D-Day 75th anniversary marks the World War II invasion of Normandy

The commemoration of D-Day this year marks a special one for Susan Lawrence, and not just because it’s the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy.

For Lawrence, it’s also the first one when the remains of her two uncles are lying side by side at the Normandy American Cemetery in France.

“It means a lot to our family,” she told USA TODAY.  “It’s beyond words.”

Twins Julius H.O. “Henry” Pieper and Ludwig J.W. “Louie” Pieper were 19 years old when the ship they were aboard hit a German underwater mine and sank off the coast of Normandy on June 19, 1944.

Ludwig Pieper was laid to rest at the Normandy cemetery, where more than 9,000 Americans are buried. But Julius Pieper’s remains weren’t identified until 2017 – he had been buried as an “unknown” at a cemetery in Ardennes. On June 19, 2018, 74 years after their death, the twins were buried next to each other.

“I don’t even know how to express it in words, that they’re finally side by side,” Lawrence said.

‘A huge ceremony’

The D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, was the largest by air, land and sea in history and involved more than 150,000 soldiers from the United States, Britain and Canada who stormed the Nazi-occupied French beaches of Normandy. The invasion is credited with changing the course of the war and ultimately pushing Nazi troops back to Germany.

President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron are expected to attend the Normandy American Cemetery’s 75th anniversary of D-Day commemoration, which has been planned for more than a year.

More: Before-and-after photos reveal dramatic changes since D-Day

The head of the American Battle Monuments Commission, which oversees the cemetery and is leading the planning, told USA TODAY that officials expect between 12,000 and 15,000 at the ceremony. ABMC Secretary and retired Army Maj. Gen. William Matz said that will include more than 100 World War II veterans.

“It’s going to be a huge event, a huge ceremony,” Matz said. “This is probably going to be maybe the last five years’ anniversary where we really have a fairly good number of World War II and actual D-Day vets.”

More: Restored WWII aircraft from the U.S. to commemorate 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy

A contingent of World War II-era aircraft was slated to fly from the United States and to retrace the historic crossing across the English Channel. 

On June 7, the commission is also rededicating the cemetery’s visitor center, which has been enhanced with updates and new exhibits. Matz said the center has a World War II-era Army jeep and a new wall display depicting a panorama view of the beaches and the landings that unfolded during the invasion, known as Operation Overlord.   

The visitors’ center, which was first dedicated in 2007, also has new life-size replicas of a paratrooper and infantryman and the equipment they carried. Updated exhibits also include more information about the French resistance and its role.

Reunited after research project

The Pieper twins were radiomen in the U.S. Navy aboard Landing Ship Tank (LST) number 523, which was headed to Omaha Beach in Normandy when it sank.

Lawrence said they had four siblings –  including her mother, who told her the twins were very close and “went practically everywhere together.”

“When something happened to one of the twins, even if one was working in another area, then the same thing would happen to the other,” she said.

In 2015, a high school student in their native Nebraska studying the twins as part of a research project requested information about them from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. That agency did further research, exhumed the remains thought to be Julius Pieper in Belgium and then announced in 2017 that it had identified the remains as his, based on dental and other records.

World War II D-Day: Five things to know on the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings

Lawrence, their niece, traveled to Normandy for his burial there last June. Cemetery officials moved his twin’s remains so they could be side by side. She won’t be traveling to France for this year’s anniversary but said she will never forget the ceremony last year.

“You almost feel like it’s holy ground,” she said. “It’s almost like when you go there, you’re living it. You can see as many movies as you want to, but once you’re there, and it’s like, this is the beach, that they came in on, it’s just overwhelming.”

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