Reflections from Omaha Beach
Local Alumni at the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Landing
On June 6, 1944, Allied Forces commenced the largest seaborne invasion in history. Code-named Operation Neptune, and referred to as D-Day, more than 300,000 combined personnel began the liberation of German-occupied France and laid the foundations of an Allied victory on the Western Front.
Last month, 75 years later, more than 500 active members, alumni, and family of the University of Texas Longhorn Band traveled to Normandy and Brittany to celebrate that victory and honor the 4,414 heroes who gave their lives for it.
Among them were local alumni Eric Stratton, Betsy Lambeth and Brad Curlee. Stratton says the LHAB takes a big trip every few years to showcase the UT alumni association and the band. “We are people from all over the country and the world enjoying the trip of a lifetime.”
And, while the band has already received broad media coverage, we asked our own local musicians about emotional moments and observations on their historic visit.
CULTIVATING A PERSPECTIVE
Betsy Lambeth graduated UT in 1982 and is now Judge Lambeth in Texas’ 425th District Court. She says the trip was moving and unforgettable; something she and [husband] Brad took very seriously. “We read several books, watched The Longest Day, Band of Brothers and Churchill; and took a trip to the D-day museum in New Orleans.
“We traveled a few days ahead of the band to visit Dachau—again in preparation. At the D-day museum one of the soldiers who liberated Dachau was quoted, as he trudged through France and Germany—he couldn’t figure out why he was in Europe. When he saw the prisoners at Dachau, who looked like beaten-down animals and couldn’t meet his eyes, he realized, ‘This is why I came.’”
After the concert at the Normandy American Cemetery, band members placed small Texas flags on the graves of Texans who lost their lives in the Battle of Normandy. Judge Lambeth prayed over Texas Infantryman Private Joel B. Stratton and said, “I hope, in heaven, Joel gets the message that 75 years later this Texan travelled halfway around the world to Normandy, spoke his name, and said ‘thank you’.”
She recalled, “In June 1944, when Joel wrote a letter to his parents, as instructed by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, did he sense it was his last? Did he write to a sweetheart? How his heart must have been pounding as he jumped from the plane into what was supposed to be Drop Zone T. In the chaos of the low clouds and flak his unit was scattered. I wonder how he found his unit. In those dark nights behind enemy territory. Did he think of home, his mother?
“Time reveals the magnitude of our choices. At 20, Joel chose travel to foreign soil not to conquer but to liberate. His choice changed your life, my life, and his life.”
The LHAB was joined by nine high school bands from around the country. Among them was the marching band from Herndon High School in Northern Virginia. The school is named for its town, but it was not lost on the students that one of the destroyers that participated in D-Day was the USS Herndon.
Each student adopted a crewmember from the Herndon and learned all about that person’s life and service. Band members adorned their sleeves with photos of their adoptees (top right), including one of the surviving veterans who was present at the ceremony. When he asked if he and his family could take a photo with his Herndon student, the young man, standing 6’2” at 18 years old, wept openly, as did many who were watching.
Judge Lambeth shared, “The Herndon students took it very seriously. At the Normandy American Cemetery, three students spoke and were amazing. One was a great grandson of a Dachau prisoner. Another began her speech with the French phrase ‘Les sanglots longs, Des violons De l’automne’ which translates to ‘When a sighing begins / In the violins / Of the autumn-song’; the code words alerting the French resistance that the invasion was imminent. She continued her speech and spoke of the sighing of our world with the loss of this generation of veterans and their violins.”
Jennifer Stratton, Eric’s wife, while not a band member, says it was a deeply personal trip for them both. “I called my dad from the beach to tell him I was standing where [my] Grandpa Jack landed. Eric’s mother was a history teacher and it was about everything she had taught us and our own children. All of our family’s stories converged in one emotional trip.”
Before leaving, Jennifer gathered sand from Omaha Beach to bring home to her father to be spread over his own father’s grave in Chicago.
Stratton credits Bob Phillips, founder of The Feast, for reaching out to the alumni who played, spent many hours aboard tour buses, and enjoyed “typical vacation moments of awkwardness and joy. It was a bit of insanity but we all shared a wonderful bond because we were doing an incredibly profound thing. We loved being able to see this piece of history through young eyes, we made new friends from among the band members but also got to speak with veterans who had inimitable experiences and who may not be with us in five years.”
The LHAB has taken several such trips to represent the school and the alumni association, including a visit to London in 2016 for a New Year’s Eve celebration.
The band performed at the American Cemetery in Brittany and Omaha Beach, Sainte-Mère-Église, and in Paris at a public park.
All of our locals agree it was memorable to see history through high school students’ eyes and enjoy the wonder they felt on, for some, their first trip to another country. It was also significant for the young people to see alumni re-living the joys of their school days and still enjoying the music and the fellowship of band friends after being out of school for years or even decades. Jennifer added; “There were so many unique moments to demonstrate the paths that these students might take. They got to see a district judge playing her clarinet in France. They got to know my husband, Eric, who is a nurse and helping me and our children be successful in life.”
THE EYES—AND THE PEOPLE—OF TEXAS
We hear a lot about how the people of the world feel about America. But our Georgetown friends were touched by how many people made an effort to speak English simply so they could ask about Texas. They even flashed the two-finger Longhorn salute and expressed their excitement that Americans had come to town. “I never felt any of the animosity that seems to be famous in the media sometimes,” Stratton said. “It may have been just that one week, but for that one week we all came together to remember and celebrate our collective history.”
The alumni band marched in a local parade at the small hamlet of Sainte-Mère-Église. Some buildings in town were on fire on June 6, 1944, which illuminated the sky, making easy targets of descending Allied paratroopers. Some were sucked into the fire; many were shot by the Germans as they hung from trees or utility poles before they could cut loose.
Paratrooper John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, got hung up on the spire of the town church. He hung there for two hours, pretending to be dead, before the Germans took him prisoner. Steele later escaped from the Germans and rejoined his division when US troops of the 3rd Battalion attacked the village.
A parachute still hangs from the steeple in his honor.
Despite what we hear in popular culture, it would seem at least some French citizens do love, and will never forget, what America did for their country.
From Judge Lambeth: “More than 200,000 people attended this parade and they loved it! They were on the streets and in the upstairs of their houses waving and singing. I saw one woman on the parade route…probably in her early 40s. She had tears streaming down her face. I looked at her and motioned ‘Why the tears?’ In broken English, she said, ‘Liberty. You cannot know what Americans mean to us.’”