Participants in a 68th D-Day commemoration ceremony in Normandy, France prepare this week for the event. Two local men, Sgt. William Stalnaker and Spc. Michael Whisenant, took part.
NORMANDY, FRANCE -- On June 6, 1944, more than 160,000 allied troops arrived along a 50-mile coastline to fight Nazi Germany. The attack involved more than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft in what would be known as the D-Day invasion.
Sixty-eight years later to the day, two Gwinnett County residents and military men are standing on those same beaches, where more than 9,000 soldiers arrived and lost their lives as they made their way across Europe.
Sgt. William Stalnaker and Spc. Michael Whisenant spoke on the phone from Normandy Wednesday following a commemoration ceremony they and an elite group of about 300 others from around the country were invited to attend.
The soldiers participated in an airborne operation at St. Mere Eglise, representing the United States at numerous ceremonies this week and attending historical lectures at some of the most significant military sites of the 20th century.
Both soldiers said they were honored to be selected.
"When I first heard that I was invited I was in disbelief," said Whisenant, 27, a Norcross resident and military reservist. "Once I realized they really wanted me here, I was like, 'Wow.' What a great opportunity."
Whisenant, a jumper in the Air Normandy Drop, joined others as they flew in from the northern tip of Normandy and jumped out of planes as part of the ceremony.
A fellow jumper and Gwinnett County resident, Stalnaker, 49, said "civilians were there to help us up on the DZ (drop zone). They were cheering us on. It was wonderful to see so much excitement."
A veteran of the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan, Stalnaker is a resident of Lawrenceville and a military reservist.
He said the ceremonies in France have been "very much a celebration."
"Over here, a world away, in Europe and particularly in France the people are grateful for the sacrifices that were made," Stalnaker said. "They are so appreciative of what the guys did for them and the freedom."
Stalnaker added that he's enjoyed meeting some of the D-Day survivors in their 80s and 90s who were able to participate.
Getting to meet such men, Whisenant said, was "a truly humbling experience."
"You see the movies about these guys, these warriors and heroes, but I got to actually shake their hands and hear their stories," Whisenant said. "It's great to be around them and to learn from them."
Whisenant said he also has enjoyed meeting the locals.
"They're so friendly here," he said. "They invite you over for dinner, and they smile when they see you."
Stalnaker said the French people have indeed been welcoming. "Their appreciation is very high for us as well as our allies," he said. "This is their fourth of July."