Washington Area WWII Veterans Revisit Normandy for 65th Anniversary of D-Day
Saturday, June 6, 2009
They've been back before. They've walked the beaches, inhaled the sweet salt air, looked up their old friends in the cemeteries. They've tried to retrace their steps from the beach inward, remembering the gunfire, remembering the dead who didn't make it past the shoreline.
But this will probably be the last time World War II veterans William Doyle and Sam Krauss, both members of the famed 29th Infantry Division, are able to visit the Normandy coast, where 65 years ago they landed as young, scared soldiers unsure they'd survive.
Doyle is 94, and Krauss is 92. Today, the anniversary of D-Day, they're part of the contingent of veterans, military officials and politicians, including President Obama, in Normandy to commemorate the bold, deadly attack that led to the liberation of France. With the "Greatest Generation" dying off at a rate of 851 a day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, many say today's observance will be one of the last big anniversaries attended by a significant contingent of those who were there.
"The numbers are fewer, but the sentiment is in a way stronger," said Joe Balkoski, the command historian for the Maryland National Guard, who has written several books on D-Day and the 29th Infantry Division. "It pulls at your heartstrings."
"I know it'll be my last trip," Doyle said during an interview this week.
"You said that last time," Krauss teased.
The two men live in a retirement community in Catonsville, down the hall from each other. They met about 25 years ago at a veterans reunion. They trade stories about the war and josh with each other over who's more of a ladies man. Their smiles are sharp, and they're quick to joke. But walking has become more difficult, traveling is tough and now both are prepared to say goodbye to the battlefield where so many of their friends lost their lives.
The first time Doyle went back to Omaha beach, where he landed the day after D-Day, was in 1988. His French was rusty, but the people were welcoming and warm, and he became pen pals with some of them. He was amazed by the landscape, how a place that had seen so much destruction and carnage was so beautiful and calm.
When James Lockhart, a D-Day veteran who is also in Normandy for the ceremony, goes back, he can't help but become emotional, especially when he sees the rows of tombstone crosses at the American cemetery in Colleville-Sur-Mer, where he lays wreaths on the graves. "It doesn't matter whose it is," he said.
But although the visits are profoundly sad, Lockhart, 84, of Elkton, is also often overcome with happiness. American veterans are treated like celebrities there, "especially by the children," he said. This time, he has had business cards made up with his name and e-mail address to pass out to people he meets.
"I feel elated when I go back," he said. "It's like visiting someone in their home."
On this trip, Doyle is taking his 57-year-old son, Michael, who served in the Navy for 30 years. When he was young, he'd ask his father about the war, but William Doyle usually demurred.