US veterans get heroes' welcome in France ahead of D-Day anniversary

By Elizabeth Pineau, Lucien Libert and Michaela Cabrera

DEAUVILLE/PARIS (Reuters) -Crowds cheered as U.S. veterans arrived at French airports ahead of ceremonies marking the 80th anniversary of D-Day, a turning point in World War Two when more than 150,000 Allied soldiers landed in Normandy to drive out Nazi German forces.

Many of those flying in over the weekend and Monday were older than 100, pushed on wheelchairs by relatives and helpers.

"It's unreal. It's unreal. Wow," 107-year-old Reynolds Tomter said at Paris Charles-de-Gaulle airport as students waved U.S. and French flags and held up photos of the veterans.

"It feels great ... and I'm so thankful that I got the opportunity to be back out here, my son with me," said 101-year-old Bill Wall, as his son, Ray, pushed him through arrivals.

"I lost some great friends. All of these people who are out there on their crosses and unmarked graves are the true heroes. It gives me a chance to pay tribute to them which they so need," he added.

In Deauville, Normandy, a specially chartered flight with 48 veterans on board was greeted by the French president's wife, Brigitte Macron, on Monday.

Among them was 101-year old Bob Gibson, who was in the second wave of soldiers to land on Normandy's Utah beach and said he still had nightmares.

"It's like it happened yesterday. You wouldn't believe what I have seen. Terrible. Some of the young fellows never reached the major beach ... sometimes it wakes you up at night," he added.

"Today we seem to be going back instead of going further. Love is the answer," 100-year-old Arlester Brown said.

People needed to listen to what the veterans had to say, Brigitte Macron told Reuters. "In today's world, we need to hear them. They do us good. They do me good," she said.

"We can see the extent of their courage."

'THEY WERE LEGENDARY'

Across Normandy, where beaches and fields still bear the scars of the fighting that erupted on June 6, 1944 and the weeks that followed, preparations were underway for the ceremonies. World leaders from U.S. President Joe Biden to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will attend.

In Vierville-sur-Mer, a town just above Omaha Beach - one of the sectors where U.S. soldiers landed - a re-enactment camp was set up, giving visitors a chance to see what equipment the soldiers used.

People took rides in World War Two jeeps and armoured vehicles.

"It's always very intense when we meet veterans, because they always have many stories to tell, and you still feel the emotion," said Julie Boisard, who lives in Normandy and took part in the re-enactment.

A handful of serving members of the Virginia National Guard 29th Infantry Division gazed out over the beach their elders stormed 80 years earlier.

"It's historic, it's memorable ... and it's very emotional as well," said U.S. serviceman Esaw Lee. "Those guys were so courageous and so mythical. They were legendary."

With war raging on Europe's borders in 2024, this anniversary's D-Day ceremony will carry special resonance.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will be among the guests. Russia, which launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, touching off Europe's biggest armed conflict since World War Two, was not invited.

The commemorations "remind us that we were occupied for four years and were liberated by the Americans," said Marie-Therese Legallois, who was seven at the time and remembers being sent home from school early when the Allies landed.

"But I always have a bit of sadness to see that the war continues, in Ukraine or elsewhere," she said.

(Reporting by Michaela Cabrera in Paris, Elizabeth Pineau and Lucien Libert in Normandy, Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Andrew Heavens)