Marcel Deschateaux waited over an hour Thursday to applaud dozens of British veterans as they walked through his town of Bayeux, after one of dozens of ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of France.
“I was six and half on D-Day,” said Deschateaux, who later fell in behind the former servicemen, many pushed in wheelchairs, with his wife, daughter and several grandchildren.
He has long attended the annual commemorations of the Normandy landings, “but the 75th is different, because we know that some of them won’t be around five years from now,” he told AFP.
The world’s biggest amphibious military operation on June 6, 1944, is marked every year locally, but major ceremonies are reserved for every 10 and five years.
The enthusiastic well-wishers in Normandy this week admitted a sobering truth: this might have been one of the last chances to see many of the men, now late in their 90s, who witnessed the carnage first-hand.
Annabelle Anguet, a 57-year-old resident of Bayeux, agreed the atmosphere was different this year.
“The region has pulled out all the stops for the 75th,” she told AFP in front of the town’s Gothic cathedral, where she was hoping to catch a glimpse of Britain’s Prince Charles and his wife Camilla after a remembrance mass.
“During the 70th there weren’t so many activities as there are this year,” she said.
“Soon there won’t be any veterans alive…. When you think about it, it’s incredible they lived this long after all they’ve been through.”
At the US military cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, visitors flocked for selfies with dozens of the former servicemen, some wiping away tears while shaking their hands.
The realisation that time is running out has contributed to the multiplication of D-Day events now being held each year, officials say.
It also helps explain why French President Emmanuel Macron didn’t wait for the 80th anniversary to help organise and host major ceremonies involving global leaders.
“It’s the last big anniversary, because unfortunately there soon won’t be many veterans left in this world,” said Colonel Gerard Legout, the former director of the D-Day museum at Arromanches.
“At the 70th (anniversary) we estimated there were 1,500 British veterans, here they are probably just 500 or 600,” he said.
Sue and Trent Nichols came from Ohio to visit D-Day sites with their niece, who lives in southern France, to honour her father Roy, a combat engineer who participated in the third wave of landings on Utah Beach.
“He passed away in 2010, and he never came back,” Sue Nichols said. “He flew over in a cargo plane (in 1944) and after that experience he never wanted to fly again.”
She and her family wore white T-shirts emblazoned with her father’s photo that said “Proud Family of a WWII Vet.”
“It’s impressive… It reminds me of my father,” she said.
Legout said in the future, D-Day commemorations would probably involve smaller, more intimate ceremonies spread among the nearly 100 monuments, graveyards and battle sites of Normandy.
The major commemorations will be reserved for major anniversaries.
“Maybe it’s better like this, it lets people discover the other sites,” he said.