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On the 80th anniversary of D-Day, remembering a generation that will soon be gone

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden is joining European leaders in Normandy today to mark the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings that began the liberation of the continent from Nazi occupation in World War II. It may well be the last major commemoration taking place with members of the generation who took part - in a moment when war is consuming the continent again. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Dorothee and Jacquy Patrice enjoy coming to D-Day anniversaries, and they like to dress the part. He's wearing the uniform of an American GI, and she's dressed as a nurse.

DOROTHEE PATRICE: (Through interpreter) We come to pay tribute to the soldiers who liberated us, and it feels very poignant to dress as they did.

BEARDSLEY: They've driven 300 miles from their home with their 1940s American jeep on a trailer. Jacquy Patrice says there's nothing like driving here.

JACQUY PATRICE: (Through interpreter) It's marvelous. We follow the same roads that the GIs took, and that's really a moving experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

BEARDSLEY: They're not alone in feeling this way. The small villages and winding roads of the Normandy coast feel like a World War II movie set. Thousands of people have come from across Europe to pay tribute and play soldier on the 80th anniversary of D-Day. The crowds are especially huge this year, because many feel it will be their last chance to mark the anniversary in the company of the men who fought here. Tony Davis, from Chester, England, says that was his motivation for returning.

TONY DAVIS: We came here two years ago, and it was such a fantastic place - the whole area; the whole of Normandy - that we thought we'd come back for the 80th and help commemorate those brave people, so that's what we've done.

BEARDSLEY: President Biden will attend a ceremony at the American Cemetery, where over 9,000 soldiers are buried. It's a stunning setting, high on a bluff above Omaha Beach. Ben Brands is a historian with the American Battlefield Monuments Commission, which cares for America's 26 overseas military cemeteries. He says the 80th anniversary is a crucial moment to remember the stories and sacrifices of a generation that will soon be gone.

BEN BRANDS: When visitors came here for the 20th in 1964, no one had to educate them on World War II; they had lived through it. It was a lived experience; it was visceral to them. As we get further away from these wars, that is less and less true. It is incredibly important that we work to keep these memories alive.

BEARDSLEY: Three Swiss friends walk on another Normandy bluff, where concrete Nazi bunkers still point their cannons out to sea - a stark reminder that this bucolic setting was once a raging battlefield. Philip Polgar says the war in Ukraine shows the lessons of D-Day have already been forgotten.

PHILIP POLGAR: I don't know how it ends, but you can't fight a fire with gasoline, so they should go into not weapons, but talk - because with weapons, you don't win a war; you only have dead people.

BEARDSLEY: Frenchman Alexis Gilbert couldn't disagree more.

ALEXIS GILBERT: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: He says Europe must do a lot more to help Ukraine win. He sees parallels between the start of World War II and today. What preceded the Second World War was the inaction of Europe, he says. In 1936 and 1938, the German army wasn't ready, and the other European armies were far superior in men and materials. It's the same with Russia today, he says, and the West shouldn't wait and do nothing.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Normandy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.