LAS VEGAS -- With each passing day, hundreds of World War II veterans are laid to rest – but, their stories of sacrifice, resilience and victory are forever etched in American history.
As the 75th anniversary of D-Day approaches, organizations like Forever Young, help ensure that the Greatest Generation is never forgotten. The group is sending more than a dozen veterans to France to revisit the place where they gave up so much.
“Their stories of sacrifice are so important. If they’re not told then they’re gone forever,” Forever Young founder Diane Hight said. “We just care about these men and women and we want to give back to them. We want to honor them.”
Onofrio “No-No” Zicari, from Geneva, New York was just 21 when he waded through the water onto Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 before getting pinned down by gunfire.
“We had the beach secured," No-No recalled. "We had to go down and clean up the bodies on the beaches because we had new troops coming in. I told them I’m not going to touch anybody, I’ll pick up the equipment but I’m not touching no soldiers … but they were picking up the bodies and throwing them on this pick-up truck and they were bringing them up to wherever they were going to be buried."
“Father Flannagan was there giving the last rites to the boys and he was crying, tears coming down and he was mad, real mad. He says, ‘You take my boys and you lay them down. You don’t pile them on top of one another. You lay them down, they’re my boys,’” he added. “’To this day, I get emotionally upset every time I think about that.”
Now at 96, for the first time since the war, No-No will travel back to France where he will get the chance to visit the gravesites of some of his fallen comrades and the hopes of finding closure.
“I wanted to go back almost every year. I wanted to go back then I changed my mind,” No-No told Fox News. “What do I want to go back for? And then my lady friend Diane, she says you should go back.”
No-No said it was during a cruise with Diane, who also acts as his caretaker, that he experienced a moment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“We were on this little craft, and more or less just circling around and I smelled that diesel oil and I flinch and she says, ‘What’s the matter?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. I’m having a flashback.’ I broke out in a cold sweat. I smelled that diesel oil and I was back in Normandy,” Zicari said.
The 96-year-old never had the funds to return to where he had fought at such a young age and needed his caretaker to accompany him if he were to ever make the more than 12-hour flight.
“We don't usually raise money for caregivers or family members because it's hard enough raising money for the veterans and the medical team … But I just had to do this. It is important to me for him to go,” Hight said.
Forever Young raised about $12,000 to send Zicari and his caretaker back to Europe for the anniversary in June, along with the funds to help send roughly 15 other veterans including 102-year-old Major Wooten, who served as a private during WWII.
“It’s going to bring back memories. Of course, I know things won’t look the same, but it’s going to be the same for me,” Wooten told Fox News.
Wooten is one of 12 children and served in the war along with three of his brothers – one of whom was killed in battle. He worked on repairing the railroad and hospital cars that had been bombed so they could help get supplies to the front lines.
The war hero hopes to reunite with a little girl named Rosemary, who he met during his time overseas.
“She was everybody’s sweetheart. I just wonder if she’s still living now,” Wooten said. “I would like to see her when we go back over there. All we had to give her was candy, I’ll never forget that girl.”
Frank Blazich, lead curator of military history at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History underscored the importance of remembering those who served as “approximately 350 veterans are passing away each day.”
“The last figure I saw was that there were 496,000 I believe alive in 2018. So, it is highly likely at this point we have at we're around 400,000 or less World War II veterans. I think by say 2030 or 2036 we'll be fortunate if we even have a thousand left alive,” Blazich said. “It's imperative we try and save their oral histories and save the context of what they experienced and the changes that they experienced to better comprehend the present and hopefully shape our future.”
There are very few moments in American history where a single day transformed the nation, but June 6, 1944 “is one of those moments,” Blazich told Fox News.
“The way to think about it is kind of a counterfactual. If the landing had not succeeded, what wouldn't have happened in American history? And that gives hopefully pause to say, 'well would Eisenhower have become president? Would the United States have become the leader of the democratic world and really the leader of the world the free world if you will?'”