This holiday weekend, we honor our country and the lengths taken to protect it. This June marked the 75th Anniversary of the allied invasion of Normandy. There are few left who stormed the beaches on D-Day.
With help from Forever Young Senior Veterans, a non-profit organization, four men from north Alabama were taken back to the former battlegrounds along with other surviving veterans to observe the anniversary.
“They’d give you anything they could. They’d take a match top cover because they didn’t have anything else. They were that sincere then because you’d liberated them,” Army veteran George Mills, 98, recalled the gratitude from the French people under Nazi control in 1944.
75 years and generations later, that hasn’t changed. “I’ve seen more American flags over there than any other flag, and more than I’ve seen in the United States,” described Navy veteran Sherwin Callander, 99. “I just cherish the memories of those people. How sincere they are,” said Mills.
Mills spent two nights in Paris in 1944, staying at the home of a steel fabricator who had buried a case of wine below the dirt floor and a piece of steel. “He said whoever liberated him, they were going to dig that up and have it together.”
Both men were in the group that Returned to the shores of Normandy along with other living veterans for D-Day celebrations. But the ones who gave their lives — were just as present. “Thinking all the blood that was shed on that sand. The cemeteries were so full,” said Callander.
“It’s kind of sobering when you see the graveyard and know oh John got hit today and Randy got hit yesterday. Kind of flushes back a lot of memories in you,” added Mills.
Mills says seeing the high-rises and businesses now lining the beach was strange at first. “I’m really disappointed, I said, ‘nothing looks the same and all these prosperous areas here.'”
A friend on the trip framed it differently. “He says, ‘Well you know, you gotta stop and think. If it looked like it did when you were here fighting — your fighting didn’t mean anything.'”
Seven and a half decades ago, Callander operated a Higgins boat bringing soldiers onto the shore. He was told his only priority was to get manpower to the beach to help hold it. “I heard one boy maybe about 17-years-old, he was laying in the water bleeding, I don’t know how bad he was hurt. ‘I want my mama.’ I’ll never forget that.” He couldn’t stop.
Sand from all five beaches that were stormed on D-Day now join the many medals and memorabilia these men have kept from the deadliest war in history. A physical manifestation of their sacrifice. “War is nasty. It’s mean, it’s nasty,” said Mills.
When asked if he would do it again, he replied, “For this country yes.”
Their journey back to Normandy was not without smiles. While traveling through a small market, Mills encountered a thankful french family. “The little girl kept telling her mother she wanted to kiss me. It was so sweet of her.”
Meeting up with other allied veterans, they shared conversations only servicemen can understand. “It was nice talking to them. And we got to tell tales about the best parts, not the bad parts,” explained Callander. Mills was also able to present a toast to the American flag.
On their return home, a warm welcome was waiting for them at Huntsville International Airport. “I didn’t expect anybody there, or maybe one or two family members. And there were so many people,” remembered Callander.
But none of it means anything if history is allowed to disappear. “If you have no idea of what happened in World War II. How you going to correct it for tomorrow?” asked Mills.
Through this trip, these brave men renewed the comradery of brothers in arms while remembering the instinct that kept them pushing on. “Survive to live. Humans will do anything to keep living.” And live, these men have.
Forever young is working on another trip for the 75th anniversary of the battle of the bulge.