Photographer David Burnett was born in 1946, almost two years after Allied forces landed on a stretch of heavily fortified beaches along the coast of Normandy, France, marking the beginning of the end of Nazi-occupied Europe. While Burnett had a couple of uncles in the military, he did not have a personal connection to World War II. That is, until 1974.
Fresh from photographing the Vietnam War, Burnett was in Paris that June when he and a few friends went up to Normandy to check out the 30th anniversary of D-Day. This was the beginning of what will be, on June 6, 2014, a 40-year span of witnessing the reunion of this “band of brothers”; being privy to the memories and moments evoked in the minds of these American veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, as they return to a place where as young men they made history.
For all of the pomp and ceremony of the marquee VIP events, what spoke to Burnett—and kept him coming back decade after decade—was the utter normalcy of these men who temporarily set aside their normal lives back home to do something extraordinary:
“I was surprised to discover that when you peel away a little bit and start to look a little more deeply at the people who were involved, you realize that it wasn’t a special warrior class. It was all those kinds of people I grew up with—the guys at the hardware store, the family doctor, the guys who sold women’s clothing. There was a kind of normalcy on the one hand and something very special about what they had done there on the other, and it made hanging out with them all that much more interesting and enjoyable. They are a great bunch of guys.”
“In 1974, they were in their early 50s,” Burnett continues. “Each ten years, I would see some of the same people get a little older, more infirm, less able to get around. It personalized much of the war in a way that I had never [experienced] before.”
Burnett also photographed a few of the veterans at home in the States, deepening his connection to these men, and forging friendships. While he sometimes sees familiar faces each time he returns to France, he likens the experience to more of a melange of memories, similar to each other but not quite the same.
“I’ve been on trips as short as a couple of days. You don’t need more than that. You look out on that empty English Channel but you get on the bluff and can easily imagine what 1,000 ships would look like.”
“For me the best kind of event is to find a little French village,” Burnett explains, one which has gone all-out to welcome the veterans who have returned to relive moments from long ago. At the 70th anniversary this week, he hopes to find more of these moments, and expects to see an even smaller number of veterans, part of a generation that is slowly receding from our immediate consciousness.
“It is unlikely they will be around for the next 10 years. Fewer and fewer are able to make the trip. I want to be there for some of that. What these men did was great, and even if they don’t talk about it — as many of them were wont to do, for the majority of them it remains the most impressive moment of their lives.”
“It was the greatest landing ever made in the history of warfare and the world,” he continues. “They all kept moving forward, establishing that beachhead and holding on. I think that is what these guys came back and put into [America]. They were tested in battle and found that going into a sales meeting after that it was a piece of cake.”
You can see more of David Burnett’s work on his website.