Published January 14, 2015
Waves of memories on a beach where the waves themselves once ran red with blood. Tears for the dead. Questions, still unanswered, about how it was that they, the lucky ones, survived.
Sixty years after they stormed Omaha Beach (search), American veterans of the deadliest D-Day (search) assault returned Thursday to the now peaceful rust-colored sands to remember the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France that changed the world.
Although worn by their years, these old men's memories of June, 6, 1944, remain sharp. Gathered at a memorial overlooking the beach where Nazi (search) guns spat death, they spoke of loss, sacrifice and pride of their role in liberating Europe from tyranny.
"D-Day changed my life and the memories will live with me forever," said Ivy Agee, 81, of Gordonsville, Tenn., who fought with B Battery of the 111th Field Artillery (search).
Normandy, painfully aware that this 60th anniversary may be the last major chance to honor the aging veterans, is turning back the clock, with commemorations, dances, parades and other ceremonies for the troops to whom many here say they owe their freedom.
Recent tensions over Iraq that have dogged relations between the governments of France and the United States are being put aside. Many Normans have hung the Stars and Stripes on their homes. Many came up to the 75 veterans gathered at Omaha -- most of whom fought with the 29th Infantry Division -- to thank them in person.
"They can't do enough for us. Oh God, the women come up and kiss me," said 84-year-old New Yorker Frank Marino.
The landings pierced Adolf Hitler's (search) western defenses, trapping Nazi Germany between an Allied push from the west and Soviet forces in the east, forcing its surrender 11 months later.
In the 60 years since, Germany has risen from the ashes to become a major European power, a U.S. ally and France's closest friend. The combatants have had children, grandchildren, careers and lived lives that almost ended young. But the emotions of D-Day still catch in their throats and bring tears to their eyes.
"This week is very special for us, very emotional and very heart-wrenching, as we remember our buddies and friends who fell," said Norman Grossman of Boston.
Just 19 when he landed, Grossman added: "Who would think that on the morning of June 6, 60 years ago, we would make it through the day and, more miraculously, would be here to remind the world of that great event."
The story of D-Day has been told and retold. But, as the torch of memory is passed on to generations born after the war, it is worth telling again. Thousands of Allied troops were killed and injured -- the chaos of battle prevented a definitive count. Some veterans said they long were unable to talk about their experiences but now want to share them.
They recalled the storms that whipped up the English Channel (search), delaying the invasion; the meals, which some called "the last supper," doled out before they embarked with the biggest armada in history; the shelling of German defenses that lit up the skies; seasick troops vomiting beans and hot dogs on the landing craft that carried them to the beach that became known as "Bloody Omaha."
"It was a scene from hell. So many dead. So many wounded. Total chaos," said Charles Heinlein of Baltimore. Now 82, he is making his first visit back since 1944.
"I didn't really want to go through it before," he said. But "I think this (anniversary) might be the last one, because the next one is usually 10 years later, and I'd be about 92 years old, if I'm still lucky to be here."
He said D-Day history should be taught more in schools.
"A lot of children, you say 'D-Day,' and they don't even know ... One child said, 'What, that was the day I took my math test,"' he said. "It should be spread around. You know, there's not many of us left."
Before they landed, the troops were told that craters from Allied bombardments would offer cover on the beach. That proved to be wrong. Gale Garman, who was with the 116th Infantry Regiment, said he tried scooping out the hard sand with his bare hands.
His clearest memory, he said, was of a tank crushing a wounded soldier.
"I wanted so bad to help that GI out of harms way. I'm bothered by what I could possibly have done, while realizing that there was nothing I could do under the circumstances," he said.
Raymond Moon, now 79, had his first cigarette that day. As they fought their way inland, he said he looked back to the thousands of ships along the Normandy coast bringing in more men and equipment.
"I had one thought: There was no way the Nazis were going to win," he said. "We were coming and we were not backing off."