Remembering D-Day, 70 years on

May 28, 2014

Omaha Beach, France

By Chris Helgren

During the years of my career that I spent working in Europe, I met many veterans who fought and lost friends on World War Two battlefields.

One such occasion was in 2009, when I went to Normandy to cover the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the allied invasion that spelled the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.  

President Barack Obama arrived at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, where more than 9,000 soldiers are buried, to pay tribute to those who gave their lives. I was only covering the Canadian contingent during this trip – a comparatively small part of the proceedings – but I vowed to return at a later date to explore the area.

Seeing the Normandy beaches nowadays, it can be hard to image the scenes that unfolded there almost 70 years ago. Below the sea of white crosses at Colleville is a beach where families now spend their summer vacations. It was here that the Americans had the toughest time making it onto land from their amphibious craft.

Where men once lay bleeding, under fire from German bunkers in the low hills, the flat sand now makes a perfect track for teenagers learning to pilot sand yachts.

US troops wade ashore from a Coast Guard landing craft at Omaha Beach during the Normandy D-Day landings near Vierville sur Mer

To the west, today’s tourists stream into the pockmarked landscape of the former German artillery site at Pointe du Hoc, where U.S. Army Rangers who had set out from the Dorset port of Weymouth had to use ropes to climb the cliffs.

Further west lies Utah beach, where I met retired farmer Raymond Bertot. He was 19 years old when the invasion took place and he now hosts relatives who stay in camper vans in the same courtyard where American soldiers once made battle plans amidst the carcasses of cattle, felled by artillery fire during the invasion.

With the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings approaching, I decided to try to shoot before-and-after images of the area. In most cases, it was impossible to capture pictures that matched up perfectly with archive material I had compiled.

Many of the original images were shot from vantage points that are now unreachable. In some cases, new buildings now occupy the space. For one particular image, to get a photo from the same position that Canadian war photographer Ken Bell used when photographing troops wading ashore at Bernieres-sur-Mer, I would have needed to be three stories up on an assault ship. Nevertheless, I managed to get a nice set of images.

Veterans are now making their way to the Normandy beaches, battlefields, and inland cemeteries to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings. But as the years wear on, they represent just a tiny fraction of the number who’ve made the pilgrimage in previous years.

This anniversary may be one of the last chances we’ll have to pay respect to surviving combatants. Soon, it’ll be up to us to remember.

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