75 years after D-Day: A look back at the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944
For most teens, the events of D-Day are just another lesson learned from history books.
But 130 teens from the Blue Valley North band now have a different perspective. The band traveled to the landing site at Omaha Beach in Normandy to take part in the 75th anniversary commemorations June 6.
“I think that connection, not only to that history but the people who lived that history and created that history ... we can’t re-create at any of our other performances,” said Dan Freeman, the band’s director.
Seventeen-year-old Kara Olander, a senior clarinetist in the band, echoed Freeman’s thoughts.
“We always hear about it talking from the American perspective,” she said. “Being able to see how thankful the French were and how appreciative they were of the event, it opened up my eyes that this was a lot bigger than one country or one day.”
It’s a trip that was three years in the making. A selection committee evaluated the band program before issuing an official invitation to perform, Freeman said. Previously, the school’s band performed at the 60th and 50th anniversaries in France.
Freeman said it took him six months to figure out if they could make the trip happen. After that, students raised funds and practiced for months to be ready.
The music itself was a challenging 90-minute mix of American and French songs, including marches, national anthems and a few medleys. It was much more music than students typically prepare for a normal concert.
“I thought that the music was a lot of fun, and it was challenging enough that I don’t think any one of us was bored at all,” Kara said.
The band combined with two community bands and a college band, all from California, to make one large group, though the Blue Valley North students were the largest piece of the 220-piece assembled band.
Conductor Col. Arnald Gabriel made the concert even more special. Gabriel, 94, was part of the landing forces on D-Day with the 29th Infantry Division and later led the U.S. Air Force band for more than 30 years.
“He had really high expectations and held the kids to those expectations. … Several students commented to me about how amazingly happy he looked in performance and how it meant even more to be in the special locations,” Freeman said. “He’s a taskmaster, but the pay-off is beyond words to explain.”
In addition to that performance, the larger group also gave a concert at Champ de Mars, next to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, prior to the commemoration. The Blue Valley North band also did a short 10-minute recital at the American cemetery by Omaha Beach the day after the big show.
“I think it’s one of those things that, over time, is going to settle in as students get older. I think they will more and more value that they got to interact with it personally before everyone involved with it passed on,” Freeman said.
“Right now, I know I had students after every performance say, ‘You told us it would mean something when a veteran stood up during the “Armed Forces Salute,” but we didn’t really understand until it happened.’”
The presidential ceremonies featuring presidents Trump and Macron commemorating the invasion took place a few miles down the coast from where the band performed.