Lt. Tommy Barrella, of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, vividly remembers his trip to France with the Colorado Emerald Society Pipe Band in June, where the musicians helped mark 75 years since …
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Lt. Tommy Barrella, of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, vividly remembers his trip to France with the Colorado Emerald Society Pipe Band in June, where the musicians helped mark 75 years since the battle called D-Day began. There, the group of nearly 30 police and firefighters performed at more than a dozen remembrance ceremonies scheduled for the milestone anniversary.
As the band went from one event to the next, they saw local residents waving American flags in recognition of Americans’ role within the Allied troops before, during and after June 6, 1944, when soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II. By the battle’s end, an estimated 10,000 Allied troops were killed, wounded or missing.
Barrella, a base drummer in the band, was struck that decades later people from a different country took time to honor Allied soldiers. For others on the trip, it was a lesson in humility and respect for veterans. One thing they had in common — weeks later each were still beaming with pride and gratitude at having gone on what they called a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Mike West of Lone Tree is pipe major for the Colorado Emerald Society band. He recently closed 30 years with South Metro Fire Rescue and is now fire chief for Front Range Fire Rescue in Weld County.
West helped lead the trip, which included personnel from South Metro, the Castle Rock, Arvada and Adams County fire departments and the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. Band members left May 29 and returned home June 10, arriving first in Frankfurt, Germany before traveling throughout the region and ending in Paris.
“It was definitely not a tourist trip at all, which was fine. That’s not what we were there for,” said Castle Rock Fire Rescue Lt. Adam Gallegos, who plays bagpipes for the band and lives in Thornton. “We were up early every morning, we got home late.”
The band traveled to locations widely known, and those that aren’t.
That included the Brittany American Cemetery in St. James, France. World War II veterans told West they referred to Brittany as “the forgotten cemetery,” because most people visit Omaha Beach when in the area.
The 28-acre Brittany cemetery is where 4,405 war dead are laid to rest. Most died in the Normandy and Brittany campaigns of 1944, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission.
On June 7, the band traveled to Omaha Beach, and the following day played at Sainte-Mere-Eglise, where paratroopers unintentionally landed during D-Day. The local church is known for the story of paratrooper John Steele, made famous by the film “The Longest Day.”
Steele landed on the church steeple and became trapped there as other paratroopers were shot from the sky. Steele hung from the church for hours until German soldiers captured him. He later escaped and survived the war, according to The Airborne Museum in Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
Gallegos, West and Barrella all pointed to this stop as one of the most memorable moments of the trip. As the band played “Amazing Grace” during a performance, something unusual happened. The crowds, estimated in the thousands, began to sing with them.
“The people in the square were singing louder than we could play,” Gallegos said. “That gave me goosebumps.”
West said the trip was meaningful for everyone, but particularly those with a personal connection.
“A number of our band members had relatives that fought on D-Day as well as the other battles around that time in World War II,” he said. “Including one of my bass drummers from Adams County that actually found the grave of his father’s cousin.”
Most impactful for West was meeting veterans who fought during D-Day and hearing their firsthand accounts of the battle.
“What struck me about their stories was that most of them had volunteered to go to war at age 16, 17,” Gallegos said. “They had to beg their parents to sign off the military stuff and they actually had to get permission from the schools.”
All three men noted the beauty of the Normandy area. Omaha’s sandy beaches, rolling green hills and a resort-like town where children built sand castles by the ocean — a town that might have been a tourist destination were it not for the devastating history, Gallegos said.
Barrella imagined nurses in the middle of a war zone treating wounded, soldiers piling onto the shore from boats, no better than sitting ducks, the injured sinking to the ocean floor, soldiers trying to scale cliffs, and recalled peering at 75-year-old craters that remain on the beach from “the massive battle that went on.”
“You think about what took place there. It’s surreal. It really is,” West said.
West said the trip reminded him to fervently honor World War II and D-Day veterans, whose time on earth is dwindling.
“They’re passing on in such a huge number right now,” West said. “They’re that age.”
For Gallegos, the trip sparked a desire to keep on playing, and to keep honoring veterans’ sacrifices.
“I hope to still be playing by the 100th anniversary,” said the 38-year-old Gallegos. “I’d love to go back.”
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