The Friends of American Veterans Association in France organizes ceremonies every year to honor American soldiers who gave their lives for the liberation of the country. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all celebrations had to be canceled.
The tradition of honoring American veterans started in 1945 when the mayor of Sainte-Mere-Eglise, a town in Normandy, felt that he owed his gratitude to those who served.
Sainte-Mere-Eglise was the first town in Normandy to be liberated. It is perhaps best known by the 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper, Sgt. John Steele, whose parachute got caught up on a church steeple there in the early morning hours of June 6.
It soon became a behind-the-lines base and burial site for American troops. The mayor, Alexandre Renaud, and his wife, Simone, were two of the few English speakers in the town and played a major role in relations with the Americans.
The town held its first celebration in June 1945, and as more and more Americans came back to visit the site of their service, Madame Renaud built relations with them and eventually founded the AVA. She is now known as the “Mother of Normandy.”
Today the AVA is led by Renaud’s son, Maurice Renaud. He has had to adjust to the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The problem this year is that the French government forbids groups of more than 10 people,” Renaud said, “which is a total disgrace.”
But in response to international travel restrictions and group-size limitations, the AVA has adapted their schedule. They will have wreath laying ceremonies at five monuments on June 6 and 7 and plan to visit the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Rennes, according to Renaud.
Usually there would be dozens of veterans and many people and leaders from around the world attending the AVA and other events throughout Normandy. But this year there will be much less people.
Charles Norman Shay, a Native American veteran, will be one of the few in attendance. Shay, 96, was a medic in the 16th regiment of the 1st American Infantry Division. He landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 and fought throughout the campaign in Normandy and France.
In America, the National WWII Museum is celebrating its 20th birthday and commemorating the 76th anniversary of D-Day digitally in order to avoid a large public gathering and abide by social distancing guidelines.
Their programming includes a commemoration ceremony, a premiere of a short documentary, family activities and more — all online. A full schedule of events can be found here.
The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia will also be hosting a virtual commemoration from 11 a.m. to noon.