As the years roll by since they made their world-changing invasion of France, World War II veterans continue to come back to Normandy where the Allied invasion of June 1944 broke the Axis grip on western Europe and ultimately led to victory in World War II. And each year, among the veterans, are some returning for the first time since they fought here.
One such veteran is 93-year-old Ralph Ticcioni of Milwaukee, Wis. The glider-trained member of the 82nd Airborne Division was in Ste. Mere-Eglise Thursday as ceremonies kicked off to celebrate the 72nd anniversary of the D-Day assault that began Europe’s liberation from Nazi Germany.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have expected something like this,” said Ticcioni, who was on a family vacation in Europe and penciled in a visit to Normandy June 2 as part of his plan. The last time he was in Normandy, he explained, “I was scared. Pandemonium is a good word to use for it.”
He was the lone World War II veteran at wreath-laying ceremonies Thursday to remember the events at Ste. Mere-Eglise, first French town liberated in the invasion. At monuments to honor the service of the town’s D-Day mayor, Alexandre Renaud, and the sacrifices of fallen airborne soldiers who jumped behind enemy lines ahead of the beach assaults of June 6, 1944, wreaths were laid, speeches were given, and visitors lined up to get Ticcioni’s autograph.
Among the speakers at the town-square monument to airborne casualties was U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Tim Ray who described the invasion of Normandy as “a tapestry of stories. The list of tales from that day will go on forever.”
Ticcioni’s story is typical of the airborne assault that began about an hour into June 6, 1944. He descended through the blustery night sky about five miles from his objective, Ste. Mere-Eglise, and fought through the countryside to the town, which U.S. forces secured just before daylight. He was 22 on the day of the mission. “I didn’t think I would make 23,” he said.
Thousands of American troops lost their lives fighting in the days and weeks that followed, a painful memory for the Wisconsin veteran who remembers the postwar challenge of reconciling all he witnessed in combat. “You learn to adjust,” he said. “You realize that life is for the living. We did what we came to do. We never realized what the results would be. Right was on our side. That’s why we won.”
Ticcioni saw the results firsthand as French residents and other visitors surrounded the ceremonies, which included a service in the 12th century church on the town square, to express gratitude to the Allied liberators of World War II. “It hits you right here,” Ticcioni said, pressing his right hand over his heart.
Following the ceremonies, hundreds of veterans and active-duty Army and Navy personnel gathered for a reception at the Ste. Mere-Eglise city hall where others who fought in World War II soon appeared, joining Ticcioni as the weekend of commemoration kicked off. The 82nd Airborne Division Choir and a U.S. Navy band provided music for Thursday’s activities in Ste. Mere-Eglise.
American Legion member Ray Shearer of Indianapolis placed wreaths on behalf of the largest organization of wartime veterans in the United States. Shearer, a member of the American Overseas Memorial Day Association that coordinates Memorial Day events at cemeteries and monuments in Europe each year, will be joined by American Legion National Commander Dale Barnett and American Legion Auxiliary National President Sharon Conatser for ceremonies and remembrances at the Normandy American Cemetery, Pointe du Hoc and Utah Beach as part of the commander’s official visit to the Department of France.
By Jeff Stoffer