Tom Brokaw called them “The Greatest Generation,” the brave young men who fought in World War II and the women who supported them behind the scenes at home.
My father was in the D-Day invasion and I grew up with his stories of his time in France during the war. I have attended the 50th, 60th and now the 70th anniversaries of D-Day in his honor.
I have been traveling with World War II veterans and their families as they journey back to England and France for today’s 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
We are with Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours and began our journey in England, just as the soldiers did, then traveled across the channel to France to attend the commemorative event with President Obama and François Hollande, President of France.
On the trip, I’ve had a chance to talk to some of the veterans and hear their stories.
Ernest N. Quist, from Missouri, who will be 89 this month, was 18 when he landed on Omaha Beach on June 10, 1944. His army unit went through France, Holland and on to Germany, spending a year and a half in Europe.
“I’m hoping to see Omaha Beach and to get some sand to take home,” he said. “I spent my teenage years there.”
Mac Evans, from Metairie, La., will be 88 in November and was 17 when he landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day.
“I can’t swim and I went over the side of the landing craft,” Evans said. “My pack was so heavy, I had to cut it off, so I went running onto the beach with no rifle.”
Evans managed to make it up to where the guns couldn’t reach him and stayed there for many hours until a lieutenant from the Army Corp of Engineers helped him to get off the beach. He has been back to Normandy many times to attend different anniversaries of the invasion.
“The first time I visited the American Cemetery, it was really bad; I lost it,” he said. “But it became easier to go back, with time.”
He pointed out his Legion of Honor medal, hanging from a bright red ribbon, France’s highest award.
“Of all the medals that I have earned, that is the one I am the most proud of,” he said.
Tom Givhan, from Shepherdsville, Ky., came with his son, John Spainhour. Givhan, who is 87, served in World War II in the Pacific as a Marine. He came to the 50th anniversary and now is back for the 70th.
“It’s a privilege to be able to participate,” he said. “I lost six high school friends, three of them neighbors, in the war. These anniversaries are bittersweet. You go to the cemetery and cry.”
Irv Troutman, a Vietnam veteran from New York, came with seven other family members spanning three generations, to honor his father, Merv Troutman, who parachuted into the invasion in the 82nd Airborne Division. For his World War II service, Troutman earned a purple heart medal when a German bullet grazed the back of his head, going in one side of his helmet and back out the other side.
He also earned silver star and bronze star medals. The family showed me photos of the helmet, an eerie testament to the hands of providence that saved his life.
For Trevor Troutman, Irv’s son, the trip back to Normandy to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather Merv is the fulfillment of a life’s dream.
“My grandfather was always a hero to me,” he said. “He taught me so much – carpentry, for example — and he spent time with me, taking me to the beach. But to know that he did these heroic things in wartime for our county and for the world is so powerful and moving.”
Trevor is traveling with his wife Linda and two children, Ryan, 7, and Bridget, 11. The children have heard stories about their great-grandfather and are quiet and attentive at all our historic lectures and stops on the tour. Linda shook her head over the photos of Merv’s helmet with the bullet holes.
“If that bullet had been even a quarter of an inch closer to his head, none of us would be sitting here,” she said.
As you read this story, we will be gathering on the cliffs above Omaha Beach at the American Cemetery with thousands of others in France and with millions around the world for this one last chance to honor the men who risked their lives and to remember those who died to preserve our freedom 70 years ago. It will be bittersweet and I know we will cry.
Diane Covington-Carter lives in Nevada City. Her memoir, “Reunion, Finding Gilbert,” begins during World War II in Normandy and is available locally and on Amazon.com.
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“My grandfather was always a hero to me … But to know that he did these heroic things in wartime for our county and for the world is so powerful and moving.”
on his grandfather, Merv Troutman