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D-Day at 70: a reenactor's paradise (+video)

From old Red Cross ambulances to friends dressed in vintage military uniforms, Normandy buzzes with thousands of visitors retracing the paths of the Allied soldiers who liberated Normandy.

British troops stage D-Day reenactment in Portsmouth
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 I hop into a vintage jeep, outfitted as a World War II vehicle. The wind picks up as we motor across Sword Beach off the coast of Normandy.

Slabs of concrete and steel, the ruins of the artificial harbor constructed by the Allied forces to bring in the massive amounts of equipment needed to retake Europe from Nazi Germany, lie strewn across the English Channel.

“We are riding right now on the same sand where the Allies debarked. You feel it here,” says Patrick Gaveriaux, putting his hand over his heart.  He is dressed as a US Army Ranger, having traveled for six hours in this jeep at 40 miles an hour from his home in the northern region of Picardie to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, which changed the course of World War II.

We do a couple more spins up and down the beach. “It makes you feel unstoppable,” Mr. Gaveriaux says.

The 70th anniversary of D-Day is a reenactor’s paradise.

Across Normandy, towns hemmed in by stone walls are connected by narrow country roads that are clogged this time of year by enthusiasts driving vintage military vehicles, from jeeps to old Red Cross ambulances. On Thursday at dusk, parachutes glided over Utah Beach, retracing the paths of the British, American, and other soldiers who liberated Normandy. Across the region, groups of World War II fanatics set up tents to recreate the nursing stations of World War II.  Everywhere you go, politics is out the door and the US is embraced: men and women mill around dressed as GIs, rangers, and paratroopers.

Jon Geboers, from the Netherlands, stands in front of Arromanches Beach, dressed as a US paratrooper. He has been traveling to Normandy for 16 years with Swiss, English, and Dutch friends. Today the group plans on walking along the coastline, retracing the steps of the Allied troops who landed here, to the cliffs that overlook the channel. In the afternoon the men will dress as British soldiers. “What we try is to commemorate in our own way and pay respect, and this is why we are wearing these uniforms,” he says.

Many of the thousands who descend upon Normandy in June feel a particular duty to keep memories of this pivotal moment in world history alive.  Joseph De Lecolle, a friend of Gaveriaux, says he belongs to an organization called the Flower of Memory, in which he’s “adopted” a fallen soldier, a 19-year-old from Arizona who died in Normandy on June 14.  He says he will try and reach out to his family. “Every time I go to Normandy, I cry,” he says.

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Gaveriaux says he feels a similar responsibility, one of the reasons he has come back here almost every year for the past 15 years, learning these beaches and towns by heart. “This is respect for history, for those who died for our liberty, and the commitment to memory,” says Gaveriaux.

And it’s a passion for old military vehicles, born at age 9 when he first saw "The Longest Day" with John Wayne. His love for jeeps was immediate, he says. Gaveriaux, a gendarme, says he saved his money until he was able to buy his own vehicle in 1990 and over the past decade and a half has outfitted it with antiques from the era, from a 1939 camera to a combat knife, an original helmet, and a first-aid kit. His dream is to get a working radio. He already bought the antennas. His wife thinks he’s nuts, but she lets him indulge once a year, he says smiling.

“Isn’t life beautiful in a jeep?” 


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