43 WWII Veterans land in Normandy, Visit Site of Abbey Massacre

2023 Normandy Battlefield Return – Day 3

When 43 WWII veterans land in Normandy on a historic flight, the whole local population comes out to welcome them — but it wasn’t just the Normans waiting.

The Best Defense Foundation team was received on the Deauville Airport tarmac with open arms on Thursday. Several groups, including local elementary schools, regional and local officials, American military personnel, the press, WWII reenactor groups, and the general public, applauded as each veteran walked down the airplane staircase.

It’s a fitting welcome for those who liberated Europe with their allies during WWII. The historic flight was made possible through strong partnerships with Delta Air Lines and Michelin, both critical partners in the 79th Anniversary of D-Day Battlefield Return Program to Normandy.

The foundation’s arrival marked the first time Sgt. Andrew “Andy Negra Jr. has stepped onto Normandy soil since he landed on Utah Beach on July 18, 1944. He’s not alone; 19 of the 43 are visiting Normandy for the first time since D-day. Some veterans who fought in different theaters are seeing it.

A welcome ceremony was held at the airport where French officials, the foundation, and its partner’s leaders spoke. David Chapman was one of the speakers and is Michelin’s vice president of public affairs. He retired from the US Army at the rank of Colonel after serving in some of the best units in the US Military, including the 75th Ranger Regiment.

“The tired, cold, sick, and often injured came forward because they knew the fate of the world was in their hands,” Chapman said.

Negra was one of those soldiers and spoke during the ceremony. He served in the US Army with the 128th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 6th Armored Division. He landed on Utah Beach in Normandy on July 18, 1944.

Negra was involved in the operation and fought in the battle for Brest, France — a hellacious battle that remained contested from August to September 1944. He would go on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp, and penetrated the Siegfried Line. Now he has returned to Normandy almost eight decades later.

“Last Sunday, I reached 99 years old, and I got two things out of the war,” Negra said. “The first thing is survival, and the second thing is I met my wife on a dance floor.”

He said he never forgot how the French people treated the Nazi collaborators who betrayed their own country. In one town he passed through during the war, he called how a woman fraternizing with the Nazis had been pulled to the town square, and her hair was cut off.

“Cut her hair off, not her head,” Negra said. “So that was an embarrassing thing [for the woman].”

The treatment for being a traitor pales compared to what the enemy did to their people if caught fraternizing with the enemy.

Later in the day, the foundation team was invited to the Abbaye d’ Ardennes for a commemoration ceremony and dinner. The abbey is the sight of one of the many massacres the Nazis carried out during the war. At least 20 Canadian troops were brutally executed within the abbey’s walls. Their remains were discovered several months later in the garden.

A French woman named Gabrielle Vico, who lives near the abbey, recalled how the Allied forces liberated the area. Speaking in French, but translated to English by Normandy tour guide, Mag Desquesne.

“We were thinking about all of you, all those young soldiers who were landing here in Normandy,” Vico said. “All the ones that were about to sacrifice their lives so we could be free.”

The ceremony concluded with everyone in attendance placing wooden crosses throughout the garden. Each cross is marked with an image of a red poppy.

Some of the abbey structures are scarred by bullet and projectile impacts, revealing how the abbey endured the carnage of war. In stark contrast, the buildings are beautiful, and many have been repaired. The gardens are full of green, grass, and flowers. The abbey is an example of the WWII veterans’ sacrifices that enabled France to be free.

This is the third installation of a series of stories. Keep an eye on the foundation’s social media on Instagram: @bestdefensefoundation, Twitter: @bestdefense_, and Facebook: Best Defense Foundation.