June 6, 2019, marked 75 years since the D-Day invasion in 1944 that would culminate with the end of World War II in Europe on V-E Day, May 8, 1945.
As part of the 75th anniversary celebration, members of the University of Texas alumni band flew to Europe to perform in concerts and in parades in the area around Normandy. Among the band members making the trip were Judge Betsy Lambeth, of the 425th Judicial District Court; Judge Lee Hamilton, of the 104th District Court; and Judge Charles Stephens, of Comal County Court at Law No. 2.
Plans for the alumni band to perform during the D-Day anniversary were set in place in the summer of 2017, and a committee was formed to take care of the logistics. The 295 members of the band and their family members (bringing the number to over 500) began placing their payments for flights and hotels about 18 months before the event and purchasing their uniforms, which included a Stetson hat and raincoat with a special badge commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
A professional shipping company for many top artists was in charge of transporting the band’s instruments. Lambeth said efforts were made to ship Big Bertha, the massive booming UT drum, but worries about expenses and the drum’s safety prevented that from happening.
Two special instruments did make the trip with the band, one being the trumpet of a solider who would play “Taps” at military funerals and had been wounded on the beaches of Normandy. The second was a baritone that had been with a soldier while serving in World War II. The veteran had intended to make the trip back to Normandy to play with the band but unfortunately passed away prior.
Prior to the trip, Lambeth and a group of her travel partners decided to bone up on the history of Normandy, including reading a number of novels, watching the critically acclaimed HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and Churchill and visiting the Normandy Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana. Lambeth arrived early in Europe and visited Dachau to pay her respects.
Lambeth traveled to Arromanches-les-Bains in France, which was the main landing site for the tanks and other equipment used by the combined Allied forces. The makeshift piers constructed by the landing forces were still visible from the beach, and she said she was amazed to think that 75 years ago the waters off the coast had been filled with equipment.
The first performance of the trip was at Brittany American Cemetery outside of Saint-James and a second performance was at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. At the conclusion of that performance, the band members gathered on the stage to sing the “Eyes of Texas” before paying respects to the soldiers interred there and placing Texas flags on the graves of the fallen from Texas.
The most moving performance, Lambeth said, was as part of a parade in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise—the first village liberated by the U.S. Army. The band performed through tight streets packed with over 200,000 people in the town of normally just over 3,000, according to Lambeth. At the end of the parade route, the band performed an impromptu concert at the front of the church spire where U.S. Army paratrooper Pvt. John Steele had found himself stuck during the invasion.
Lambeth said the French people were extremely welcoming, and at each of their performances, the people said they wanted to be there to honor America and the soldiers and what they did for France.