June 6, 2019, marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day invasion in Normandy that began the liberation of France from the Nazis in World War II, and the Mountain Brook High School Band was there to celebrate. The students donned their green and gold uniforms to play patriotic tunes and more at commemorative events at two of the cemeteries adjacent to beaches that were invaded that fateful day as well Sainte-Mère-Église, the first town liberated by the American airborne. To learn more about the trip we chatted with students Laurel Bradley and Henry Pelham as well as band director Jason Smith, who led the trip with assistant and associate band directors James Rogers and Michelle Beck.
What music did you play during the commemorative D-Day events?
Jason: For the cemetery productions there was a mass band performance with a special arrangement John Williams had put together rearranged from “Hymn to the Fallen” from Saving Private Ryan. For the parade and in the town square we performed some American patriotic tunes, some tunes that were reminiscent of America like jazz and some music that connected us with the folks in France, a little bit of Les Misérables and An American in Paris. For our parade tune we did a patriotic spectacular.
What stands out most from the trip?
Laurel: To me the most incredible thing was when we went to the Omaha Cemetery and got to hear veterans speak and to play with bands from all around the world. Afterward we got to look around the cemetery and see the beach. It was a broody day, so it was very reminiscent of the day of the invasion. It was somber, and we felt very prideful in what we were doing and what everyone did 75 years ago.
Henry: I loved hearing the veterans talk about their experiences, and I loved the concert at Sainte-Mère-Église because my grandfather landed there. They had a picture in the chapel of everyone who landed there, and we were able to pick him out. When you think of a rural town in France, I think of Sainte-Mère-Église because it’s picture perfect. It was like a fairy tale.
Laurel: It was like a town frozen in time. Not much has changed. It’s incredible.
Jason: There the townspeople were all dressed up in American period dress. All the cafes were playing American jazz from that time. And everyone said hello to you and thank you. The windows were painted with American flags and British flags and Canadian flags, and the stained glass has the images of Americans who helped that little town.
How did being there bring to life these historical events?
Laurel: One of the veterans made me realize they really were kids like us when this happened. They were writing letters home and sharing jokes and took the action in order to protect us.
Henry: You don’t really imagine people with lives, you just imagine bodies running at a defense. With the stories you got a feel for what it must have been like and what their parents felt.
Jason: We were experiencing even just a little warmer weather than what the invasion army felt. The highs were in the mid-50s, and it was very wet and cloudy. If you were a kid storming that beach, that water was cold, and the rain was colder, and the wind was wicked. I can’t imagine how uncomfortable it had to be for those kids.
What was it like to see the beaches and cemeteries?
Jason: It takes your breath away standing in front of that many white crosses in rows upon rows. You can’t stand in one place and see all of it. And that’s just at one beach.
Laurel: We found one cross from Alabama: Daniel Jones. We got to read his birth date and where he came from.
Henry: At the beach I was astounded by the size of the craters that were left by the battleships. They were like 30 feet wide and 20 feet deep. I would have been terrified if I were trying to protect that.
Jason: The cliffs are 30 feet high, and you realize what these kids had to do to get up that hill.
Did you perform anywhere outside of Normandy?
Jason: We travelled to Paris for three days and performed patriot music in Luxembourg Gardens in honor of the 75th. When we took the stage the crowd swelled from 100 people to 400 or 500 people. All the little kids came up to the stage too. Everyone was appreciative of us.