MSU band performers take part in France’s historic D-Day ceremony to mark 80th anniversary

The D-Day 80th Anniversary Collegiate Mass Band, featuring nine current and former members of MSU’s Famous Maroon Band, gives a performance in the streets of Sainte-Mère-Église, the first liberated town in France by American paratroopers in 1944. (Photo submitted)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Nine current and former performers from Mississippi State’s Famous Maroon Band had a remarkable experience as they participated this month in the D-Day 80th anniversary commemorations in France.

A picture of Mississippi State Associate Director of Bands Craig Aarhus on the left, along with nine current and former members of the Famous Maroon Band at the D-Day 80th Anniversary Collegiate Mass Band.
A picture of Mississippi State Associate Director of Bands Craig Aarhus on the left, along with nine current and former members of the Famous Maroon Band at the D-Day 80th Anniversary Collegiate Mass Band. (Photo submitted)

The participants from the Maroon Band joined over 160 college band students and alumni from various parts of the U.S. to create the D-Day 80th Anniversary Collegiate Mass Band, a unique assembly commemorating World War II’s Normandy Invasion. MSU’s Craig Aarhus, the Associate Director of Bands, served as the southeast region assistant director and conducted one of the band ensembles.

“Coming together for this mass band was an extraordinary opportunity for students and alumni from all over the country to pay tribute to the Greatest Generation. Mississippi State had a notable presence in the group, and it was an honor for us to participate in these events, especially with World War II veterans present. I’m truly grateful for the chance to be part of the 80th-anniversary celebration of D-Day, and I believe these memories will last a lifetime for our students,” expressed Aarhus.

Prior to their arrival in France, band members rehearsed in Washington, D.C. They played to an audience of thousands gathered for the D-Day celebrations in Sainte-Mère-Église, the first town liberated by American paratroopers in 1944. The band also had a performance at the Brittany American Cemetery in Montjoie-Saint-Martin.

“This journey wasn’t just about exploring new places or meeting new faces—it was about honoring those veterans,” emphasized MSU junior architecture major Shelby Dehart from Chesapeake, Virginia. “They made immense sacrifices for us and lived through experiences that are difficult for many nowadays to comprehend. It was a true honor to express our gratitude to those still among us and to remember those who have passed on.”

The band played music from the era that resonated with the French audience, such as “In the Mood” and “Can’t Buy Me Love,” a Beatles recording made in Paris. During the parade, they performed “Strike Up the Band” and music from the film “The Longest Day.” At Brittany American Cemetery, the band, together with other musical groups, paid tribute with the U.S. national anthem and John Williams’ “Hymn to the Fallen” from the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” The cemetery holds the remains of 4,404 fallen service members, with 500 names inscribed on its Wall of the Missing.

“It’s incredibly humbling to think about how many of those in the memorials and cemeteries were our age group (18-22), and some even younger,” reflected MSU junior kinesiology/sports administration major Rowan Russell from Forest. “They played a crucial role in arguably the most significant event in modern history, so the least we could do was perform beautiful music for them. Being part of the 80th anniversary was particularly special because it’s likely the last major celebration for many of the surviving veterans.”

This experience was deeply significant for MSU band alumna Lori Burt, who, as a social worker, interacts with veterans, and whose father was a WWII Navy veteran.

“I had the honor of meeting Hector, a 98-year-old veteran who participated in the D-Day invasion,” Burt shared. “He recounted seeing a news reel about the war in a New York City theater. Upon stepping out, he immediately located a military recruitment station and enlisted to serve. He mentioned that we live in the greatest country and he would make the same decision without hesitation. Hearing his story was touching and allowed me to reflect on what these men did for our nation. This experience brought back memories of my father, who served domestically and passed away 46 years ago.”

In addition to their performances, the trip provided students with a platform for comprehensive learning as they explored Washington, D.C., and Normandy, visiting World War II museums and historical sites. They took in iconic sites in Paris, including the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre Museum.

The participants from the Maroon Band comprised:

—Lori Burt, 1987 sociology graduate, Saginaw, Texas

—Kara Chandler, senior interdisciplinary studies major, Booneville

—Sebastian Coleman, junior animal and dairy sciences/pre-veterinary major, Greenville

—Kyler Colip, junior aerospace engineering major, Aurora, Colorado

—Shelby Dehart, junior architecture major, Chesapeake, Virginia

—Christopher Powell, junior mechanical engineering major, Atlanta, Georgia

—Rowan Russell, junior kinesiology/sports administration major, Forest

—Rachel Stoner, junior biochemistry major, Madison, Alabama

—Wesley Thomas, senior mechanical engineering major, Madison

The mass band was coordinated by eight collegiate band leaders nationwide, which included Aarhus. For more information on the staff and parade, visit https://www.ddayparade.org/collegiate-band-staff.

The Famous Maroon Band, based in MSU’s College of Education, stands as the largest collegiate band in the state. For further details, visit www.msuband.msstate.edu.

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