Just over 75 years ago, the German occupiers of Paris relinquished control of the City of Lights to invading Allied forces there. At the time of its Aug. 25, 1944, liberation, the French capital had been under Nazi Germany control for just over four years.
American and French military units — including the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, the French 2nd Armored Division, and the French Forces of the Interior — made it possible to return control of the city to the French people. The effort helped restore national pride in France and enabled establishment of a provisional government by Gen. Charles de Gaulle.
During a commemoration event yesterday at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, Deputy Defense Secretary David L. Norquist paid tribute to veterans who participated in the Liberation of Paris.
"You embody the essence of what makes America great. This nation will never forget the world you helped make possible," Norquist told veterans at the event.
Norquist said there were many significant events in World War II, but the liberation of Paris was special.
"This wasn't just any city. This was Paris," Norquist said. "Few cities have the same cultural and historical significance. And the ability to free that city while preserving its beauty and history is one of the remarkable twists in our history.
"It is an epic story," he continued, "and one I remember being captivated by in high school. Hitler had given clear instructions to destroy the city. But thanks to the actions of the people we honor today, that city was freed, and his wishes were thwarted."
The deputy secretary thanked the veterans in attendance and all veterans for the freedom enjoyed by all Americans.
"Today and every day, we remember the incredible courage of all those that fought for freedom in World War II and all those who supported them back home," he said. "We thank them and their families for their sacrifice."
Earlier yesterday at the Pentagon, the Defense Department held its own commemoration of the liberation of Paris.
Kim Joiner, the deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for strategic engagement, introduced former Army Sgt. Herman Zeitchick, who participated in the liberation of Paris.
"Throughout your life, Mr. Zeitchik, you have led by example — whether it was leaving high school to join the war effort, storm the beaches of Normandy, or be one of the first soldiers marching into Paris," Joiner said.
Army Maj. Gen. William Walker, commander of the District of Columbia National Guard, said that Zeitchik, though his service, had undeniably fulfilled any obligation to his country that might be expected of him.
"When the high court of history sits in judgment of each of us, recording whether in our brief span of service we fulfilled our obligations to the state, the answer to that question is found in the responses to four questions," Walker said. "First, were we truly men of courage? Second, were we truly men of dedication? Third, were we truly men of wisdom? And fourth, were we truly men of judgment? Sergeant Zeitchik, you resoundingly, demonstratively, fulfilled your obligation to the state."
During a 2016 event at the Women in Military Service to America Memorial in the nation's capital, Zeitchik talked about his memory of the liberation. He had been 19 years old at the time, and was among the first troops to enter Paris.
"The French people woke up in the morning and found the American trucks sitting on a main thoroughfare, and there where we were," Zeitchik said. "They brought down whatever food, flowers [they had] and just wanted to do everything with us."
For his efforts in Paris, Zeitchik was made a Chevalier in the French Legion of Honor.
Zeitchik joined the Army before he had graduated from high school. He said he remembers when he first learned that he and other young men his age would be required to go into service.
"What happened was, we were playing stickball out on the street and one of the boys came over and told us that the Japanese just bombed Pearl Harbor," he said. "Roosevelt was president at the time. And he said everybody 18 and older had to register at the local post office. I went to the local post office with my dad, and they gave us a number. Sure enough, that number came up very quickly."
After training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, Zeitchik found himself in England for additional training. And then, he said, he found himself on a ship crossing the English Channel, headed for France. He and his unit would participate in the D-Day landing there.
"It so happens there were two points to going in, and ours happened to be Utah [Beach]. We landed there just as the light was starting to come in," he said. "I landed on Normandy on D-day, H-hour, ... I think they tell me that we lost 5,000 boys the first day."
Zeitchik said that although he missed his high school graduation as a result of being in the military, he does have a high school diploma now.
"Seventy years later, I got a call that the governor of New Jersey wanted me at the high school to present my high school diploma," he said. "I did go there — and it was wonderful."
World War II ended Sept. 2, 1945, with the signing of the Japanese instrument of surrender aboard the USS Missouri in Japan's Tokyo Bay. The 75th anniversary of that event, which DOD also will commemorate, is scheduled for Sept. 2, 2020.
Joiner said a primary goal of the World War II Commemoration Program is to draw attention to the significance of many of the key events of the war and to those who served in it.
"We hope to honor the past, and let veterans know that we are forever indebted to them for their selfless sacrifice," she said.