As dawn broke on June 6, 1944, the Allied Forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, France. It was an event that turned the tide of World War II and marked the beginning of the defeat of Nazi tyranny throughout Europe.
After a heroic effort and sacrifice by thousands, the occupied villages of northern France were liberated. D-Day was the beginning of the end for Hitler’s hold on Europe, and it is remembered as one of the largest and most significant military campaigns in history.
That is why every year political leaders, military personnel and civilians travel from around the world to gather again on the beaches of Normandy. The anniversary event celebrates the victory and honors those who gave their lives to achieve it.
Headlining this year’s 75th anniversary celebrations of D-Day is The University of Texas at Austin Longhorn Alumni Band (LHAB).
They will be performing at two official ceremonies at the American cemeteries in the Normandy region, the Brittany American Cemetery and the Normandy American Cemetery. Resting at these locations are nearly 15,000 U.S. soldiers. The band will also perform in the Liberation of France Parade in Sainte-Mère-Église, the first city liberated by the Allied forces, and it will perform in Paris near the Eiffel Tower on the final day of the trip.
“It’s an event unlike anything the alumni band has done. We are usually cheering on our fans and football team,” says Geof Sloan, class of ’84, LHAB president and organizer of the trip. “This is something totally different. We have the opportunity to represent the U.S. and the three Allied countries that stormed the beaches of Normandy in 1944. It’s a huge honor.”
The members of the LHAB are thrilled to honor the event with a Texas-size tribute. The group arrived in France this week with more than 300 performers and accompanied by 235 family members and guest travelers. Their performance will be more than twice the size of any musical performance at the event previously.
“I am grateful that so many dedicated members of the Longhorn family could pay their respects to the heroes of WWII on our behalf,” says UT President Greg Fenves. “My dad’s 13th birthday was on D-Day. He and his family were in Nazi-occupied Hungary. If it weren’t for the bravery of the Allied forces on that day and beyond, he would have never survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The Longhorn Alumni Band will honor the lives of those who sacrificed everything so that families like mine could be free.”
Among those performing are the Purdy family. Parents Bob, ’80, and Cathy, ’83, daughter Sara Beth, ’13 and son John, ’19, are all UT grads and LHAB members. They say they are excited to finally all be in the band together, especially at such a special event.
“I believe in giving back,” says Cathy Purdy. “Being here is very meaningful because we’re representing the USA, Texas and UT in honoring our many soldiers. They are truly heroes.” Bob’s father Ben Purdy is one of those heroes. He was a B-17 ball turret gunner during D-Day.
After the performance on D-Day, the band will tour both cemeteries and lay Texas flags on the headstones of Texas WWII veterans as a memorial to their service. They will also pay tribute to former Longhorn Band members who fought in WWII.
Among them was 1st Lt. Irvin Curtis Popham (1923-1945), who served as both president (1942-1943) and drum major (1939-1943) of the Longhorn Band while he was attending UT. Popham was a classmate in high school and college of former Longhorn Band Director Moton Crockett (1949-1955). He was a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps and was killed in action on his 22nd birthday, Jan 13 1945, while piloting a B-17G on a mission to Maximiliansau, Germany. His entire unit perished after their bomber was hit by flak over Wörth, Germany. Popham was posthumously promoted to first lieutenant.
After his death, his family donated his class ring to the Longhorn Band. Today, it is passed down to each new Longhorn Band president. His courageous sacrifice is memorialized on the “Wall of the Missing – Army Air Forces” (Table 25, Veteran 10) at the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial in Saint-Avold, Moselle, France.
The LHAB will also be honoring Mel Kusin (1926-2018), who was in his sophomore year at UT when he enrolled in the Army to fight in WWII. Kusin was assigned to Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army and arrived in Bastogne, Belgium, just days after the Battle of the Bulge. He was a mortar gunner in the 155th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 20th Armored Division and played in the U.S. Army Band. On the first anniversary of V-E Day, his band led a giant celebratory parade down the Champs-Élysées. Just behind him in Jeeps waving to the crowd were Dwight Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle. “For me, an unforgettable experience was the biggest parade ever held in Europe, with our little band representing the United States and presenting the winning generals of World War II to the public,” he says.
As one of the oldest living alums of the Longhorn Band, Kusin, ’42, was to have joined the LHAB in Normandy to celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. However, he passed away before the trip at the age of 78, surrounded by family. Before his passing, he spoke with Sloan about how much he wanted to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He said: “Geof, it will take an act of God to prevent me from going on this trip with the alumni band. And if I die while in France, I’m OK with that because I’ll be there with my fellow brothers in arms.”