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

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

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JUNE 2014 Fireworks commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when 156,000 Allied troops made a bloody landing on French shores to fight German forces.
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.

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JUNE 2014 Before dawn on D-Day, some 13,000 U.S. paratroopers dropped from planes above the French countryside. In this infrared image made 70 years later, the landing was reenacted near the town of Sainte-Mère-Église.

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.

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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.

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.

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A military reenactor walks in Normandy on June 6, 2014, the 70th anniversary of D-Day.