Veterans Return to Normandy on 78th Anniversary of D-Day and Remember Life-Changing Moments of WWII

·4 min read
World War II reenactors put roses and flowers at dawn on Omaha Beach, in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, the day of 78th anniversary of the assault that helped bring an end to World War II
World War II reenactors put roses and flowers at dawn on Omaha Beach, in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, the day of 78th anniversary of the assault that helped bring an end to World War II

Jeremias Gonzalez/AP/Shutterstock D-Day anniversary in Saint-Laurent-Sur-Mer, France on June 6

Dozens of U.S. military veterans have traveled to France to mark the 78th anniversary of D-Day, one of the largest military invasions in history.

Thousands of people gathered Monday at the American Cemetery, which overlooks Omaha Beach in the French town of Colleville-sur-Mer, for a ceremony honoring those who fought during the invasion of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944, according to the Associated Press.

Nearly two dozen World War II veterans who appeared at the special event received a round of applause from those attending, per the report.

Nearly 160,000 troops from the U.S., Canada and Britain participated in the massive invasion on June 6, 1944 in an attempt to liberate France from the control of Nazi Germany after four years of occupation. In total, more than 4,400 Allied soldiers were killed amid the invasion.

RELATED: Listen to Unread Letters from WWII Soldiers on the Ground In Honor of D-Day

World War II reenactor put roses and flowers at dawn on Omaha Beach, in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, the day of 78th anniversary of the assault that helped bring an end to World War II
World War II reenactor put roses and flowers at dawn on Omaha Beach, in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, Normandy, France, the day of 78th anniversary of the assault that helped bring an end to World War II

Jeremias Gonzalez/AP/Shutterstock D-Day anniversary in Saint-Laurent-Sur-Mer, France on June 6

U.S. veteran Charles Shay, 98, was among several people who participated in a sage-burning ceremony near the beach in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer on Monday, the AP reported.

"I have never forgotten them and I know that their spirits are here," said the Penobscot Native American, originally from Indian Island, Maine. He was just 19 years old when he and other troops landed on Omaha Beach in 1944.

Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free weekly newsletter to get the biggest news of the week delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Also in attendance was Ray Wallace, 97, a former paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division whose plane caught fire after it was struck on D-Day.

Describing what he witnessed, Wallace told USA Today, "It looked like the 4th of July going in there because all of the searchlights and aircraft and guns going off. Of course, we could hear the flack hitting the plane. When we started hearing that … we all got a little scared."

A military officer takes part in a ceremony marking the 78th anniversary since Allied forces landed in Normandy on "D-Day" during World War II in Ouistreham, on June 6, 2022.
A military officer takes part in a ceremony marking the 78th anniversary since Allied forces landed in Normandy on "D-Day" during World War II in Ouistreham, on June 6, 2022.

SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AFP via Getty A military officer participates in a ceremony for the 78th anniversary of D-Day in Ouistreham, France

Wallace told the AP that he and his fellow crew members were forced to jump earlier than originally anticipated once the plane burst into flames.

"And then whenever the guy dropped us out, we were away from where the rest of the group was," he explained. "That was scary."

RELATED: English and German World War II Veterans Meet to Honor the Anniversary of D-Day: 'We Are Brothers'

This is the first time crowds have been permitted to gather at Omaha Beach, where the Normandy invasion began, since the COVID-19 pandemic started in March 2020. Ceremonies were limited in 2020 and 2021, but crowds returned to Normandy in 2022 to honor those who lost their lives on the beach while fighting for freedom.

US Army corporal in World War II in Pattons 3rd Army Robert "Boots" Chouinard is helped bu US soldiers as he attends the celebrations for the 78th D-Day anniversary, marking the WWII Normandy landings of June 6, 1944, in Sainte-Mere-Eglise on June 5, 2022.
US Army corporal in World War II in Pattons 3rd Army Robert "Boots" Chouinard is helped bu US soldiers as he attends the celebrations for the 78th D-Day anniversary, marking the WWII Normandy landings of June 6, 1944, in Sainte-Mere-Eglise on June 5, 2022.

JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty U.S. Army corporal in World War II in Pattons 3rd Army Robert "Boots" Chouinard attends the 78th D-Day anniversary events in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, France.

Jake Larson, who shares his stories about WWII with more than 475,000 followers on TikTok under the username "Papa Jake," was among those that returned to Omaha Beach for the 78th anniversary of D-Day.

Larson told TODAY that being back at Omaha Beach was an "eerie" feeling for him.

RELATED: D-Day Veteran Reunites with Woman He Fell in Love with 75 Years Ago: 'I Always Loved You'

Recalling the moment he landed on the beach, Larson remembered asking himself, "God, what am I doing here? What the hell? I can't see anybody to shoot at."

"But I ran," he continued. "I weighed 120 lbs. at 5-foot-7 and I said, 'Thank god the Germans aren't good at shooting toothpicks!' Honestly, I was thinking that!"

But Larson doesn't consider himself a hero. Instead, he believes he is helping share the stories of those who are, telling TODAY, "I'm here to tell you that heroes are buried over here."

He later added, "The message is, protect our freedom. Honor these heroes that have given their life at a young age. Honor these people, don't honor me."