D-Day anniversary events may be last big gathering of U.S. WWII vets

WASHINGTON Mon Jun 2, 2014 6:31pm EDT

A history enthusiast sits in a jeep as he watches a Boeing Bell V-22 Osprey as it takes off in Colleville-sur-Mer, on the Normandy coast June 2, 2014. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

A history enthusiast sits in a jeep as he watches a Boeing Bell V-22 Osprey as it takes off in Colleville-sur-Mer, on the Normandy coast June 2, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Regis Duvignau

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A dwindling band of U.S. veterans is set this week to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day in nationwide events aimed at bringing home to Americans the importance of the Allied invasion on the beaches of Normandy, France that helped lead to the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War Two.

With the youngest survivors of the June 6, 1944, landings on the French coastline now in their late 80s, ceremonies recalling the largest sea-borne invasion in history carry special weight, organizers say.

"I think the 70th anniversary is particularly important because it's probably the last large gathering of our D-Day veterans. We are expecting several hundred D-Day veterans to be in attendance," said April Cheek-Messier, president of the National D-Day Memorial Foundation in Bedford, Virginia.

Cheek-Messier said D-Day was "the watershed moment of World War Two, I'd argue the most significant event of the last century."

About 160,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops took part in the D-Day landings. As of last September, there were about 1.25 million U.S. World War Two veterans still alive, and 413 die a day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The U.S. commemorations are taking place this week at the same time as ceremonies in Normandy attended by President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande and about 350 U.S. veterans.

The biggest U.S. commemoration will be in Bedford, a town in the Blue Ridge Mountains that is home to the National D-Day Memorial as well as the holder of a grim World War Two distinction.

Nineteen of the 37 Bedford men who took part in D-Day were killed when they landed on Omaha Beach in the face of German fire. The deaths marked the largest per capita D-Day loss by any U.S. community.

The last of the group known as the Bedford Boys died in 2009. This year's D-Day ceremony is scheduled to include the unveiling of a statue honoring them.

About 10,000 people, including a 100-year-old former soldier, are expected to attend the statue unveiling and other events on Friday and Saturday, organizers said.

In Washington, D.C., a wreath-laying ceremony and speeches are on tap at the National World War II Memorial.

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans is set to hold an "H-Hour" ceremony at 6:30 a.m local time marking the moment the invasion began. The museum also has scheduled lectures, re-enactors, films and the awarding of the French Legion of Honor to veterans.

In Abilene, Kansas, the boyhood home of Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight Eisenhower, the Eisenhower Presidential Library has scheduled a remembrance ceremony and a concert.

On Saturday, the Eisenhower National Historic Site at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, will host a living history encampment, talks and a tour of the graves of about 1,600 World War Two soldiers buried at Soldiers' National Cemetery.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson, editing by Jill Serjeant and Will Dunham)

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