DEAUVILLE AIRPORT, France — “To our forever heroes: Thank you” — those words inscribed by French schoolchildren on a big poster greeted dozens of U.S. World War II veterans, many in their 100s, as they arrived on Monday in Normandy to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

France’s first lady Brigitte Macron and top French officials met the 48 veterans from around the U.S. as they arrived at the Deauville-Normandy Airport on board a special flight from Atlanta, on a trip organized by the non-profit Best Defense Foundation.

Children from local schools held up the poster, and sang the French and U.S. national anthems.

“Welcome to France,” Brigitte Macron said, speaking in English, expressing her “deepest respect” and “deepest love” to the veterans.

“You fought for our freedom. You have always decided to educate the younger generation so that we never forget. Thank you for your commitment, thank you for the sacrifices you have made.”

Among the veterans was Jake Larson, a 101-year-old American best known on social media under the name “Papa Jake,” He joined the national guard when he was 15 for the money and landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day, where he ran under machine-gun fire and made it to the cliffs without being wounded.

“I am the luckiest man in the world,” Larson said as he arrived in Normandy for D-Day commemorations. Papa Jake has more than 800,000 followers on TikTok.

After the landing, Larson remembers that he slept close to a comrade who had put his rifle by their side.

“In the morning, when we got up, he picked up his rifle from my litter where I was going to sleep and it fell in two. A piece of shrapnel came down and hit the rifle and broke it in two,” he said.

Bob Gibson, 100, was drafted into the Army in 1943 and was sent to Britain. On June 6, 1944, Bob and his unit landed on Utah Beach in the second wave of Allied landings.

He remembers it “like it happened yesterday.” Upon arriving at the Deauville airport, he said, “I want to see the beach again.”

The veterans will take part in parades, school visits and ceremonies — including the official June 6 commemoration of the landings by soldiers from across the United States, Britain, Canada and other Allied nations on five beaches.

The trip also includes high school and college students selected to escort the veterans and learn about their experiences. Charter flights also took veterans from Atlanta to France in 2022 and 2023.

On Sunday, the group of veterans, donning customized jackets commemorating the anniversary, arrived at the Atlanta airport to the clapping and cheering from the flight crew and the Dutchtown High School marching band from Hampton, Georgia. The veterans were then guided through the airport to their terminal in a parade headed by the marching band.

Sharon Johnson and Jeff Amy in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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