Thursday, June 6 marks the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion — known as D Day — the battle that would be the beginning of the end of World War II.
Joe Polenzani, who is battalion chief of the Franklin Fire Department, is in Normandy, France, to mark the occasion.
Polenzani arrived in France, along with the Colorado Emerald Society Pipes and Drums band, early Saturday and has been performing at commemorative events.
According to Jamie Melton, fire and life safety educator for the Franklin Fire Department, the Colorado band is hosting the trip for various members of fire department bands and makes up about half the entire group in Normandy. Other pipers and drummers making the trip hail from fire departments across the country, including Florida, Massachusetts Texas and elsewhere in Tennessee.
On his Facebook page, Polenzani wrote about the towns the band has traveled to, the sites where his group has performed and memorials he has visited.
The band spent Sunday in Bastogne, Belgium, where it played in two “moving ceremonies for veterans, families and dignitaries,” he wrote.
Among the dignitaries at both ceremonies was a 100-year-old Belgian paratrooper medic. During the fighting in Bastogne, the man was attached to the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
“It was an honor to speak with him and to have the opportunity to thank him for taking care of our soldiers,” Polenzani wrote.
The group met another Belgian veteran who is 99 years old and was happy to share stories through an interpreter.
The band played for him on the deck of the Bastogne Barracks and at the graves of two local nurses who were called angels by the American troops under their care.
Later in the day, the band visited the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium. Nearly 8,000 soldiers are buried there, and many of them fought and died in the famous Battle of the Bulge.
“It was an emotional visit,” Polenzani wrote.
Monday started with a visit to the Luxembourg American Cemetery.
“More than 5,000 soldiers are buried here, including Gen. George Patton,” Polenzani wrote. “After a tour and history lesson, we played a few tunes for the visitors.”
The band went to the Mardasson Memorial, where it performed for members of the U.S. military, the Belgian fire service and the local police. They also played during a wreath-laying ceremony honoring the American soldiers killed or wounded during the Battle of the Bulge.
In the audience were “representatives of the American Armed Forces and other governments paying tribute to the Americans and Belgian soldiers who fought side by side to liberate the Belgian people from Nazi occupation,” Polenzani wrote.
The remainder of the week includes several performances, including the D-Day ceremony at the St. James American Cemetery, a wreath-laying ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery and the D-Day Festival and parade in Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
The Normandy Invasion, code name Operation Overlord was two years in the making and became the largest amphibious military assault in history.
It began in the early hours of June 6, 1944. By the end of Battle of Normandy at the end of August, northern France was liberated from the Nazis. Less than a year later, on May 8, 1945, the Allies accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender.
Before the troops left England to cross the English Channel, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower told them, “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade toward which we have strived these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.”
Almost 200,000 American, British and Canadian troops, known as the Allied Forces, fought rough waters and, once alerted to the surprise invasion, German gunfire, as they disembarked and stormed five beaches — Gold, Juno, Sword, Utah and Omaha — along a heavily fortified 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast.
While the Allied forces met light opposition on four of the five beaches, American forces met very heavy opposition during the approach to and on Omaha Beach.
About 156,000 Allied troops successfully stormed the beaches. However, more than 4,000 troops were killed during the D-Day invasion, with thousands more wounded or missing.
Read more about Polenzani’s visit after he returns in a couple weeks.