- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — Sixty years after Allied forces stormed the beaches along northern France, the quiet towns and villages dotting the coastline of Normandy are preparing for another invasion, one which, not unlike Operation Overlord ahead of June 6, 1944, is being masterminded with military precision.

The elaborate preparations for the ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of D-Day — which will involve more than 20,000 participants — have been complicated by restrictive security measures. Yesterday, the French Defense Ministry placed the entire country on red alert, the second-highest level in the government’s counterterrorism program, and sealed off public access to all sensitive areas in Normandy.

“We will take no risks; we will do everything possible to plug any loopholes in the system,” said Hamlaoui Mekachera, the French minister of war veterans responsible for coordinating the project. “We will try to minimize the impact on the local population, but everyone must realize that all of this is in their interest given the international situation.”

French officials in charge of overall security said they have no intelligence indicating a terrorist threat, but “the risk is always there.”

Mr. Mekachera added that “dozens of thousands” of soldiers and police officers have been mobilized to enforce security with teams from other countries.

The series of ceremonies Saturday through Monday at historic landmarks across a swath of land spanning more than 50 miles will be observed by 17 heads of state or government, including President Bush, French President Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as several members of European royalty. About 1,000 veterans and thousands of military representing 14 nations also will participate in the events, to be covered by about 3,800 accredited journalists.

“In terms of planning, security is the major issue this time,” said Dave Stewart, media adviser for U.S. Army Europe, the host of the American events which also planned the 50th anniversary celebrations in 1994.

During the three days of events, fighter planes, helicopters and surface-to-air batteries are authorized to escort and, if necessary, destroy any unidentified aircraft that enter the area. Navy ships will monitor the seas. On land, about 2,500 soldiers and police will enforce checkpoints, roadblocks and other security measures. Access to the area will be available only by shuttle bus or other approved vehicles.

For residents, the greatest drawback to the heightened security might be their inability to host visiting soldiers, a practice widely embraced during previous anniversary celebrations in this corner of France where Old Glory always flutters.

“We can’t take advantage of the kind hearts of the French who want to open their homes to our soldiers,” said Wayne Morse, deputy planning officer of public affairs for U.S. Army Europe. “Because of the international situation now, we have to take measures that we thought were unnecessary 10 years ago. It’s a different world today.”

The 2,000 American soldiers sent to Normandy instead will be housed in two makeshift villages erected off Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, where the most important international commemorations will take place on Sunday, in the presence of Mr. Bush and Mr. Chirac.

The sprawl of white tents and caravans, assembled over acres of farmland, will house dormitories, mess halls and hospitals as well as an information and broadcasting center for the press.

At the tourist-flooded American Military Cemetery nearby, contractors are installing TV towers and bleachers around the colonnaded memorial and the reflecting pool that overlooks the white crosses commemorating more than 9,000 fallen troops.

“This is the most complicated logistic operation I have ever been involved in, especially when you factor in German work laws, French infrastructure standards and all the other things you never had to think about before,” said Maj. Joel Johnston, 38, executive officer of Taskforce Logistics for U.S. Army Europe.

Maj. Johnston and other soldiers who have been sent here consider the work a unique opportunity to honor those veterans who gave their lives to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II.

“My grandfather was in both world wars and when he came back, nobody said thank you,” Maj. Johnston said. “This is probably the last time these veterans [now in their 80s] will be here. So, although this is a lot of work, it’s also an incredible opportunity for us to honor these men, to express our gratitude, to finally say thank you.”

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