Published June 05, 2009
NEW ORLEANS – It's "A Gathering of the Greatest Generation" — though this year only a small group of that era's aging heroes will commemorate the invasion of France at Normandy 65 years ago.
On Saturday afternoon, veterans will attend a National World War II Museum ceremony in New Orleans recognizing soldiers, sailors and airmen who made that invasion a turning point for Allied forces. However, organizers acknowledge few members of an already dwindling population are hardy enough to make the trip.
"We won't have a veteran from each state, unfortunately," said William Detweiler, who is in charge of the event. "They're all in their 80s and 90s now, and getting around is just too hard for many of them."
The Department of Veterans Affairs says about 2.6 million World War II veterans are still alive, but more than 300,000 are expected to die this year. California has the most with 555,974, Alaska the fewest with 5,903.
While their mobility may be declining, many have fresh memories of the events surrounding the June 6, 1944, invasion of France by American, British and Commonwealth troops — known to history as D-Day. The term was often used by the military to designate the start of invasions during the war. But the massive scale and historic importance of Normandy made D-Day a lasting symbol.
"I tell the story as often as I can, anywhere I can," said Tom Blakey, 89, of New Orleans, who parachuted into France six hours before the first Allied troops came ashore at a strip of Normandy coast designated as Omaha Beach. "That's the only way for it to be remembered, and it needs to be remembered. Your life would not be the same today without that operation."
Allied forces, under the overall command of Gen. and later President Dwight Eisenhower, began the assault by parachuting troops behind the coast shortly after midnight. Infantry and armored divisions began hitting the beach about 6:30 a.m.
The operation was the largest single-day amphibious invasion of all time, with 160,000 troops landing along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast.
More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion. More than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded along that heavily fortified coast, even though German leaders such as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel were convinced Gen. George Patton would lead troops further north near Calais, where the English Channel is narrow.
Howard Hall, 86, of Louisa, Ky., was 18 years old when he stormed off the landing craft into his first battle clutching a .30-caliber machine gun.
"I guess we were all scared, but it didn't stop us," said Hall, a retired oil refinery worker. "I just got off that boat and tried to get in. The sun was coming up and you could see the Germans shooting big mortars."
The Army Engineer 6th Brigade soldier spent two months on the Normandy beach, making sure supplies got through. From there he went through France and Belgium, and wound up in Germany.
Blakey, who retired from the oil business, has covered most of Mississippi and southern Louisiana with three other World War II veterans, recounting their memories of D-Day.
On Saturday, he will be among the veterans from across the nation who will stand together at the museum in tribute to those who have died.
"When I got home, the whole country was full of young people that had all been in service someplace, but we never talked about it," Blakey said. "Maybe it was a method of getting over it. Now I'm sorry more of the people that were there haven't talked about it more. I don't want it to be lost."