History through the lens: AEDC Photographer Keith Thornburgh travels to France for 80th anniversary of D-Day

  • Published
  • By Kali Bradford
  • AEDC Public Affairs

On June 6, 1944, more than 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops stormed 50 miles of Normandy’s beaches in Northen France that were fiercely defended by German soldiers.

Code named Operation Overlord, but also known as D-Day, this operation would prove to be a critical turning point in World War II and what many historians referred to as the event that began the end of the war. This year marks 80 years since the Allied invasion that is remembered as one of the largest naval, air and land operations in history.

Keith Thornburgh, photographer at Arnold Air Force Base, headquarters of Arnold Engineering Development Complex, recently made the trek across the Atlantic to Normandy, France, where he took part in the 80th anniversary of D-Day. Thornburgh’s trip was in an official capacity as he and one other were representing the 982nd Combat Camera Company (Airborne) in the Army Reserves. Serving as Squad Leader and Visual Information Specialist, his assignment was to “visually document, through photography, the 80th anniversary of D-Day,” according to Thornburgh.

During his time in France, he stayed a fortnight in Saint-Mere-Eglise, a small town with its own place in WWII history as it was the first French town liberated by the Allies during the Normandy invasion of WWII.

While there in support of an official mission, Thornburgh said he was moved personally by the sites and history that he encountered during his stay.

“Stepping foot on the beaches where thousands of men had so swiftly lost their lives 80 years ago was something I will never forget,” he explained. “Seeing the towns where battles took place with bullets lodged in steel fences from those battles was amazing. I walked the paths and stood in the trenches and tree lines where important skirmishes took place, including the Brécourt Manor Assault. I toured German bunkers that remain to this day as a reminder of the adversary we overcame. I had the honor of meeting WWII veterans, some of whom were among those who stormed the beaches on D-Day.”

He added that he was also moved by the locals’ observation of the D-Day anniversary.

“For us in America, it’s a day of remembrance; in Normandy it’s a weeklong holiday,” Thornburgh explained. “While those were all powerful and moving moments to step foot where these men once fought, today’s Normandy was just as moving. Everywhere you went there were American flags, both 48- and 50-star versions. There were stores completely dedicated to the American war effort to liberate France. French locals, both adults and kids, wanted to shake our hands and take photos with us. Their dedication was unmatched to anything I had ever seen in my life.”

Thornburgh also had the unique opportunity to participate in an Airbourne jump on June 9, 2024. Among 1,000 other paratroopers from different countries taking part in the jump, he said the jump was both a thrilling and “heart-warming experience.”

“This was only my third time jumping since I graduated Airborne school, and it was massive,” he said. “I jumped with the Belgians, and when I got to the ground the sky was nearly blacked out with parachutes from all the jumpers. After we had packed up and were walking to the drop-off point, we passed by thousands of spectators cheering us on. They saw us as a type of celebrity. Kids were holding out hands for high-fives and asking us to sign things. It was a heart-warming experience.”

Now back in the states, he said he is grateful to have the opportunity to capture the events of the historic anniversary. He hopes that those who view his work will also come away with an appreciation of this moment in history.

“I’m modest when it comes to my photography,” said Thornburgh. “All I hope is that people enjoy my photos and use them to tell a story. I took so many photos of the WWII veterans who were there. These men are the true heroes to which we literally owe the world.  So, while social media may glamorize actors and artists, I instead revere these men and hope my photos live on in their memory when they are gone.”