LA CAMBE, France (AP) — Make-believe pilots in faded flight suits. Men in steel helmets, driving lovingly restored jeeps. Women dressed as French resistance fighters or wartime factory workers.
The 75th anniversary on Thursday of the D-Day landings in Normandy saw thousands turn up for the commemorations in World War II-era garb.
For some, playing soldier is harmless fun.
For others, there’s a more serious message: Keeping alive the memory of June 6, 1944, and the veterans who endured its horrors.
“If nobody did it, in years to come, everybody would forget about it,” said Curtis Sneddon, 24, dressed head to toe in an expensively assembled U.S. Airforce uniform, nearly all of it World War II-vintage.
“It’s about educating the younger generation that don’t know,” said Sneddon, who splashed out a cool 850 pounds ($1,100) for his parachute alone.
Donning clothes from another era sometimes means discomfort.
Matt Ferdock, 56, felt it with the darn reproduction war boots he’s lumbered with for another two weeks during his travels along battle routes in France and Belgium.
“Quite frankly, they’re terrible,” he said, coming back from an unsuccessful shopping mission to find comfier insoles in La Cambe, a Normandy village where thousands of Germans are buried and where he attended a ceremony on Wednesday.
After pondering the purpose of his appearance for a moment, Ferdock said that looking the part “just feels like I may get a better sense of who these people were. I don’t know what it felt like to walk in these boots.”
He knows now.
Just across the village square, named after the 29th U.S. Infantry Division that liberated La Cambe on June 8, 1944, stood Heather Van Doorn.
When her late husband Ted was in Normandy for the 60th D-Day anniversary, he “didn’t have the jeep, didn’t have the dress and felt like he was not a participant.”
“He vowed to come back, bring his children, and try and teach them.”
Following his death 3 years ago, 49-year-old Heather has taken it upon herself and is hanging out in their restored jeeps with her children Phoebe, Fiona and Max, all dressed as though wartime heartbreak, sacrifice, suffering and rationing were still present.
Heather’s drab maintenance coverall more than served its purpose. “You just blend better,” she said. “You are part of it.”
Adding to the motivation was that her dad was for a quarter-century in the U.S. army and served in Vietnam. She said her great-grandfather was a B-24 Liberator bomber pilot flying out of England.
“There’s always a connection,” said Gary Hurwitz, traveling in the same party as Van Doorn. “We’re all family.”
Yet, they are looking for different things.
Van Doorn, who lives in Eugene, Oregon, is convinced something wholesome was lost over time, something she feels is in the story of the soldiers storming beaches against the odds in a foreign land.
“This generation was amazing,” she said. “Where are these people now? Where did it go?”
“It seems people thought more about others. Now we are all wrapped up in our own lives.”
Asked what was lost, she said “the sacrifice.”
And what a sacrifice it was: 4,414 Allied troops, including 2,501 Americans, killed in a single day in the air-and-sea assault on German fortifications on five Normandy beaches.
Getting in on the history often doesn’t come cheap. Ferdock said shipping two trucks and a jeep from the United States cost him about $20,000. Old vehicles also need loving care. On the side of a Normandy road Thursday, a group of men in uniform had popped the hood of an immobile D-Day-era truck and were rooting around inside its engine.
Some of those in uniform have served in the military, and say they’re fine with others following in their footsteps, or at least wearing their boots.
“This is a huge celebration of Western democracy winning,” said Robert Schaefer, a retired lieutenant colonel with the U.S. Army’s Green Berets who served in Afghanistan. He took part in a jump over the D-Day town of Carentan, carrying the dog tag and wallet that his grandfather, George J. Ehmet, had with him when he fought as an artillery man in France.
“If it becomes a celebration rather than a commemoration, everybody learns something.”
Follow all the AP’s coverage of D-Day at https://apnews.com/WorldWarII