COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France ?— The American Cemetery in Normandy lies on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, where so many died during the D-Day invasion of 1944.
Those soldiers, including 15 Utahns who are buried there, were honored Monday by a special program presented by Clog America, the Utah folk-dance troupe that was invited to appear at the cemetery as part of the group's 20th-anniversary tour to Europe.
Presented to throngs of American tourists and French visitors, the program included a message of greeting from Utah Gov. Gary R. Herbert, a letter of tribute from Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the spotlight of a Utahn paratrooper named Carl Yarrington who was killed on D-Day, three musical numbers and visits to the other Utah grave sites. The dancers placed Utah and U.S. flags, donated by Colonial Flag, on those graves.
"The place where you stand is truly hallowed ground," noted Hatch in his message, "paid for by those who sacrificed their lives to defend the unalienable rights endowed to us by our great creator. … I hold these soldiers in the highest regard, and each is worthy of our deepest respect and honor."
The Yarrington family, including that of Carl's brother George, who now lives in Texas, sent a special tribute to be placed at his grave, "which was very touching," said Clog America director Shawnda Bishop, who had tracked the family down and contacted them. "None of them has ever been able to visit here, so we felt we were representing them as well."
Herbert's message noted that the program "is a celebration of freedom and a symbol of American culture and identity." He also expressed the hope that "this remembrance should cause each person to reflect on the tremendous sacrifice made by thousands of military personnel and their families in one of our gravest efforts to preserve freedom."
For Clog America, it was a profound experience the young dancers will remember throughout their lives, Bishop said. "It kind of brings things full circle for us. In 2005, we represented all the American servicemen and women in Moscow at a special ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. Now, we were able to go to an American cemetery to honor our soldiers on the Fourth of July."
Clog America will be performing at a church in Versaille, then moving on to a festival in Saintes. They then travel to Biarritz, which has special significance for the group. "Biarritz was the site of the very first festival we ever attended," Bishop said.
The troupe will end its three-week tour with a festival in Portugal and performances in a church in Lisbon.
Every time the go on tour, they try to visit historic sites that are important to America, says Bishop. "We visited the American cemetery at Flanders Field in 1997, and it, too, was a profound experience. But it was one of our dancers who noted that we would be in Normandy on the Fourth of July and wondered if there would be any kind of memorial we could attend. I contacted the superintendent of the cemetery, and he extended an invitation for us to present a memorial service. So many little things fell into place to make this happen, and that makes it extra special."
Three of the Utahns honored at the cemetery are listed as missing in action. Those names are inscribed on a wall in the Garden of the Missing at the cemetery.
Before they left Utah, Bishop had each one of her dancers do some research — "adopt a soldier, if you will" — on the Utahns buried in Normandy. "It has really given them an appreciation for what happened here and the sacrifice these soldiers made. This experience is one they will share with their own children one day, and all that has gone on here will not be forgotten."
The visit to the cemetery adds a special significance to their tour, Bishop said. "We leave here and go on to the festivals, where we are building bridges of peace."