Today, more than 100 Hillgrove High School students will do something that no other student in Georgia and very few in the nation will have the opportunity to do. The 90 band and 35 orchestra students will perform in the 75th anniversary of D-Day ceremony at the Brittany American Cemetery in France.
The Hillgrove musicians will also perform at the Normandy American Cemetery on June 7, and the next day, they will hold a concert in the town square and march in the D-Day Memorial Parade in St. Mère-Eglise. As part of the 75th anniversary, the country of France is expecting well over 1 million visitors in what is being billed as “the largest commemoration event in the history of the world,” and Hillgrove High School students will be there to represent the Cobb County School District, the state of Georgia, and the United States of America.
Dignitaries and world leaders will be watching as the Hillgrove students join in the ceremonies to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day, which changed the course of World War II.
As a premier band program, Hillgrove High School frequently receives invitations to national and international events.
“Being a strong band program in the greatest community for music in the country affords you these invitations quite a bit! We turn most down. We were invited to the 74th D-Day memorial, but I refused the invitation as we were just two years removed from our 2016 tour of Beijing and Shanghai, China. On that same call, they went ahead and extended the invitation to the 75th Anniversary D-Day event. The goosebumps that the staff and I got talking about the trip were enough to say, ‘yes,’” revealed Hillgrove Band Director Patrick Erwin.
In addition to the extensive practice schedule for the students’ memorable performances in France, the school community had to plan and fundraise to send more than 200 people to a country that a million people from around the world are expected to visit during the same time.
The Hillgrove group departed on June 4 and visited Utah Beach and Omaha Beach in France the next day.
“We are just honored to represent Cobb County, the State of Georgia, and the US in this amazing opportunity,” added Hillgrove’s band director.
The Hillgrove group will also spend two days in Paris sightseeing and give one last performance at the Luxembourg Gardens before they return home June 11.
The Hillgrove students are carrying a tradition with them as they commemorate the sacrifices of those who stormed the beaches of Normandy. Each student is carrying the band’s challenge coins for this marching season. The students will keep one, give away one to a student they meet from another band, and then leave the Hillgrove coins on the graves of a soldier in the Brittany or Normandy cemeteries who was killed fighting for the students’ home state of Georgia. Before leaving, the students mapped out the burial of each service member they plan to remember.
In addition to the primary tour group of musicians, the Hillgrove community coordinated something unique to this event—a shadow trip that includes 65 family members and siblings who would have been unable to go otherwise. Thanks to the advanced planning, those family members will be there to watch and support the Hillgrove students as they perform in the historical events.
Hillgrove Students Escort WWII Hero Back to France
There is one special guest that is accompanying the band on their memorable journey. He’s someone who was part of the historical event 75 years ago in France. Master Sgt. Victor Walter Graham was part of the invasion, which helped to end WWII and change the course of history.
His unit spent about four hours on the beach that fateful D-Day. Approximately 1,000 of his unit’s men landed on Omaha. They lost 600 in those few hours. During his service, the WWII veteran earned five battle stars for Normandy, Northern France, the Bulge, the Rhineland, and Central Europe. He received two purple hearts and a Silver Star for his brave actions.
That’s the WWII hero the Hillgrove band and orchestra are escorting back to where Master Sgt. Graham and his fellow soldiers took part in the largest seaborne invasion in history.
Master Sgt. Graham is friends with Hillgrove parents Frank and Pam Orvino, who in February asked that students write Valentine’s Day cards for the war hero. However, Hillgrove’s band director decided that wasn’t enough. No matter the cost, Erwin wanted to honor Master Sgt. Graham by inviting him to join the Hillgrove students as they performed at the 75th Anniversary of D-Day.
Master Sgt. Graham not only has more than 100 skilled student musicians as his escort, but he also will ride at the head of the D-Day parade in St. Mère-Eglise in a Jeep Willie as one of the Grand Marshals.
“The band and orchestra community is proud to have Mr. Graham and his nurse attend with us, free of charge, as our honored guest. Frank and Pam Orvino are also attending with us as Mr. Graham’s caretakers,” Erwin said. “We are forever indebted to them for their help in bringing this HERO back to France to celebrate our great victory!”
Before the Hillgrove students left for France with their honored guest, Master Sgt. Graham visited with the students at school. At age 17, some of the students are the same age that Master Sgt. Graham was when he enlisted in the Army.
The students may have read about the historic events of WWII, but Master Sgt. Graham lived them. He could bring history to life for the students and help them understand the magnitude of the anniversary event they are participating in. Thanks to him joining them, the students may reflect on what their teen peers accomplished 75 years ago on that beach in Normandy, France.
The WWII veteran was about their age when he ran into 116th Panzer Grenadiers, a German armored infantry unit. At the age when the Hillgrove seniors are leaving for college, Master Sgt. Graham spent six weeks of fierce fighting to clear out Aachen. He came face-to-face with a German soldier who cut him so severely with a bayonet that it required more than 100 stitches and six weeks of recuperation before he was back in the fight—just in time for the Battle of the Bulge. He fought alongside his fellow soldiers in summer uniforms despite the freezing temperatures and snow. Before the Battle of the Rhine, the teen soldier battled the River Roar for six weeks.
Some of the students traveling to France with Master Sgt. Graham may have read in history books of the infamous Josef Mengele, who conducted torturous experiments on humans. What they may not know is the WWII veteran traveling with them saw the concentration camp where Mengele was located. As a young teen soldier, he helped capture Ilse Koch, who was later tried for war crimes. He looked into the face of evil and kept going.
Instead of heading off to college like many of the Hillgrove teens accompanying him overseas, the teen Master Sgt. Graham spent that time marching across Germany to help end WWII. As a result, the WWII hero and his fellow service members marched into the history books that the Hillgrove students now study at school.
Today, Master Sgt. Graham returns to France, a place where he lost so many friends and fellow soldiers, but persevered so that now each and every student in the Hillgrove band and orchestra have the freedom to travel overseas, the freedom to go to college, the freedom to learn, and the freedom to just play music.