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'I Will Always Think of Them': One Lone American WW2 Veteran Stands Without Comrades for 76th D-Day Observance in Normandy 

06-08-2020
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World War II D-Day veteran and Penobscot Elder from Maine, Charles Norman Shay poses on the dune overlooking Omaha Beach prior to a ceremony at his memorial in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, Friday, June 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

The annual commemoration of D-Day in France sees fewer World War 2 veterans each year. Their dwindling numbers combined with the worldwide pandemic led to an almost complete no show.  

One American WWII veteran, however, took his place on the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, Normandy, and did his best to mark the occasion

Saturday's D-Day anniversary on the beaches of Normandy in northwestern France will be one of the loneliest remembrances ever, as the coronavirus pandemic is keeping almost everyone away from government leaders to frail veterans who might not get another chance for a final farewell to their comrades who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Charles Shay was an Army medic who was in the first wave to wade ashore dodging relentless fire on D-Day and who is now living close to Omaha Beach where he landed. He knows of no US veterans who made the crossing this year.

"Well this is a sad year because we always have a lot of veterans on 6 June every year but it is different this year because of the virus that is going around the world," Shay said. "Everybody has to curtail their travels. Nobody can travel anymore. But we hope to see you all again next year. We will be praying for you and hope that you will be with us next year. Thank you very much."

The 95-year-old performed a Native American ritual Friday to honor his comrades, spreading the smoke of burning white sage into the winds lashing the Normandy coast.

The eerie atmosphere touches the French as well as the Americans.

The son of a local mayor who saw the troops land on the beach in 1944, Rémi Hardelay knew the coronavirus crisis would cause major disruption but hadn't quite realized how quiet it was going to be.

"There usually is a market in military memorabilia by the town hall and that brings huge amounts of people, but today, it's sad," Hardelay said. 

A mile up the beach, at the Omaha Beach Memorial Museum, Curator Catherine Chartier shared similar feelings from behind a surgical mask.

"It's sad, but people are very accommodating – when they arrive, they wash their hands without us reminding them and they arrive with their masks on," said Chartier, 70.

The locals in this part of France have come out year after year to show their gratitude for the soldiers from the United States, Britain, Canada and other countries who liberated them from Adolf Hitler's Nazi forces.

The pandemic has wreaked havoc across the world, infecting 6.6 million people, killing over 391,000 and devastating economies. It poses a particular threat to the elderly like the surviving D-Day veterans who are in their late nineties 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.

"I feel helpless because I am getting weaker and weaker but in my mind, I am still with the young men that paid the ultimate price and I always think of them and I always will as long as I live," Shay said. 

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