Memories of D-Day come alive on the beaches where it happened

Every decade, French and international troops honour the events that changed the course of World War II.

This story appears in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

I FIRST WENT to Normandy in 1974. I was a 27-year-old news photographer shooting the French presidential election, and my visit happened to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the D-Day landings. I was amazed that the French still welcomed American veterans as their liberators—a warm feeling between the countries that still exists today.

Left: JUNE 2014 An infrared image shows American graves in a cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, France.
Right: JUNE 1974 A French soldier returns to Pointe du Hoc, where Rangers scaled cliffs to capture German artillery.

Left: JUNE 1974 U.S. Army Rangers reenact the invasion of Omaha Beach on the 30th anniversary of D-Day.
Right: MAY 1994 Remnants of German fortifications still stand on Cap Blanc-Nez.

Since that trip, I’ve returned to the beaches nearly a dozen times in the past half century, with each visit observing those hallowed sands and bearing witness to how the past refuses to be erased. I’ve met countless veterans who at first seem perfectly ordinary, like the guys I grew up with who ran the hardware store or pharmacy. I’ve had to pull their extraordinary stories out of them—each one a remarkable memory of a pivotal moment.

JUNE 1944 Robert Capa’s well-known photograph shows Omaha Beach on D-Day. The invasion of Allied forces into German-controlled France shifted the balance of military power in World War II.

I see my responsibility as bridging the gap with photography to help people, particularly young people, understand the importance of what happened there—not just the soldiers who died, but also how the Allied invasion of German-occupied France changed the world. I’ve always been a fan of Edward R. Murrow, the American radio correspondent who delivered nightly radio reports from London during World War II. I like to play his reports on my cell phone when I’m walking on Omaha Beach and take in the accounts of what happened there in June 1944.

Tourists, veterans, and military reenactors mark June 5, 2014, the eve of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, on Omaha Beach.

History has a way of receding. Our recollections become secondhand, then thirdhand, and eventually just words in a history book. But I’m not sure the same fate awaits Normandy. I’ve never met anybody, young or old, who walked on Omaha Beach and didn’t feel the history of that place. There’s something very powerful about putting your feet on the sand.

A military reenactor walks in Normandy on June 6, 2014, the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
DAVID BURNETT PHOTOGRAPHS VIA CONTACT PRESS IMAGES

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