A solemn song on Omaha Beach
Three Fredericksburg residents and University of Texas Alumni Band members were honored to be a part of this year’s 75th anniversary of D-Day events in Normandy, France.
Each year, the nonprofit Historic Programs organizes a D-Day Memorial Parade and Musical Salute in Normandy.
The University of Texas Longhorn Alumni Band was a part of this year’s anniversary of D-Day events.
The process began three years ago with selection and organization of the trip by the UT Longhorn Alumni Band (LHAB). The University of Texas Alumni Band is made up of more than 4,000 band members spanning across several generations and living across the U.S. and in other countries.
The trip was from June 4- 11. Almost 400 alumni bandsmen (with a few current Longhorn bandsmen included) made the trip, accompanied by 150 family and friends.
Judy Oehler McGookey, a physical therapist and member of the flag section and her husband, Dan McGookey, a hospice minister and member of the trombone section, and myself, a retired school teacher and administrator, now a rancher, and member of the flag section, were three alumni band members from Fredericksburg who participated.
Upon arrival, the bands were transported to Arromanches to visit the D-Day 360 Museum and film “in the round.” All buses then went to the Amiraute Hotel in Deauville for the only rehearsal with all participants.
Two rehearsals had been held in Austin prior to the trip, but were limited to those living in the Austin vicinity.
The band then was dispersed to six towns on nine buses in the Normandy area as there were not enough hotels to accommodate the large numbers.
The LHAB was the host band for each ceremony and performed the national anthems of France and the United States during each ceremony. Surviving D-Day veterans shared their emotional recollections about preparations for and the invasion on D-Day.
A Longhorn Alumni band member Kenny Bierschenk played “Taps” during each ceremony on the trumpet that had actually been carried onto the beach on D-Day.
LHAB also performed “Hymn to the Fallen” and “The Longest Day” during the ceremonies.
Other participants in the tour included a bagpipe and drum corp from the New York City Police Department.
The LHAB was flanked by numerous high school bands from around the U.S., which performed at other sites during the week.
The first performance and ceremony was at the American Cemetery at Brittany on June 6. The band then transferred to Mont St. Michel to tour this one-of-a-kind medieval town and fortress abbey.
On June 7, the band performed at the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach and then visited the gravesites, placing Texas flags at all Texans’ gravesites. Included was the grave of the only known Gillespie County soldier to be buried in an American Cemetery in Normandy.
The buses then transferred the group to Omaha Beach where Bierschenk played “Taps” on the beach where its owner Sgt. Richard Wank had lain on top of the trumpet for two days following the landing until he received medical attention from American medics. (Also, Kenny’s sister, Sheila Kraus, is a Fredericksburg resident.)
The alumni band came upon the instrument by chance when another member brought his trumpet to be repaired at a shop in Dallas. The repairman learned about his upcoming trip and told him about another customer, Jeff Wank, who had brought in a trumpet that belonged to his grandfather, who fought on D-Day.
The two connected, and Wank agreed to lend his grandfather’s trumpet to the alumni band. Wank and a cousin traveled with the LHAB to France for the anniversary.
Band members and travel groups were to have also visited Pointe du Hoc, but the President of France closed Pointe du Hoc due to safety issues. The walkways were too slippery due to weather and stormy sea. The reenactors of the climb up the cliffs could not get footholds and had to pull themselves up the ropes using only their arms in the morning reenactment.
The band visited Utah Beach on June 8 and was provided a police escort to St. Mere Eglise for the D-Day Memorial Parade. Due to the 75th anniversary of D-Day, traffic was almost a standstill on the narrow country roads.
The celebration of the Musical Salute to Liberation at St. Mere Eglise was a joyous and exciting experience.
Following the parade, the band was transferred to Paris. June 9 was for rest and selftouring in the morning, followed by a bus tour of Paris in the afternoon.
The tour included a drive past Notre Dame, Champs Elysees, the Opera House and stops at the Arche de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. The band was then treated to a visit to Montmartre and its observation deck to view all of Paris.
Following dinner, an evening cruise on the River Seine was enjoyed by members of Myra Klinksiek’s bus group. The bus driver arranged the tour which was a gift from one of the LHAB members on the bus.
That evening, the Paris police informed band members that their planned performance at Luxembourg Gardens below the Eiffel Tower for the next day would have to be moved due to security concerns. It seems that someone chose to free-climb the Eiffel Tower that day and they needed to increase their police presence at the Eiffel Tower.
Following breakfast on June 10, band members were treated to a brief visit to the Louvre Museum. They then were taken to the Jardin d’Acclimatation where the band paraded through the park and performed marches and Texas-style music in addition to music performed at ceremonies earlier in the week in front of the Foundation Louis Vuitton.
Located next to the park, the foundation which was inaugurated in 2014 is dedicated to contemporary art and has a permanent exhibition and other exhibitions renewed every six months.
A farewell dinner was enjoyed at various locations around Paris.
Band members dispersed back to the States or to other locations around Europe on June 11. The Fredericksburg travelers arrived back in Fredericksburg in the wee hours of June 12.