Veterans gather in Normandy under cloud of war in Europe

CAEN, France — For almost 80 years, the United States and Europe told themselves that a lasting postwar peace had been won here, in the bloody shallows and sands along 6 miles of Normandy beach.

On Thursday — the 80th anniversary of D-Day, perhaps the last major milestone for many of the invasion’s dwindling heroes — that peace in Europe finds itself shattered.

Replacing it are fears of another world war that until recently seemed outlandish, uncertainty about Washington’s European allyship that the Normandy landings cemented, and questions about the future of the Western alliance itself.

For many, the ideals that D-Day helped win are at risk of fading along with its survivors.

“I believe that freedom and democracy are definitely under threat,” D-Day veteran Harold Terens, 100, told NBC News on Monday.

He spent that day working as a radio operator mechanic based in Yorkshire, northern England, communicating with 60 P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes flying over France — only 30 of which returned. Twelve days later he traveled to Normandy in person to transport freshly freed American prisoners of war back to England, and pick up newly captured Germans.

“It was one of the most disgusting things I’ve seen in my life,” said Terens, who lives in Lake Worth, Florida. “Bodies without arms and legs, bodies without heads — war is hell,” he added, referencing the quote first attributed to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who fought on the side of the Union during the Civil War.

Harold Terens.
Harold Terens.Getty Images; Family photo

More than 150,000 Allied troops landed in Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944, including 73,000 Americans, 60,000 British and 15,000 Canadians. It was the largest amphibious invasion in history, a meticulously planned assault that altered the course of World War II — and the 20th century.

Around 4,500 Allies died, including some 2,500 Americans, in their historic bid to loosen Nazi Germany’s grip over mainland Europe. 

And so for a few weeks every year, Normandy is transformed into a festival of remembrance, with cities, villages and cemeteries festooned with flags — including many American flags flown by French locals — while playing host to concerts, parades and ceremonies.

It’s not clear how many veterans are still alive. But some 150 Americans who took part in the monthslong Battle of Normandy, including two dozen D-Day veterans, are expected to make the trip to France this year, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission, the government agency overseeing cemeteries and monuments abroad.

The centerpiece will be a ceremony attended by President Joe Biden, his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Britain’s Prince William and other world leaders. Biden will give a speech about defending freedom and democracy.

“D-Day is a critical moment for President Biden to speak to what our collective security has done to deliver mostly a peaceful Europe since the second world war,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., a friend of Biden and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “This is a chance to demonstrate what I think President Biden has been so good at. It’s not America alone. It’s not America first, but America as a critical leader in the world and as the indispensable nation.”

Still, the stars are the veterans.

NBC News is spending part of the week traveling with a busload of 50 American vets who have been brought over by the Best Defense Foundation charity, based in California.

They are set to include Richard “Dick” Ramsey, aged 100, a coxswain aboard the USS Nevada as it fired shells into the D-Day battlefield and narrowly missed getting hit in return. Also expected on the bus is Richard Rung, 100, who ferried troops to Omaha Beach while hosing his fellow soldiers’ blood from the small landing craft.

The youngest D-Day veterans are in their 90s; for many this will be the last major milestone they see as this event begins to pass out of living memory.

For the French, the legacy of D-Day is more complex. There is the decadeslong veneration of their Allied liberators, but also lament for the 20,000 Normandy locals killed in the assault, with cities such as Caen razed to rubble.

Macron says now is the right time to acknowledge these memories. On Wednesday, the French  president is expected to emphasize this point at a ceremony in Saint-Lô, a city whose destruction in the battle was so complete that in 1946 Irish novelist Samuel Beckett named it “the Capital of Ruins,” a moniker that has become widely used since.

With questions over Washington’s long-term commitment to Europe, Macron has attempted to cast himself as a de facto leader on European security, calling for more defense spending and refusing to rule out deploying French troops to Ukraine — much to Moscow’s fury.

Veterans and world dignitaries gather in Normandy to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the landings.
WWII veterans at Omaha Beach on June 4, 2024 in Normandy, France.Jeremias Gonzalez / AP

It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not invited this year.

This presents an awkward juxtaposition for those involved. Many feel it would be untenable to include a Russian delegation while its soldiers wage unprovoked war on Ukraine, an attritional grind of tanks, troops and artillery whose scale evokes WWII itself.

At the same time, it is impossible to tell the story of Nazi defeat without the Soviet Union.

After Adolf Hitler reneged on a nonaggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union, the Red Army spent millions of lives fighting back, repelling the Nazi advance in what was a pyrrhic Soviet victory on the Eastern Front.

“It’s a very changed time,” said John M. Koenig, a veteran American career diplomat who served as ambassador to Cyprus and was posted in Belgium and Italy before retiring in 2015 . “The perception of Russia, and the way ahead, is far darker than it was back when we used to invite Vladimir Putin to the celebrations.”

“It’s a different Europe than it was,” he added. It is not “one of compromise, cooperation and common interests that we had hoped even, I would say, up until at least 10 years ago.”

Many in Europe fear that if Moscow’s aggression goes unpunished, other countries, such as the Baltic states and perhaps even Poland, could come into the Kremlin’s crosshairs.

Ukraine has been armed to the teeth by the West, receiving $50 billion of missiles, tanks and air defense systems from Washington. But many observers are nonetheless questioning the future of the Western unity.

Looming large is the American presidential election between Biden and Donald Trump, the former president and presumptive Republican nominee. Trump has previously suggested he would withdraw from NATO, and many Ukraine allies fear he could end support for its defense against Russia.

Compounding this, European Parliament elections this month look certain to herald victories for far-right and nationalist parties, some of which share Trump’s skepticism on the importance of helping Ukraine resist Russia’s invasion.

John Kelly, a retired four-star general and Trump’s longest-serving White House chief of staff, said in an interview: “People make the argument that American forces should come home. We made that mistake once after World War I.”

“Yes, our allies and partners need to do more for themselves and live up to their financial commitments,” added Kelly, who had a falling out with Trump. “But we tested isolationism once before, and it didn’t work. The rules-based world order works and if it’s going to work America must lead it.”

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