‘A chance to heal’: Veterans return to Normandy 75 years later, honor the fallen at D-Day
Special to The Union
PICAUVILLE, France — At dawn on June 6, 1944, a fleet of almost 5,000 ships and 11,000 airplanes, transporting 156,000 men, approached a 22-mile-long section of the coast of Normandy.
This air and sea operation, the largest in history, would be known as the D-Day Invasion.
Most of the American soldiers who landed that day were young, strong and courageous. They ran for their lives across beaches full of mines and metal obstacles to the deafening sounds of gunfire, bombs and planes and the desperate cries of the wounded and fallen, their friends and comrades.
Once across the deadly beach, they hurried through tiny villages and down narrow lanes, lined with stone walls and ancient houses. They scrambled through hedgerows that divided the fields where fat Norman cows grazed and grain grew. Many lost their lives in those hedgerows, gunned down by hidden Germans.
But as the American soldiers liberated Normandy village by village, the French people welcomed them, loved them and celebrated them.
BACK TO NORMANDY
Seventy-five years later, some of these soldiers have come back to Normandy, many for the first time. The narrow lanes, stone walls and old houses still stand, a testament to time, and the hedgerows still divide the fields. Now bird song fills the air in this peaceful farming area of France.
The soldiers who have come back for the 75th anniversary are now in their 90s, most walk with walkers or canes and many are pushed in wheel chairs.
But their spirits are still strong and courageous and the people of Normandy still welcome, love and celebrate them. They know that the 75 years of freedom France and Europe have enjoyed began when these same soldiers risked their young lives to land on the shores of Normandy.
I have had the honor of spending time this past week with many of the returning veterans, for the 75th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy. I’ve watched French children hug them and shake their hands. The young American Army soldiers who are here to take part in the ceremonies honor them and listen to them. People want to pose with them for photographs and ask for autographs. They are in their glory and everyone wants them to have it.
As I’ve sat with the veterans, I lean in close and listen as they tell me their stories. This is a generation of men who were raised to not cry and show emotion.
But now, as they talk about what they experienced in the war, it is as if it was yesterday. Their eyes fill with tears as they remember losing friends, then shine with the good memories, of surviving and of strength in the face of true adversity. I hold their hands and we share a few deep and heartfelt moments.
Here are a few of the stories I have heard from those who have made the long journey back to Normandy this last time, to remember.
stories of service
Staff Sargent Irving Locher, age 94, landed on Utah Beach on D-Day, then fought in the Battle of the Bulge and all the way to Berlin. When asked how it is to be back in Normandy, he doesn’t hesitate.
“It’s marvelous,” he said. Locher attributes his survival to being short. He demonstrated by grabbing a tall young soldier and standing behind him, promptly disappearing.
“See what I mean?” he said, then smiled. His wife of 70 years, Bernice, traveled with him and was thrilled with it all.
Both of them seem full of energy and still jitterbug and ballroom dance back home at their retirement community in Florida.
William Galbraith, age 95, jumped into France as a Paratrooper on D-Day. He also jumped on the 50th anniversary of D-Day from a C-47 at the age of 70. Galbraith traveled to France with his son, Donald, number six of 10 children. He cried when he told me how he had lost his wife of 56 years.
I held his hand and wiped away my own tears.
Warren Goss, age 94, traveled with his daughter, Rhonda, from Pittsburg. Rhonda talked about the camaraderie she has noticed among the returning veterans.
“It is special to see how they talk to each other and reminisce. They share a deep understanding that must be healing for them.”
Leila Morreson, 97, was 22 when she served as a nurse in the war. She remembers climbing down a rope ladder into a landing craft and heading to the beach. She was the only woman in Edwards’ group of veterans. They all stood proud for a photo, their wheelchairs hidden away for those moments.
Four “Rosie the Riveters” from the San Francisco Bay area came for the anniversary. Agnes Moore, 99, and Phyllis Gould, 97, were journeymen welders. Marion Wyun 92, was a draftsman and May Krier, 93, was a riveter and worked on airplanes.
“We wanted to do our part for the war,” Marion said. They all agreed that it was a thrill to be in Normandy.
‘YOUR COUNTRY AND MINE’
By far the most spry of all the veterans I talked with was George Cross, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, who jumped into Normandy in the early hours of June 6. George was only 17 when he joined the Army and 19 when he landed in France.
He landed on a dirt road in the dark, took off his parachute and hid in the hedgerows, waiting to find the other members of the 82nd.
“We had clickers to find each other, and after a few hours 15 or 16 of us from all different units banded together,” he said. There were no officers in the bunch.
When they heard hobnailed boots marching past and soldiers chattering in German, Cross took command and his group surrounded them. Cross made the German soldiers take off their boots and found daggers hidden in them. Those same daggers are now in a museum in Luxembourg.
After the war, used his parachuting skills as a smoke jumper, fighting forest fires in Montana.
Cross is a great dancer and is known and loved in his retirement community in Arizona. He came to France as a guest of Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours and his community raised the rest of the funds for his airfare and for another resident, George Harmer, to accompany him.
In a speech he gave to the French, he said, “I’m over here to serve your country and mine. I believe in America and in our flag.”
‘Soldiers taking care of soldiers’
Many of the veterans returned through the generosity of non-profits or donations from friends. Donnie Edwards, founder of Best Defense Foundation, brought 16 veterans and family members over for the ceremonies.
Edwards, who was a linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, started his organization in honor of his grandfather, a full Apache Indian and Pearl Harbor survivor.
“My grandfather was so proud to be an American. He taught me that the flag represented opportunity and freedom and to be full of gratitude for the country we live in,” Edwards said. “This is my way of giving back, of honoring the veterans and giving them a chance to heal by coming here.”
The major events on June 6 will take place at the Normandy American Cemetery situated above the American landing beach, Omaha, the deadliest of the landing beaches.
The cemetery, designated as a piece of American soil, covers 172.5 acres and includes more than 9,300 burials.
Scott Desjardins, superintendent of the cemetery spent 20 years in the army before working for the American Battle Monuments Commission, which oversees the cemetery.
“It is a great honor to have this job. These places are holy,” he said.
“For me, this job is ‘soldiers taking care of soldiers’.”
As you read this, we will be honoring the veterans at the ceremony with the heads of state. It has been one of the most moving experiences of my life, to be a part of this commemoration and to know that these men and some women, will return home nourished by their time in France.
Diane Covington-Carter is an award-winning writer who lives in Nevada City.
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