POWDER SPRINGS — More than 100 musicians from a west Cobb high school will share their talents with the world in France this week, as they participate in ceremonies commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasions.
A large group from Hillgrove High School’s band and orchestra leaves Tuesday on multiple flights bound for France to commemorate the June 6, 1944, WWII operation, when Allied Forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, to capture territory held by German forces.
David Doke, the school’s fine arts department chair and orchestra director, said Hillgrove’s band will bring about 80 students, and the orchestra will include about 35.
Doke said the trip is two years in the making, and added that the high school’s orchestra will be the only orchestra performing during the weekend’s ceremonies. He said the trip costs about $3,500 per student, and band and orchestra members saved for more than a year, in some cases hosting fundraisers to be able to afford to attend.
The groups will perform for thousands of people from all over the world at ceremonies in multiple cities visited by various dignitaries and heads of state, including President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, Doke said.
“We’re playing in the cemetery, so figuring out what the music was going to be and figuring out what the program was going to be was a big part of our preparation,” he said.
Among the patriotic and solemn selections the high school musicians will perform is John Williams’ “Hymn to the Fallen,” which can be heard in the WWII film “Saving Private Ryan.”
Doke said the trip is an opportunity for students to absorb the gravity of the events and sacrifice of D-Day, a day that led to the death of thousands of American and Allied troops.
“The scope of what D-Day was, I think it’s hard for any of us to imagine today — it’s just a different time,” he said. “When you’re in Berlin and you see what the war was in Berlin or when you go to Normandy and see the beaches and see the cemeteries, it becomes a much more real thing.”
But what makes it even more powerful, according to Doke and head band director Patrick Erwin, is the inclusion of a very special guest. Victor Graham, a local WWII veteran who participated in the Normandy invasions, will accompany the school’s musicians on the trip.
Erwin said when he found out through a school employee and friend of Graham that the veteran lived in Marietta, Erwin was determined to bring him.
“It means everything” that Graham can join the students, he said.
“My first thought was, ‘We have got to find a way to bring him with us,’” Erwin said, adding that a nurse and two friends will accompany Graham. “We wouldn’t be standing here if it wasn’t for these guys who saved the world ... To be able to participate in that and to be able to give these kids a once-in-a-lifetime experience — it’s truly humbling.”
The trip will be an unmatched opportunity that will bond many of the students beyond high school, according to second chair violinist and rising senior Shannon Galloway.
“We’re getting invited to something that means a lot to a lot of people. And that means a lot to the school and to me as a part of the orchestra,” Galloway said. “I think any citizen of a nation that was a part of that day would feel the pride in being able to bring some light back to what was going on.”
The first two days of the week-long trip will be almost entirely consumed by travel on planes and buses, according to the itinerary. The groups leave the U.S. today, land in Paris on Wednesday morning, local time, and immediately board a bus bound for short visits to Utah and Omaha beaches, in Sainte-Marie-du-Mont and Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, respectively.
The musicians perform in memorial ceremonies at the Brittany American Cemetery in Normandy on Thursday, and in the Normandy American Cemetery at Omaha Beach on Friday. Saturday includes performances in a church and parade in St. Mère-Eglise.
Students will visit the Louvre museum, Eiffel Tower and other tourist destinations over the weekend before a final band performance in the square near the Eiffel Tower on June 10 and departure on June 11.