Seventy five years after General Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for Louis Graziano and some 156,000 fellow Allied troops to storm the beaches of Normandy, France, the D-Day veteran will be a guest in Eisenhower’s hometown of Abilene.
Graziano, who turned 96 in February, has been invited to talk about his World War II experience, which started when the New York native entered the Army as a 19 year old in January 1943. He was in the third wave to hit Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, in the surprise attack orchestrated by Eisenhower, then supreme commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces, on German-occupied France that set the stage for Europe’s liberation.
Graziano was invited by the Eisenhower Foundation and the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home in Abilene, 90 miles north of Wichita, which is organizing a D-Day 75th Anniversary Commemorative Week June 1 through 6.
The commemorative events begin with a full day of free activities on Saturday, June 1 and wrap up with a day of events on Thursday, June 6 highlighted by a remembrance ceremony. For the ceremony, officials said they expect to have a group of at least 55 WWII veterans and another 10 Rosies, the term given to the 6 million women who entered the workforce during the war.
With the youngest WWII veterans now in their 90s, this could be the last major milestone D-Day anniversary with living WWII veterans.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics estimated 496,777 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were alive in 2018.
“Which is why we are incredibly honored to have so many choosing to be with us that day,” said Dawn Hammatt, director of the Eisenhower Presidential Library. “The significance of sharing this event with World War II veterans is two-fold. Personally, the opportunity to thank a veteran for their service is invaluable. Eisenhower dedicated this museum to pay tribute to the World War II veterans. It is meaningful to continue his legacy of honoring the service men and women for their devotion to duty. We are humbled to be able to carry this message forward on his behalf.”
The Eisenhower Foundation formed in 1945 to create a tribute to the nation’s first five-star general and, at Ike’s urging, all WWII veterans. His boyhood home opened to the public in 1947 and the museum in 1954 on the first occasion of Veterans Day. After he served as president from 1953-1961, the Eisenhower Presidential Library opened in 1962 and the museum’s scope shifted, though a significant portion of the exhibit space remains focused on WWII and D-Day.
The 22-acre campus now includes the Presidential Library, Presidential Museum, family home, visitors center and Place of Meditation, where Ike and wife Mamie are buried. The museum closed 12 months ago for an extensive redesign to its 25,000-square-foot interior space. It was planned to reopen in conjunction with the 75th D-Day commemoration, but the federal government shutdown earlier this year pushed back completion to the end of July.
Despite that delay, Hammatt said she still expects attendance to top the record-high 6,000 who attended last year’s Symphony at Sunset annual concert. Not only are activities added during milestone anniversary years, she said, many people realize opportunities to see and hear from WWII veterans are dwindling.
“We’re opening at noon on Saturday to give our guests time to do everything they want to do,” she said.
Saturday’s schedule includes outdoor activities from noon to 5 p.m. There will be military re-enactors and equipment, children’s activities, educational programs, demonstrations, flyovers and a pop-up museum that invites the public to bring World War II artifacts and memorabilia to share with visitors. Remember, weapons are not permitted on federal property.
Graziano, who went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge and serve on Eisenhower’s staff at Reims, France, when Germany surrendered, speaks from 3:30-4:30 p.m. in the visitors center auditorium. The library is open to tour until 4:30 p.m. and since the museum is closed, this is the only place to see an exhibit: “The Eisenhower Story.”
Outdoor music is scheduled from 5:30 to 10 p.m. and the Salina Symphony with guest vocalist Vanessa Thomas plays patriotic favorites and big band classics starting at 8:30 p.m. There is no charge for entry to any of the day’s events, though donations are accepted to help fund the concert for future years.
Visitors are encouraged to bring lawn chairs, blankets, sunscreen and bug spray. There is limited seating and shade available. Food and beverage vendors will be available throughout the day.
On June 6, the remembrance ceremony starts at 9:30 a.m. near the campus’ outdoor statue of Eisenhower. It is followed immediately by a “Thank a Veteran” reception. Visit EisenhowerFoundation.net for the full daily schedule.
Know a WWII veteran?
If you are a WWII veteran or you know one, it’s not too late to sign up to participate in any of the D-Day 75th Anniversary Commemorative Week activities June 1 through 6 in Abilene. Call 785-263-6771 for information.