Eugene Levine once thought of his experience in Normandy as a part of the distant past. Then, 10 years ago, the Montpelier Cultural Arts Center contacted him in its effort to get pictures of local veterans to include in an exhibition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion.
It was that request that encouraged Levine to begin speaking about his part in the historic June 6, 1944, D-Day battle, which is often cited as the point when the Allies gained the upper hand and the liberation of Western Europe began. Levine went to France with his wife for the 50th anniversary of D-Day to receive a medal for his role in the invasion. Suddenly, the Potomac resident, who worked as a combat weather observer in the war, wanted to share his experiences.
Levine, 79, and others provided written narratives of their experiences for inclusion in the Laurel arts center's "60th Anniversary of the Normandy Invasion," an exhibition that runs through Aug. 21. The opening reception will be tomorrow; a gallery talk featuring some of the featured veterans is scheduled for July 14.
Spread out through three galleries are black and white portraits of soldiers in uniform taken within three years of the 1944 invasion, as well as battle photographs provided by the National Archives. The large exhibition is similar to the one 10 years ago, but this time, in addition to the photographs, the display includes new portraits, models of tanks and battle flags used during the invasion.
"It's amazing how many people's lives in this country were touched by that one day," said Richard Zandler, curator for the show and director of Montpelier Cultural Arts Center.
Zandler said that 10 years ago, when Washington veterans who participated in the Normandy campaign came to drop off their photographs, a number of them began to talk about their experiences.
"Most of them had never spoken about their experiences at all. It was 50 years before they could actually talk about it, because, for many of them, the experiences were horrific," he said.
Because the process of gathering the photographs was an emotional one for the veterans, Zandler encouraged them to write personal histories. After the exhibition 10 years ago was well received, Zandler planned the 60th anniversary show before he knew it would coincide with the opening of the National World War II Memorial in Washington.
Ten years ago, Cheverly resident Gerard LaRoche wore his old Army uniform to the gallery talk, where he spoke about being a French translator in the war. Now 84 years old, he can still fit into the uniform he wore 60 years ago.
LaRoche said he does not have trouble talking about Normandy: "We were fighting for a cause. We had been attacked, and we just were glad to do our share to straighten things out."
Ten years ago, LaRoche shared memories with others who had more dangerous roles in the invasion. "I spoke with two other people who were real heroes, people who had landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day itself and managed to live to tell the tale," he said. "I was not even scratched, although I was bombed and shot at," he said.
Not all of the soldiers whose young faces are pictured on the gallery walls survived the battle.
The exhibition includes photographs of pre-invasion Allied and German armadas, amphibious landings, airborne assault troops, French civilians and German prisoners, and prints of the inland battle. Glider planes, like the one on which Levine rode into Normandy, also are seen in the photographs.
"Being only 19 years of age, you think you're immortal," Levine said. "A lot of veterans had sad experiences. They had seen a lot of killed or wounded. There weren't too many casualties in my unit. We weren't front-line combat, but were pretty close to the front lines. We were just lucky, I guess."
Levine said it is important to remember World War II in particular because it stands out in history as a unique event. "I think World War II was very different from wars that followed it," he said. "For one thing, we were attacked. We were defending ourselves, which was different from Korean War, Vietnam War and what's going on today."
An opening reception for "Normandy Portraits: 60th Anniversary of the Normandy Invasion" will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday. A luncheon and gallery talk will take place from noon to 2 p.m. July 14; registration is required. The show runs through Aug. 21 daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the gallery. All events are free and take place at the Montpelier Cultural Arts Center, 12826 Laurel-Bowie Rd., Laurel. 301-953-1993.