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Why I give tours on the WWII D-Day beaches of Normandy

Yannick Sterke. [Photo courtesy of Yannick Sterke]
December 11, 2019

My name is Yannick Sterke. I grew up in a small village 35 miles north of Paris. Though this area of France has more to do with WWI than WWII, I have always had a strong interest in the Second World War. This passion in me was instilled by a history teacher who truly loved was he was doing.

Since the age of 13, I have been fascinated by the World War II battles, the occupation of my country, the resistance, and especially the D-day Operation. I grew up appreciating movies like “Saving Private Ryan” and the HBO TV series “Band of Brothers,” and I knew that I would enjoy a career related to the war.

After having obtained a degree in Tourism and living for a year in London in order to improve my English, I moved to Normandy in 2014 to carry out my dream. I started as a tour guide at the Normandy American Cemetery — an amazing and special site to begin my journey. The cemetery is the resting place of 9,387 soldiers who paid the ultimate price during the Normandy campaign. Moreover, 1,557 names are engraved on the wall of the Garden of the Missing. Only 19 of them have been found since the creation of the cemetery.

I didn’t realize initially that the first year would be such a special year, but it was indeed, as it fell on the 70th anniversary of the D-day operation. As the date approached, we could feel the excitement as the cemetery was slowly transformed to welcome 12,000 people for the anniversary.

On the anniversary, former U.S. President Barack Obama and former French President François Hollande stood side-by-side to pay tribute to these brave young men who died in the name of freedom. However, the most touching part of this celebration to me was the attendance of 200 World War II veterans. I met and chatted with most of them, who were between 95 and 97 years old. They knew that it would be their last visit to Normandy, but they were all proud to be part of the anniversary.

After leaving the American Cemetery, I’ve moved on to work for a tour operator called “Overlord Tour,” the top-rated company in Normandy. This job as a tour guide allows me to show American visitors where thousands of American British and Canadian soldiers landed on June 6, 1944. During the past five years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet veterans on my tour like Jim Kunkle, who was a P-38 Pilot in Normandy, and who has now a road named after him by Omaha Beach.

This year, the 75th anniversary, was a special year for all of us. Like any anniversary, every decade is a symbol, but on this 75th anniversary, everyone knew that it would be the last anniversary with the latest veterans. The still-grateful Normans set up American, British, and Canadian flags in front of their houses as they did during the liberation. Reenactors came from all over Europe to display their WWII vehicles, while concerts, shows, and parades took place for the week.

The anniversary was the ultimate reconnaissance for these WWII veterans — who are passing away at a rate of 362 a day. Being an actor in this celebration meant a lot to me. I was touched by seeing my clients’ eyes wide open as they saw Sherman tanks passing by, or kids screaming in delight as they saw C-130 airplanes dropping U.S. paratroopers next to the famous town of Sainte Mere Eglise (where 75 years ago, one of their fellows John Steele got stuck up to the steeple of the church and entered history forever).

The most moving moment of this whole anniversary was my unexpected meeting with Tom Rice, 95, a former member of the 101st Airborne division. A humbling and simple man, when asked what his most vivid memory about D-day was, he answered, “when I jumped from the airplane during the night, it was quite interesting.” Tom jumped in tandem the next day to commemorate the jump of around 13,000 U.S. paratroopers the night of the invasion. What an experience to have met this man — who came likely for the last time.

Once the anniversary was over, the reenactors gone, and the veterans safely back home, a tremendous flow of tourists arrived. Other significant WWII sites showed new records of visits.

Next year on the 76th anniversary, however, it will surely be quieter until the 80th anniversary comes around.

Some wonder if Normandy will still be visited even when the last of the WWII veterans have been laid to rest. I truly think that they will. Most of my clients come to visit Normandy without a connection or a family member involved, but simply to see what these men achieved to liberate Europe. Many of them admit that their visit to Normandy is not like their typical vacations, but more like a pilgrimage.

I’m honored to lead them through it.

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