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Mass parachute jump over Normandy kicks off commemorations for the 80th anniversary of D-Day

CARENTAN-LES-MARAIS, France –

Parachutists jumping from World War II-era planes hurled themselves Sunday into now peaceful Normandy skies where war once raged, heralding a week of ceremonies for the fast-disappearing generation of Allied troops who fought from D-Day beaches 80 years ago to Adolf Hitler’s fall, helping free Europe of his tyranny.

All along the Normandy coastline — where then-young soldiers from across the United States, Britain, Canada and other Allied nations waded ashore through hails of fire on five beaches on June 6, 1944 — French officials, grateful Normandy survivors and other admirers are saying “merci” but also goodbye.

The ever-dwindling number of veterans in their late nineties and older who are coming back to remember fallen friends and their history-changing exploits are the last.

Watching the southern England coastline recede Sunday through the windows of one of three C-47 transport aircraft that flew him and other jumpers across the English Channel to their Normandy drop zone was like time-travelling back to D-Day for 63-year-old Neil Hamsler, a former British army paratrooper.

“I thought that would have been the last view of England some of those lads of 1944 had,” he said. While theirs was a daytime jump Sunday, unlike for Allied airborne troops who jumped at night early on D-Day, and “no one’s firing at us,” Hamsler said: “It really brought it home, the poignancy.”

Part of the purpose of fireworks shows, parachute jumps, solemn commemorations and ceremonies that world leaders will attend this week is to pass the baton of remembrance to the current generations now seeing war again in Europe, in Ukraine. U.S. President Joe Biden, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and British royals are among the VIPs that France is expecting for D-Day events.

Fireworks explode over the city of Arromanches in Normandy, France, Saturday, June 1, 2024, ahead of commemorations marking the 80th anniversary of D-Day. (Jeremias Gonzalez/AP Photo)

Looping around one after another, the C-47s dropped strings of jumpers — 70 in all, dressed in WWII-style uniforms. Their round chutes mushroomed open in the blue skies with puffy white clouds. A huge crowd many thousands strong whooped and cheered, having been regaled as they waited by tunes from Glenn Miller and Edith Piaf. Some of the loudest applause was for a startled deer that pounced from undergrowth as jumpers were landing and sprinted across the drop zone.

Two of the planes, christened “That’s All, Brother” and “Placid Lassie, ” were D-Day veterans, among the thousands of C-47s and other aircraft that on June 6, 1944, formed part of what was the largest-ever sea, air and land armada. Allied airborne forces, which included troops making hair-raising descents aboard gliders, landed first early on D-Day to secure roads, bridges and other strategic points inland of the invasion beaches and destroy gun emplacements that raked the sands and ships with deadly fire.

The planes took off Sunday from Duxford, England, for the 90-minute flight to Carentan. The Normandy town was at the heart of D-Day drop zones in 1944, when paratroopers jumped in darkness into gunfire, many scattering far from their objectives.

Sunday’s jumpers were from an international civilian team of parachutists, many of them former soldiers. The only woman was 61-year-old Dawna Bennett, who felt history’s force as she exited her plane into the Normandy skies.

American D-Day veterans arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport, Saturday, June 1, 2024 in Roissy, north of Paris. (Thomas Padilla/AP Photo)

“It’s the same doorway and it’s the same countryside from 80 years ago, and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so thankful I’m not doing this at midnight”‘ she said. “They keep saying it’s the greatest generation and I truly believe that.”

Dozens of World War II veterans are converging on France to revisit old memories, make new ones, and hammer home a message that survivors of D-Day and the ensuing Battle of Normandy, and of other World War II theaters, have repeated time and time again — that war is hell.

“Seven thousand of my marine buddies were killed. Twenty thousand shot up, wounded, put on ships, buried at sea,” said Don Graves, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in Iwo Jima in the Pacific theater.

“I want the younger people, the younger generation here to know what we did,” said Graves, part of a group of more than 60 World War II veterans who flew into Paris on Saturday.

The youngest veteran in the group is 96 and the most senior 107, according to their carrier from Dallas, American Airlines.

“We did our job and we came home and that’s it. We never talked about it I think. For 70 years I didn’t talk about it,” said another of the veterans, Ralph Goldsticker, a U.S. Air Force captain who served in the 452nd Bomb Group.

Of the D-Day landings, he recalled seeing from his aircraft “a big, big chunk of the beach with thousands of vessels,” and spoke of bombing raids against German strongholds and routes that German forces might otherwise have used to rush in reinforcements to push the invasion back into the sea.

“I dropped my first bomb at 06:58 a.m. in a heavy gun placement,” he said. “We went back home, we landed at 09:30. We reloaded.”

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Associated Press writers Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris and Kendria LaFleur in Dallas, Texas contributed to this report.

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