American Legion National Commander Clarence Hill lays a wreath near La Fieré Bridge as part of ceremonies to honor the 66th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy. Photo by Damien Fantauzzo

Commander honors heroes of D-Day

American Legion National Commander Clarence Hill and American Legion Auxiliary National President Rita Navarreté wrapped up a two-week European tour Sunday by saluting the fallen heroes of World War II at the Normandy American Cemetery near Colleville Sur Mer, France. Hill was among top officials from the United States and France to participate in ceremonies, re-enactments and other special events over the weekend to commemorate the 66th anniversary of the largest amphibious military invasion in history – Operation Overlord – which on June 6, 1944, broke through Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and led to victory over Nazi Germany 11 months later.

During the trip, Hill and Navarreté helped lower and fold the U.S. flag that flies over 9,387 grave markers at the 172.5-acre cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach and administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission. The group paid a special visit there to the grave of one of The American Legion’s founders, Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., a Medal of Honor recipient. The famed general had battled with command until he was finally given permission to land with the first wave at Utah Beach on D-Day. He died of a heart attack five weeks later.

Hill described the cemetery as “very quiet, beautiful and peaceful.” He and Navarreté placed memorial wreaths near the “Spirit of American Youth Rising From the Waves” statue as visitors walked the rows of ivory crosses and Stars of David. “Many associations had ceremonies scheduled during the day,” Hill said. “Ceremonies at the memorial could be heard throughout the grounds.”

On June 5, Hill and Navarreté took part in ceremonies in and around Ste. Mere-Eglise, known as Kilometer 0 in the Allied march toward Berlin. They attended a massive annual parachute drop at nearby La Fieré that re-creates the pre-dawn D-Day arrival of U.S. paratroopers from the Army’s 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The late-night assault successfully diverted German forces away from the landing beaches code-named Utah, Omaha, Sword, Gold and Juno. Some of the bloodiest fighting of the war took place in the six weeks following D-Day. The casualty count on both sides is estimated at more than 425,000.

Ste. Mere-Eglise and other Normandy towns annually flash back to that fateful summer. Re-enactors from around the world drive vintage military vehicles and walk in the boot-prints of history. “A lot of military, especially Special Forces, take part in the various activities,” Hill reported in a text message Sunday. “The re-enactors are incredible for their realism, down to the hairstyles and the quality of their clothes. You can get uniforms and clothes made exactly as they were then – same materials and stitching.”

The commander’s party visited Pointe du Hoc, where Army Rangers scaled the cliffs on D-Day in a deadly effort to break through the German defenses. The commander noted on his Facebook page that of the 225 Rangers who came up at Pointe du Hoc, only 90 remained two days later. Hill and Navarreté had seats of honor at the annual American Veterans Association dinner in Ste. Mere-Eglise during the weekend, visited the Airborne Museum there, and met with the mayors of three towns. Also during the visit, Hill spent time at a 2008-erected memorial honoring U.S. Navy sacrifices, at Utah Beach.

The Normandy visit capped a tour that included personal visits and addresses to U.S. troops stationed in Kosovo, Italy and Germany, as well as an official appearance before the Royal British Legion on the Isle of Man.