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D-Day Landing in Santa Monica Is France's Way of Saying 'Merci'

May 16, 1994|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Troops are preparing to storm ashore at Santa Monica on June 1, but the invading force will be friendly and acting for a good cause--history.

The planned landing on Santa Monica beach, to involve a World War II-vintage landing craft and veterans of the Normandy invasion, will be part of an elaborate commemoration of the 50th anniversary of D-day called "Merci l'Amerique." Organized by the local French consulate with help from American veterans groups, the event is intended to thank America for helping to liberate France from the Nazis during World War II.

"It's a good occasion to say, 'Thank you' and 'I love you,' words the French don't use very often," said French Consul General Jean-Maurice Ripert.

The amphibious landing will be for real, albeit not on the scale of the original. About 40 soldiers will hit the beaches after disembarking from the landing craft, which was used on D-day. Half of those participating are expected to be actual D-day veterans--now in their 70s--who may or may not be able to squeeze into their old uniforms. Others will be active-duty soldiers.

To add to the realism, Ripert has asked the city of Santa Monica to declare the beach French territory for a day. City officials are mulling this one over.

The "invaders" won't encounter much resistance. The only firing will come at the start of the ceremony, when three blanks will be shot from the USS Copeland, a Navy frigate participating in the event.

At the real D-day invasion, about 160,000 Allied soldiers landed along a 50-mile stretch of rugged Normandy coastline at dawn on June 6, 1944. Casualties were high, as the vulnerable soldiers wading ashore through the frigid Northern Atlantic waters were cut down by German fire.

As former Army Staff Sgt. Thomas McGowan recalls it, landing at Utah Beach was a nightmare. McGowan, now a Cheviot Hills resident, said all he could think of was getting to safer ground. "I immediately forgot everything I'd learned in school," he recalled in a recent interview. "I was so afraid, you can't imagine."

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McGowan fought his way through France with thousands of other Allied soldiers in what was called "Operation Overlord," liberating village after village as townspeople responded with bread and wine and cheers.

The heavily decorated McGowan, left for dead after being shot and beaten by Germans, said he wouldn't miss the June 1 remembrance ceremony, which is set to start about 6 p.m.

Santa Monica is the only place outside of Normandy itself that will host an actual beach landing to commemorate D-day, Ripert said. California, he added, has all the right ingredients for a successful D-day event.

"We have the movie industry, crazy people and a beach looking west," he said, adding that he was undeterred by the fact that the Allies actually landed on north-facing beaches.

Ripert has pushed forward with his plan even though his own government's support for the event--expected to cost in the tens of thousands of dollars--has been mostly symbolic. "We don't have a cent," he said.

For funds, he has turned for help to companies with a French connection, such as MGM Studios and Guess jeans. Another sponsor, Hotel Sofitel, is offering a free dinner for 250 D-day vets. The hotel's president, John Lehodey, was a young boy when his hometown of Avranches, France, was liberated by Americans.

Besides the amphibious landing north of the Santa Monica Pier, the commemoration ceremony will feature a flotilla of ships offshore and vintage tanks and other military equipment and memorabilia on the sand. World War II-era planes will fly overhead.

The flotilla will include the Copeland, the French Navy frigate Prairial, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Point Bridge--and perhaps the Lane Victory, a restored World War II Liberty ship that had been headed to Normandy but had to turn back because of engine trouble and arrived Sunday in San Pedro.

Four hundred D-day veterans will be honored at the Remembrance Ceremony. And French children wearing "Merci L'Amerique" T-shirts and carrying flowers will greet soldiers as they come ashore.

If all goes well, Ripert said, the beach ceremony will be emotional and patriotic--the kind of thing that will leave people misty-eyed and proud, no matter what their national origin.

Though details of the program are still being worked out, Ripert promises national anthems, testimonies of D-day survivors and high-ranking military and government officials.

The documentary, "Victory at Sea," will be shown.

If all that doesn't tug at the heartstrings, a lone bugler will close the ceremony at sunset.

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The ceremony is being held five days before the actual D-day anniversary so participants can fly to France in time for the D-day ceremonies there. For retired Marine Capt. Joseph Smith, the far smaller scale of the Santa Monica event in no way diminishes its importance.

"It's an opportunity to salute those individuals who kept the Free World free," Smith said. "If they had not been successful, we would not have the world we have today."

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