29th ID Soldiers return to France for 72nd commemoration of D-Day

Brig. Gen. Blake C. Ortner, commander of the 29th Infantry Division, speaks during the 29th Infantry Division memorial ceremony at Omaha Beach in Sainte-Laurent-sur-Mer, France, June 6, 2016. Liberation Monument (in back) was dedicated to the Soldiers, many of them belonging to the 29th Infantry Division, who stormed the beach and gave their lives to liberate France on D-Day. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Timothy Moore)

Brig. Gen. Blake C. Ortner, commander of the 29th Infantry Division, speaks during the 29th Infantry Division memorial ceremony at Omaha Beach in Sainte-Laurent-sur-Mer, France, June 6, 2016. Liberation Monument (in back) was dedicated to the Soldiers, many of them belonging to the 29th Infantry Division, who stormed the beach and gave their lives to liberate France on D-Day. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Timothy Moore)

FORT BELVOIR, Virginia — Brig. Gen. Blake C. Ortner, commanding general of the 29th Infantry Division, led a group of 13 Virginia National Guard Soldiers to France for the June 6, 2016, commemoration of the 72nd anniversary of the Allied Invasion of Normandy.

“I think one of the greatest things about being in Normandy as a 29th ID Soldier is the reaction from the people of Normandy to the 29th patch, especially in Vierville and Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer,” said Ortner, who was in Normandy as the 29th ID commander for the first time. He had previously visited in a civilian capacity. “The love, the appreciation, the respect they show to the Soldiers of the 29th is unbelievable.”

Soldiers from the 29th Infantry Division pose for a photo with a French D-Day reenactor during an event in Sainte-Mère-Église, France commemorating the 72nd Anniversary of D-Day. (U.S. Army Photo by Capt. Joe Bush)

Soldiers from the 29th Infantry Division pose for a photo with a French D-Day reenactor during an event in Sainte-Mère-Église, France commemorating the 72nd Anniversary of D-Day. (U.S. Army Photo by Capt. Joe Bush)

On June 6, 1944, more than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France. More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and by day’s end, the Allies gained a foot-hold in Continental Europe. However it came with a steep price. More than 10,000 Americans lost their lives on D-Day.

The heroic efforts of the Allied troops is still remembered and celebrated in Normandy today, but not just by the French citizens who remember, and endured, the war.

“One of the greatest things I see is it’s not just the adults, it’s not just the old people,” Ortner said. “They teach their children about what the 29th means and what they did. You would have a lot of them coming up, saying, ‘Thank you.’ That was one of the most moving things I saw.”

For nearly two years, from October 1942 to June 1944, Soldiers of the 29th ID trained in Scotland and England, preparing for the Normandy invasion. On D-Day, the 29th ID’s 116th Infantry Regiment was in the first assault wave to hit the beaches and more than 800 members of the 116th were killed.

More than 70 years later, the experiences those Soldiers endured on D-Day is still hard to comprehend. But Ortner has advice for anyone who visits Normandy and tries to re-create the battlefield.

“What you need to do is, about six in the morning, go stand on the beach at that low water mark at low tide, and look at that distance those Soldiers had to cross,” he said. “The distance they had to cross, in the conditions they were in, is unbelievable.

“To think of what they went through and what they suffered through, not just the first wave,” he explained. “Imagine the second wave arriving and seeing the beach littered with bodies and still getting off the boat and charging in and taking those hills. What they did is absolutely incredible.”