Georgia veteran Andy Negra fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was the honored guest at the recent reception at the Metro Atlanta Chamber. He is set to return to Normandy with the Best Defense Foundation on a Delta chartered jet supported by Michelin. Photo: Best Defense Foundation

Delta Air Lines Inc. for the second straight year will fly American World War II veterans back to the beaches of Normandy, where they will receive a hero’s welcome from the French region they liberated nearly eight decades ago. 

The Atlanta-based airline is chartering a jet to carry the few living veterans from the pivotal D-Day landing back to the place where they turned the war’s tide through a bloody amphibious assault that displaced occupying German forces. 

The only other Boeing 767 jet to be chartered into the Deauville airport is the one Delta landed last year. 

This year’s plan is for the veterans, some of them centenarians and others now in their late 90s, to spend June 6 in France marking the 79th anniversary of D-Day. Some of them will be returning for the first and only time since the war. 

The flight is a repeat from last year’s inaugural battlefield return visit to Normandy, where 30 veterans paid emotional respects to fallen comrades at the American cemetery and participated in a parade where Normandy residents heaped praise on them. 

Last year’s trip was captured in a tear-jerker of a video (see it embedded below) played at a reception hosted April 18 by the Metro Atlanta Chamber to outline plans for this year’s flight.

Anne-Laure Desjonquères, the French consul general in Atlanta, said at the event that the trip dovetails with the consulate’s recent work honoring veterans across the Southeast who served in France with the country’s Legion of Honor distinction. 

The task has taken on some urgency in recent years as the number of veterans continues to dwindle. 

French Consul General Anne-Laure Desjonquères addresses the audience.

“I must say, it’s always a great emotional moment for me to meet with the great men who risked their life to give my country its freedom and to hear the recollections of those terrible times,” Ms. Desjonquères said. 

She added that George Sarros, the 97-year-old veteran in North Carolina to whom Ms. Desjonqueres presented the Legion of Honor last year, will join this year’s flight to Normandy.  

“We are now decades away from World War II, and yet we still pay homage to you, veterans, to the legacy of your courage and your fight for freedom in a time of darkness and despicable ideology that came to power in Europe,” the consul general told the crowd at the chamber. “Tonight, we remember that the French-American friendship is bound in blood and that our two countries owe each other the very existence as free nations and share the most important values of freedom and democracy.”

Metro Atlanta Chamber President Katie Kirkpatrick said that U.S.-France partnership with is built on much more than the economic engagements that the chamber helps foster — it’s underpinned by “shared history,” she said. 

“This is especially personal to me and my family, because my grandfather was one of so many American soldiers who landed on D-Day on Omaha. He was shot on three separate occasions, captured as a prisoner of war, lost his arm and ended up in a Russian camp. He survived so many close calls that they called him a cat with nine lives,” Ms. Kirkpatrick said. 

She added that it was an “easy yes” when the chamber was asked to host the reception to launch the second year of partnership between Delta, France-based tire and mobility giant Michelin and the Best Defense Foundation, a nonprofit founded by former NFL linebacker Donnie Edwards. Best Defense helps return veterans to the sites where they fought, educates children on the sacrifices made for their freedom and helps special forces members transition back into civilian life. 

Delta officials announced the return mission in the presence of “honored guest” Andy Negra, a Georgia veteran who plans to make the trip this year. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and crossed into enemy territory to free allied prisoners of war. Mr. Negra attended the event with his daughter, Mary.

Delta Senior Vice President Bob Somers said that the airline was honored to make Mr. Negra’s return to France possible, aligning with its broader mission of connecting the world. He praised the Delta Veterans Business Resource Group, a group of veteran employees that volunteered to accompany the older World War II veterans throughout the trip last year. 

“I’m a 39-year veteran of Delta Airlines. And days like today, initiatives like this, make me very, very proud,” Mr. Somers said. 

He said the passion of Virginie Durr, a Delta enterprise corporate sales manager and Normandy native, was key in shepherding the initiative. Ms. Durr is also a member of the French Foreign Trade Advisors for the Southeast, a private-sector group that offers counsel to the French government on commercial engagement.

Virginie Durr’s passion was cited as a driving force for the partnership. Here, she is pictured between Best Defense Foundation Founder Donnie Edwards, left, and Michelin VP of Public Affairs David Chapman.

Ms. Durr handles Delta’s partnership with Michelin, which sent David Chapman, vice president of public affairs, to outline the reasons behind its financial support of the initiative. 

Before joining Michelin, which has a large factory in South Carolina, Mr. Chapman spent 30 years in the U.S. Army, retiring with the rank of colonel. As defense attache for the U.S. in Paris, Mr. Chapman was featured in the documentary called “The Girl Who Wore Freedom,” itself devoted to sharing the untold D-Day stories of those who lived through the horrors of war in Normandy. 

Michelin backs the initiative because it’s “simply the right thing to do,” Mr. Chapman said. 

“At Michelin we strongly believe in a world of sustainable mobility, much like Delta. We have a responsibility to connect the world — only we generally do it on the ground. Without Delta we’d have a hard time getting our veterans back to Normandy.”

He added that Michelin played a little-known role in the liberation of France in 1944, helping overcome navigational challenges that had compounded during four years of German occupation.

“There were virtually no street signs, there were no road signs. There are no existing pathways; accurate on-the-ground intelligence was very hard to come by. However, there was one document that could fill this gap and play a pivotal role in the invasion: It was the 1939 Michelin Guide.”

The U.S. War Department (the precursor of the Department of Defense) printed 400,000 copies of the guide, providing them to the liberating force. 

“As such, the allied effort was guided by our trusted and ubiquitous Michelin, which today still brings its users to the best restaurants and hotels around the world,” Mr. Chapman said. 

Mr. Edwards, the Best Defense Foundation founder, said the Normandy battlefield return trip is a testament to the “power of partnership” and to the commitment by the companies to “take care of those who took care of us” — the foundation’s mission. 

“As time is ticking away and some of the youngest veterans are 96 years old, it’s important to provide this opportunity for closure, camaraderie and brotherhood to as many as are still able today.

The foundation has led many trips since its 2006 founding, taking hundreds of veterans back to the places they served. 

“It’s our duty to provide them with the opportunity to return back to the battlefields one last time,” Mr. Edwards said. “It’s important that they share their story and the stories of the comrades who cannot speak anymore.”

See the video for the June 2023 Battlefield Return trip below: 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...