In 1942, as World War II raged across the globe, a Navy destroyer christened with the moniker the U.S.S. Herndon departed from Norfolk and charted a course for the embattled waters of Europe.
77 years later, 147 high school students from the Town of Herndon crossed the Atlantic Ocean by air and set foot on the same beach that the U.S.S. Herndon attacked more than half a century earlier as part of the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France now known as D-Day.
The Pride of Herndon journeyed to Normandy on June 4 under decidedly peaceful circumstances as one of nine high school bands selected to represent the U.S. and perform in a memorial parade and public ceremonies celebrating the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Historic Programs, a nonprofit that organizes commemorative events at historic locations around the world, extended an invitation for the 2019 D-Day Memorial Parade and Musical Salute to the Veterans to Herndon High School’s band after the group won grand champion for performing at the Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade in Hawaii in 2013.
The school began preparing for the week-long trip more than a year ago, hosting fundraisers to ensure all students would be able to travel and conducting research into the history of D-Day and the U.S.S. Herndon.
All that planning, however, still could not fully fortify the students and their adult chaperones for the intensity and emotion of participating in the actual anniversary ceremonies.
“It was a very emotional experience, but it was a very educational experience as well,” trombone player Noelle Carter, who just finished her sophomore year at Herndon, said. “Just to be able to meet all these people in the one week that we were there, it was just extraordinary, and I would definitely do this again if we had another opportunity to do it.”
Organized by Historic Programs, the History Channel, and other official partners, the D-Day 75 Memorial Parade and Musical Salute kicked off with an official ceremony at Brittany American Cemetery in Saint-James, France, to mark the June 6, 1944 landing of Allied troops at Omaha Beach.
A second official public ceremony took place on June 7 at the Normandy American Cemetery, which contains the graves of more than 9,380 service members and walls inscribed with the names of 1,557 people who went missing.
The proceedings then moved west on June 8 for an annual memorial parade hosted by Sainte-Mère-Église, the first French village liberated by American paratroopers, according to the D-Day Memorial Parade and Musical Salute to the Veterans event organizers.
The Pride of Herndon’s visit to Sainte-Mère-Église concluded with an American Musical Salute to Liberation, a concert performed in the town square by all of the invited school and community bands.
Joined by about 900 other musicians from across the U.S., including eight other high schools and the University of Texas Longhorn Band, the Herndon band performed patriotic tunes along with a medley of the U.S. Armed Forces songs.
During the ceremony at Normandy American Cemetery, the bands played “Hymn to the Fallen,” composer John Williams’ theme for the movie Saving Private Ryan, while attending veterans lay wreaths on tombstones.
The Pride of Herndon differentiated itself from the other bands by playing French music as well as American songs. Herndon High School band director Kathleen Jacoby recalls being especially moved by the response from local residents to a rendition of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.”
“I turned around, and there were grown men and women crying, handkerchiefs out and Kleenexes,” Jacoby said. “That was really meaningful to me. It was our way of saying thank you to them and not just the other way around.”
In addition to playing music, the Pride of Herndon used the Normandy trip as an opportunity to pay tribute to American World War II service members, particularly those who sailed on the U.S.S. Herndon.
Like the Town of Herndon, the U.S.S. Herndon took its name from U.S. Navy Commander William Lewis Herndon, who died when the S.S. Central America sank in 1857. The ship was later dubbed the “Lucky Herndon” after leading the first wave of D-Day assaults from Omaha Beach and surviving unharmed.
After learning about the town’s connection to D-Day, Herndon High band parent and volunteer Margaret Jamborsky found a muster roll in the Herndon Historical Society Museum with the names of every U.S.S. Herndon crew member and led an extensive effort to contact their descendants.
Jamborsky ultimately managed to connect with families of 292 of the ship’s 301 crew members.
Each Herndon High School band member was then paired with a sailor. They wrote letters and “honor tags,” cards featuring the individual’s photo, name, and a short biography, that will be mailed to the person’s relatives, along with sand collected from Omaha Beach.
Some students even donned the original uniforms worn by U.S.S. Herndon sailors while they performed in Normandy.
“It’s a difference of reading it in a history textbook and being at the beaches and breathing and smelling the same air and the same sound,” Jacoby said. “Having a single person to relate this to I think made it really personal to them.”
In addition to the U.S.S. Herndon crew members, students made honor tags for family members who had served in World War II and other veterans who contacted the school, such as former U.S. Air Force Band commander and conductor Col. Arnald Gabriel.
Now 94 years old, Gabriel fought at Normandy as a gunnery sergeant and visited Herndon High School to conduct the band’s concert on May 10.
In total, Herndon students created about 330 honor tags, according to Jacoby.
Noelle pinned honor tags for three different people to her uniform, including one for her great-uncle, a World War II veteran. She says participating in the D-Day 75th anniversary ceremonies helped her reflect on and appreciate how previous generations affected the world she lives in. “There were some really serious, meaningful moments, like getting to hear the different veterans talk about their experience during the D-Day invasion,” Noelle said. “It was also really fun to meet all the other people who were also invited…It was just a very enjoyable experience for everyone in the Pride of Herndon just to be able to meet all these special people.”