The nonagenarian guests of honor, some in wheelchairs, basked in the June sun and the warm praise of those honoring them on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
The veterans were among hundreds who gathered at the National World War II Memorial on the Mall Friday morning to commemorate D-Day, when Allied troops landed at Normandy to liberate Nazi-occupied France. Several of the survivors of that fierce battle sat in the front row facing the memorial’s running fountains.
“Hitler had no idea who he was up against,” Karen Cucurullo, the Mall’s deputy superintendent of operations, told the crowd. Cucurullo, the daughter of a World War II veteran, lauded the bravery of the men who landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944— many of whom were just in their late teens and “knew they’d face certain death.”
More than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded that day.
Craig Symonds, a professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy and the event’s master of ceremonies, introduced intelligence and military officials from Denmark, Belgium and Canada, who strode across the plaza to warm applause.
Six-thousand ships formed an “unimaginable” armada on the waters off the Normandy coast, said Symonds, describing what the day was like seven decades past. Those who made it safely to the beach still had to climb cliffs “hand over hand, while Germans sprayed gunfire” from above, he said.
Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme Allied commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, read her patriarch’s D-Day message to the troops. She also read from remarks Eisenhower made when he visited the American cemetery near Normandy, 20 years after D-Day, when he noted that his grandchildren would grow up in freedom while so many other parents would not get the chance to even have grandchildren.
Elliott “Toby” Roosevelt III, the great-grandson of former president Franklin D. Roosevelt, said it is easy for people in younger generations to forget the freedoms won on D-Day. “When we were born, those were simply handed to us,” he said.
In the front row, Al Wheeler, a technical sergeant in the Army who landed nine days after D-Day, said he was “lucky to be alive” — about 20 from his battalion did not survive combat.
“If the bomb hadn’t been dropped, there’d be a lot less of us today,” said Wheeler, who lives in Kansas City, Mo., and turns 89 on Saturday.
He was only able to attend the event because he won a lottery and was selected to fly free as part of the Honor Flight Network. He said he’d been chatting with new friends all morning about “what division we were in, where we landed, and what we did.”
As the ceremony wrapped up, the officials from the other Allied countries carried out giant wreaths with ribbons and propped them up so they were facing the Washington Monument. The moment was solemn: D-Day veterans escorted the foreign dignitaries to present the wreaths, and hardly any of the veterans needed wheelchairs.
Nick Zuras, 96, a D-Day veteran from Annapolis, Md., stood upright during the wreath presentation, hardly looking his age. (The man still plays tennis — doubles.) He remembers bits of the day very well: how he had arrived at Normandy very early, and that he was on a boat, firing rockets.
“I saw the worst of it,” he said. One of the things that sticks out has nothing to do with his own bravery, but that of someone very young whom he never saw again. “I had a kid with me, of Mexican descent. A gunner’s mate. He took his older brother’s birth certificate and entered the Navy. The name was Fernandez.”
Standing a few feet away was Antonio Gimenez, 92, who lives in Miami. He was in the Army, attached to the Air Force as a radar operator. Gimenez said he was one of 10 brothers in the military during World War II and one of three brothers who fought at Normandy and survived.
“We had to step around dead bodies,” he said. “The German snipers were shooting from the trees.”
His grandson chimed in. “The best part he’s not telling you,” said Spyridon Mitsotakis. “He met his wife during the Battle of the Bulge.”