville Draw off Omaha Beach, a sector for which that Division had fought heavily. There were 5 busloads of 29th vets and their families, all willing to sign my 29th Divisional History book. Also on the spot was Joe Balkoski, author of 'Beyond the Beachhead' and 'Omaha Beach'; and he dedicated my copies of his books. Later that day we visited the extended Omaha Beach museum and the Big Red One Assault museum, which I think is the best museum in Normandy. It is brand new and run by two collectors, Pierre Louis Gosselin and Frederic Fourquemin and although their collection of original artifacts is not the largest, they have superb items on display. It is housed in a beautiful building with lots of light and is a real must for the serious US WW2 buff. Later that day we got settled in with a local farmer just off Pointe Du Hoc and were in the middle of the action from then on.
The beautiful 'Big Red One' Assault Museum, located on the D514 at Colleville sur Mer, some 300yds East from the US Cemetary
Some of the awesome artifacts on display in the Big Red One Assault Museum,
then owned and run by P-L. Gosselin & Fred Fourquemin
Friday we arrived at Sainte Mère Eglise to visit the Greatest Generation Memorial Exhibition, set up by Michel Detrez and his team. It was breathtaking to see the artifacts on display and the way they were presented. Most Normandy museums should learn from it!! Some argue that not all items were genuine, but that's beside the point. Go thru the Airborne Museum in Ste Mere Eglise and you'll see plenty of reproductions and fakes. The important thing is that Michel Detrez gets his collection out and shows it to the public! And of course he makes money from it, but since he doesn't receive a single penny from the French, it's the only way to get this show on the road. We were glad to see he had the cheapest café in Normandy there, and he had Belgian beer on tap!!
For more information about the 2004 GGME, click on the banner above....
The rest of the day was spent on UTAH beach looking over the immense grandstands that were erected for the weekend's commemorations.
Saturday was the day of the mass paradrop at
La Fiere. On the way down there we visited the German Cemetary at La Cambe where
about 21.000 Germans rest. A tomb was opened up for an upcoming burial. While we
were there we got a supply of Calvados straight from a farm right behind the
German Cemetary. As we neared Ste Mere Eglise, traffic got slower. We expected a huge crowd and parked our van several miles south of the
DZ at Picauville. Then it was time to get our WW2 bicyles out and we cycled right thru the
crowds to a good viewing point for the drop. Hundreds of Gendarmes were on the
spot, but they didn't bother us. After the drop by 12 C130's and 4 C17's we rode
into Ste Mere and enjoyed the carnivalesc atmosphere between visitors, veterans,
vehicle enthusiasts and re-enactors. There must have been more US Paratroopers
in Ste Mere now than in 1944!! One re-enactor stood out as he
portrayed a member of the 1 Engineer Special Brigade that cleared Utah Beach.
Nightfall saw a huge fireworks display on all beaches and was very impressive!!
At La Cambe, another burial is coming up
Mounted Gendarmes at La Fiere
Hundreds of paratroopers fall from the sky at La Fiere and huge crowds in Ste Mere Eglise afterwards
Clarence 'clancy' Lyall, of E/506th signing books at Ste Mère Eglise
1st ESB Re-enactor at Ste Mere Eglise
Traffic was highly restricted on the 6th, but
thanks to our Landlady, we got a pass for our van that allowed us to take the
coastal road. We decided to stay in the Omaha Beach Sector and witnessed heads
of state pass by in their armored limousines. President Bush's helicopter passed
overhead escorted by numerous other helicopters and planes. That afternoon saw
us cycling the complete Omaha sector. Our bikes attracted lots of attention and
we ended up with some friends at the Camp Cecil BREEDEN at Vierville; a living
history display in honor of Medic Cecil Breeden who landed on Omaha with A/116th
Inf of the 29th Division.
At night we visited the refurbished Pointe Du Hoc site and I 'm amazed by the changes that have been made there.
My father, Geert and I at Le Ruquet off Omaha Beach
An aerial view of Camp Breeden and the freshly installed Mulberry device at the Vierville Draw
Belgian historian, Alain Batens welcomes Cecil Breeden's brothers to the Camp in honor of Medic Cecil Breeden
The Ranger Memorial at Pointe du Hoc just after the ceremony, modern day Rangers in the background
We planned a visit to the Pegasus Memorial on Monday to see the new Horsa glider on display there, but couldn't get thru traffic and drove on to the Grand Bunker at Ouistreham. I had visited the Juno Beach Center at Courseulles in 2003 when it opened, but went there again since a French collector put his items there for the summer. It turned out to be well worth the visit with nice items on display and a beautiful Harley-Davidson WLC restored to perfect Canadian specs. We spent the rest of the day visiting the British Sector and relaxed in an Arromanches café. By now the heat of the weekend had gotten to us. That evening was spent in a restaurant run by a Belgian near Utah Beach.
Canadian items of the temporary exhibition of a private collection at the Juno Beach Center at Courseulles
After a visit to the US Cemetary on Tuesday we
drove back into Ste Mere to do some shopping and met up with Paul Woodadge from
Battlebus Battlefield Tours and he took us on a most impressive trip around the
US Airborne sites. Paul, who is a regular Trigger Time Forum poster, had arranged
to take other TT regulars on a free AB Tour. Thru his connections we were able to visit lots of places
that are otherwise not open to the public: Brecourt, Marmion Farm, Culoville,
Hiesville, Chateau de la Colombiere,....
Many thanks to Paul and the other Trigger Time Forum posters there for a great day.
Lee Bowden and his FAAA group at Brecourt Manor near Le Grand Chemin
Paul and other TT-Forum Posters at the Meehan Memorial in Beuzeville
Wednesday 9th we started back, but stopped in Bayeux to get some books and souvenirs. After a visit to the Pegasus Memorial where we finally got to see the Horsa, we were on our way home after a very hot and busy week!!!
The replica Horsa on display at the Pegasus Memorial
I went to a couple of militaria shows but didn't get anything of interest. Prices were very high although there were good deals to be found if you looked well enough.
It still amazes me how many people came ill prepared to Normandy. Although the 60th had been talked and written about for well over a year, it was obvious that many tours, including some official ones, were badly organised; resulting in chaos, huge traffic jams and lots of frustration. I had prepared my stay nearly two years before and it worked out just fine. I met some great guys and encountered long lost friends and we had a great time. I, for one, have booked my room for the 65th!!!!!!!
Please go to the next page for a review of the 2004 Greatest Generation Memorial Exhibition