14 WWII Vets gather at Airborne Museum in Normandy

Vets Return to Normandy for 75th Anniversary

For Kim Rosenlof’s original article published by AIN, click here.

Don’t call these men heroes, although to most of us who cannot fathom enduring what they went through during World War II, they definitely are heroes. But most of the veterans who came home from that devastating war say the soldiers, sailors, airmen and other personnel who didn’t make it home were the real heroes.

The year 2019 marks 75 years since the WWII invasion of Normandy, France, in which 1.3 million Allied personnel landed on the French beaches over several weeks to overrun 380,000 Axis troops and begin the liberation of Nazi Europe.  The initial day of the invasion, June 6, 1944, is often referred to simply as D-Day, even though nearly every planned engagement in the war had its own “D” day.  This one, though, was the largest and one of the costliest.

More than 9800 white crosses cover the grounds of the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy. Photo by Dean Rosenlof

Approximately 10,000 Allied personnel were killed, wounded, or missing at the end of the first day of the invasion. As horrific as D-Day was, the men who survived didn’t get to say, “OK, I’ve done my part, time to go home and let someone else fight.”  While the Allies achieved many of their objectives, establishing beachheads on all five codenamed beaches by the end of the day on June 6, victory was not at all certain, and the survivors had to fight on, often hedgerow by hedgerow, taking individual towns throughout the Normandy region.  About 110,000 more casualties would be incurred over the next six weeks of fighting as the Allies pushed inland to drive Nazi forces out of Normandy. After that, the D-Day survivors still had several more months of fighting ahead in France, Belgium, Holland, and other parts of Europe before the Nazi regime was finally conquered and surrendered on May 8, 1945.

Many of the WWII veterans who made it home buried their feelings and memories of the war with their fallen comrades, refusing to talk about what they experienced. Decades later, however, those men and women who survived war, disease, and other ravages of daily living began to see merit in letting their wartime stories be told for the benefit of future generations. And they began to return to Normandy for D-Day anniversaries.

Those who were at the 50th anniversary in 1994 claim it was the largest in terms of veterans who returned. Certainly that is understandable considering most veterans would have been in their late 60’s and 70’s. Twenty-five years later, there are still an amazing number of WWII veterans alive (about 400,000 American WWII vets, with approximately 400 dying each day according to some figures), most in their 90s and some over 100 years old.

Various sources placed the number of WWII veterans returning to Normandy for the 75th anniversary at approximately 300 although likely there were more that decided not to wear uniforms or participate in the various anniversary events.  Arriving by plane, train, car, bus, or ferry, the vets in their WWII uniforms were treated like rock stars with standing ovations, autograph requests, photo requests, and media interviews.

Royal Air Force WWII veteran David Teacher of the 103rd Beach Unit surrounded by re-enactors at the Pegasus Bridge museum during 75th anniversary of D-Day. Photo by Kim Rosenlof

Some arrived on their own; others as benefactors of veterans groups such as the non-profit Forever Young Senior Veterans group, based in Tennessee. Forever Young sponsored 14 American WWII veterans to return to Normandy for the 75th anniversary; for some this was their first time back since the war.

Others have returned over and over. Royal Navy Seaman Petty Officer Lewis Trinder served on the HMS Magpie during the Normandy invasion, looking for German submarines that could disrupt the flow of the invasion. Yet the spry nonagenarian entertained passengers by singing songs from WWII in the aft lounge during the five-hour ferry ride from Portsmouth to Ouistream on June 4, 2019. When Lewis returned to his seat, Kim approached with a blank D-Day journal purchased in the ferry’s gift shop and asked him to sign her book.  He began telling about his time on the Magpie and the work to hunt down submarines without the type of electronic equipment we have today. Instead, the Magpie staff were fed coordinates by intelligence teams who used the  cracked the Enigma code to intercept, interpret and relay messages from the German subs themselves. Still living in England, Trinder has returned to Normandy so many times that his photo graced the cover of the 75th Anniversary Normandy Visitor’s Guide.

To be continued…

Re-enactors pose at Longues-sur-Mer gun battery during the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. Photo by Kim Rosenlof

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