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Pandemic makes for a lonely D-day observance in Normandy

Sunrise on the 76th anniversary of D-day in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy, France,
Sunrise on the 76th anniversary of D-day in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, on Saturday. Coronavirus restrictions limited this year’s tributes.
(Virginia Mayo / Associated Press )

Last year, tens of thousands came to the northern French beaches of Normandy to cheer the dwindling number of World War II veterans and celebrate three-quarters of a century of liberation from Nazi oppression. But this year’s coronavirus lockdown turned the June 6 remembrance of D-day, one of the most epic battles in military history, into one of the eeriest ever.

When a full moon disappeared over land and the sun rose on the other side over the English Channel, there was no customary rumble of columns of vintage jeeps and trucks to be heard. Roads were so deserted that hares sat alongside them.

Still, the French would not let this day slip by unnoticed, such is their attachment to the roughly 160,000 soldiers from the United States, Britain, Canada and other countries who spilled their blood on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 and fought on to defeat Nazism almost one year later.

“It’s a June 6 unlike any other,” said Philippe Laillier, the mayor of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, who staged a small remembrance around the Omaha Beach monument. “But still we had to do something. We had to mark it.”

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The moment the sun broke over the ocean, the Omaha Beach theme from the film “Saving Private Ryan” blared across the sand for a few dozen locals and visitors dressed in vintage clothing.

The pandemic has wreaked havoc across the world, infecting 6.8 million people, killing nearly 400,000 and devastating economies. It poses a particular threat to the elderly — including surviving D-day veterans, who are in their late 90s or older.

It has also affected the younger generations who turn out every year to mark the occasion. Most have been barred from traveling to the windswept coasts of Normandy.

The lack of a big international crowd was palpable.

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In the afternoon, a flyover of French fighter jets leaving a trail of the national colors was reminiscent of the one President Trump and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, watched from Colleville-sur-Mer last year. This time, only a sparse crowd craned necks upward.

With almost no Americans having come over to Normandy this year, the French offered tribute in their absence.

Ivan Thierry, 62, a local fisherman who catches sea bass around the wrecks that still litter the seabed nearby, was holding an American flag in tribute even before dawn.

“There is nobody here. Even if we are only a dozen, we are here to commemorate,” he said.


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