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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

White crosses, sprawling horizon, sturdy shoes: Covering Biden’s D-Day visit to Normandy

President Biden is in France this week on an official state visit, joining over 20 world leaders in Paris and Normandy to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day. Here’s what the visit looks like from the news side.

POINTE DU HOC, France (CN) — The bus from Paris to Normandy left at 1:30 a.m. from a hotel in the 17th arrondissement of Paris, not far from the Arc de Triomphe. Journalists loaded gear into the bottom of the bus, most hard-shelled and still covered in luggage stickers. The bus ride was silent, and word on the street was that no one had slept.

President Joe Biden would be speaking at the Normandy American Cemetery almost 12 hours later to commemorate the 80th anniversary of D-Day. The cemetery overlooks Omaha Beach, the deadliest of the five landing sites.

This week’s state visit in France is the first of Biden’s presidency, and would highlight Franco-U.S. relations in the past to convey messages about a strong future. Later in the day, Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron would join over 20 global leaders at Omaha Beach. In short — a big deal.

The sunrise illuminated rolling fields, cows and stone cottages. We drove through narrow streets, arriving in a big parking lot around 5:30 a.m. “Bring sturdy shoes,” we were told beforehand, as we’d be walking through muddy terrain. We’d be accessing the cemetery from a special entrance — a gravelly, muddy road carving through trees glimmering in the sunlight. After a security check, the road opened onto the 9,400 white crosses that mark the graves of Americans who died in the Second World War.

A gravel pathway leading to the media entry of the American Cemetery in Normandy. (Lily Radziemski/Courthouse News)

The TV crew set up spots for standups, where news anchors would narrate the event against the backdrop of the cemetery. One anchor had hair rollers wrapped around her head, and eye masks on, while sitting in a production chair. Ironed suits were hung, due be changed into right before the live shots.

As print media, we don’t require as much setup — so we were told to go exploring before people would start to arrive, and movement between areas would become tighter. The space was empty except for us and the military.

The edge of the cemetery drops off to reveal Omaha Beach, a sprawling horizon on the English Channel. There was a warship anchored in the distance. I couldn’t help but imagine what the scene would have looked like 80 years ago, around that exact time. A few days earlier, I had interviewed an expert on the Second World War: Marc Gallicchio, a professor of history at Villanova University. He told me that one of the biggest wild cards of the invasion was the weather. It would have to be absolutely perfect to be successful, and the original invasion was supposed to happen a few days earlier.

“To go off of the chief meteorologist always cracks me up, because you think of how many times the weather service is wrong,” he said. “They had this 24-hour window in which to operate, and the Germans did not know that because the Americans and the British had driven the Germans basically out of the North Atlantic.”

A warship in the distance off of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. (Lily Radziemski/Courthouse News)

On Thursday, the sky was crystal clear, winds were calm and there was visibility across the entire coastline. It was hard to wrap my head around how a place so stunning was made famous by violence.

By 9 a.m., people started flooding into the ceremony and press got into position on the stands. The bleachers were fitted with dozens of electrical outlets and everyone was plugged in — writing, uploading, preparing. Press was split into different groups: White House Press Corps stage left, presidential pool on the right, and international media directly behind us. There was excitement in the air.

The stage setup at around 7 a.m. on June 6, 2024. (Lily Radziemski/Courthouse News)

At 11:30, veterans were brought onto the stage in a long procession. Most were over 100 years old. A big screen highlighted their reactions upon seeing the crowd; their eyes sparkled as they turned the corner and caught sight of the audience. People on the White House press team smiled and squealed in delight. Some of the veterans tried filming the crowd with their smartphones. They were almost all in wheelchairs.

Around 1:30 p.m., Biden and Macron — accompanied by their wives — arrived at the ceremony. Planes flew overhead. Both leaders spoke of unity, strength and paying homage to the veterans who fought in the Second World War. The press typed everything down at lightning speed, and took turns getting a good spot for photos. An airplane did a flyover that sent the ground shaking, shooting up into the sky.

Things moved quickly after the end of the ceremony.

“Who needs to file now? Follow me! Quick!” A group of us raced through the grounds to the press tent, trying to beat the crowds filing out. I kept my eye on a tall man in our group.

In the tent, everyone quickly hooked up cords and wires. The room was silent. TVs played the coverage but were muted. There were lunch boxes and beverages and everyone was encouraged to hydrate.

The cellular service in Normandy — a place known for vast farmlands and grazing livestock — is not the best. Just before filing my story, my camera had connection issues, and I couldn’t upload my pictures. I roamed the parking lot, holding my camera at different angles toward the sky, and finally got a signal. When I ran back to file, the Wi-Fi went out, leaving the press team with no service.

“I heard, I’m taking care of it now!” A man yelled after about one minute of the outage. It was fixed quickly.

Around 6:30 p.m., the press loaded back onto the buses bound for Paris. We couldn’t leave for about an hour — something about waiting for a president to clear the area, stated as casually as that. Once on the move, our bus was blocked on the highway. Huge swaths of the region had been completely shut down because of the events. We were missing a sticker and police escort that would let us pass. Groans ensued.

We arrived in Paris around 11:30 p.m. The bus to Normandy Friday left at 9:30 a.m. on another journey to cover the president’s visit, this time on the Pont du Hoc— and I couldn’t wait.

Follow @lilyradz
Categories / International, Media

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