War hero’s daughter talks of D-Day memorial concert
Nothing could have prepared Judith Shellenberger for what she called “the concert of a lifetime.”
Last month, the local French horn player performed with a wind ensemble at a D-Day memorial concert in Normandy, France, honoring the pivotal World War II battle that took place on the beaches there between the Allied forces and the Nazi regime 70 years ago.
Shellenberger is the business manager of the Williamsport Repasz band and a former music instructor in the Williamsport Area School District.
Her father, Lyman Baker, landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, with the United States Army’s 1st Infantry Division. He survived the brutal mission, but rarely spoke about his experience.
“Walking on Omaha Beach, seeing the hills behind it, and being one of 100 musicians of the 70th Anniversary D-Day Memorial Band to honor my father gave me nonstop sensory and emotion impressions, a sense of connection to the past and gratitude for those who gave their ‘last full measure of devotion’ to America,” Shellenberger recently said.
The band’s conductor, Col. Arnald D. Gabriel, fought in the battle as well, as a combat machine gunner with the Army’s 29th Infantry Division. Then, he was a private. Now, he is a retired, decorated colonel and Conductor Emeritus of the United States Air Force Band.
“Col. Gabriel was treated like a rock star everywhere … and justifiably so,” Shellenberger said. “Everyone who participated felt like they were involved in something extremely important, historical, emotional and life-changing.”
Shellenberger said the day began at 4:45 a.m. when the band was loaded onto a bus to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer where a ceremony was held in the company of President Obama and the French President Francois Hollande among a crowd of 10,000.
“The day was warm and beautiful,” Shellenberger said. “Totally different from the cold day on June 6, 1944.”
She said President Obama personally thanked Col. Gabriel and several D-Day veterans that were invited to sit with him on the stage.
As those in attendance left the cemetery, Col. Gabriel conducted the United States Army Europe Band.
The wind band Shellenberger was in initially was scheduled to perform there, but President Obama had requested a military band a week and a half before the event, Shellenberger said.
“Instead, we were given individual engraved invitations to attend the ceremony and had a more meaningful opportunity to perform on the actual Omaha Beach in Saint Laurent-sur-Mer,” she said.
On Omaha Beach the band performed in front of hundreds of people near the older of two monuments that are erected there.
“Today, Omaha Beach looks like a typical beach, but there is so much more to it,” Shellenberger said. “It felt like we were standing on hallowed ground, knowing how many brave men were lost upon that very sand.
As I turned around and looked up the bluffs, I tried to imagine what the Allied soldiers felt, having landed there with all the guns firing down on them. I found a new respect for ‘The Greatest Generation.'”
Throughout the day, Shellenberger wore her father’s dog tags, his Bronze Star Medal and carried his Big Red 1 patch.
When an Army soldier from the 1st Infantry Division learned of her connection to Omaha Beach, he presented her the new 1st Infantry Combat Patch.
On the days leading up to the anniversary ceremonies, Shellenberger and her band toured Paris and performed a concert at the Town Hall of the city’s 15th district.
But Shellenberger said June 6 was the “most meaningful day of the trip.”
For its performance, the wind band received seven standing ovations.