D-Day veterans choke back tears to ensure memories live on

I make old soldiers cry.

Old sailors, too. And airmen. Even Marines. Makes no difference.

I know that makes me sound cruel. But I had to do it.

I've spent the past few months interviewing veterans about D-Day and the Allied invasion of Normandy that ultimately liberated France. This was a turning point in World War II. As one veteran put it, "Europe would be one big Auschwitz otherwise."

But winning doesn't make war easy. And these veterans have been walking around for 75 years after seeing and living things that many of us can't bear to watch in movies like "Saving Private Ryan."

These former servicemen had wildly different D-Days. Some had a tougher time than others. But the more interviews I put in my notebook the more I realized they shared one abiding characteristic: a sense of duty.

They use walkers and wheelchairs and canes now, these men who once carried guns and drove tanks into battle. They don't see as well as they once did, and they sometimes struggled to hear my questions. But no matter what, they all felt a responsibility to tell their stories so that those who died were not forgotten and that those who weren't there could understand the horrors of war.

I was by no means alone. Dozens of journalists were chasing the same people as the wartime Allies prepared to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the landings this week. That made it more challenging for them. It's hard enough to tell your story once; excruciating to tell the same painful stories again and again and again. But it didn't stop them.

During one interview, a well-meaning press officer from the Ministry of Defense tried to cut short a conversation with 94-year-old Ted Emmings — a Royal Navy coxswain who ferried Canadians to Juno Beach — because a cab had arrived to take him home. Emmings refused to go. The car could wait. He wasn't finished, and he wasn't going anywhere until he had.

No matter what one might think of war, it's impossible to hear someone like Emmings talk about seeing his friends die "more or less in front of you" and not feel deep respect for a man who, 75 years later, refuses to let his friends down. Not remembering their sacrifice? Now that would be unthinkable.

There are no rose-tinted glasses that make it all go away for these veterans. Nor is it an ego trip. When you are 95 or so, you have different concerns. Most of them told me they feel uncomfortable wearing their medals and berets in France because wherever they go the French want to shake their hands and hug them in gratitude. These men aren't looking for gratitude, they just want to make sure their memories don't die with them.

Jack Woods is one of these people. He's 95, once a member of the 9th Royal Tank Regiment — a Tankie in his parlance. Woods recalled getting to France with no battle experience whatever after training in England. Then all of a sudden it got nasty as they pushed forward in Churchill tanks. Those ahead of him didn't fare well, and he could see them up ahead.

"You could see tanks burning on the skyline. They burned for more than two days. They were going off like fireworks as the ammunition in them was blowing."

"Those tanks I see burning on the skyline?" he said through tears. "I see them burning all the time."

Fred Lee wasn't going to let his hearing difficulties get in the way of telling his story. He struggled to hear me, but once he got the drift of what I wanted to know, he just started talking. I couldn't even interrupt. He joined the Navy when he was just 17, and was on the command ship HMS Nith on D-Day.

"All I can say is, it was hell," he said. "There were dead bodies all over the seas. We wondered why we were doing this."

But Lee's most searing memory was from a few weeks later, when he was ordered to trade places with another man on a watch, switching to the port side rather than his usual starboard post.

A German guided bomb hit the starboard side of the ship that day, killing nine people. That's not something that ever leaves you. And it isn't something you share in your first conversation with someone unless you really want them to know.

And then there was Mervyn Kersh of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, a spritely fellow with bright eyes who seems far younger than his 94 years. Kersh experienced anti-Semitism in the British military even before he crossed the channel to fight the Nazis. But he refused to remove his religion from his dog tags — even though some Jewish soldiers did so to protect themselves in case they were captured.

That sort of thing was not for Kersh, who wasn't about to give in to the Nazis.

Kersh said there is a lesson, even now, from WWII that we seem to be missing.

"Don't allow bullies to grow strong ... because then they turn against anyone they want to," he said, "Don't wait to see if they carry out their words — if they are bluffing."

Donald Hitchcock never really told me why he was crying.

Hitchcock, a 94-year-old Royal Navy veteran, was desperate to get to Omaha Beach to honor the Americans he fought with after finding himself stuck on a tour that was only going to the beaches where British troops led the way.

When I asked what he wanted to do when he got there, a big fat tear rolled down his cheek. He looked down, shuffled his papers and changed the subject. Some things are just too painful, even now.

These stories made me wonder about heroism and heroes, and how these guys — men who tell you they are just ordinary people — were able to keep moving forward even though other men were shooting at them. How do you do that? How do you even put one foot in front of the other? How do you deal with the fear?

Most said they didn't have time to be scared. What scares them now — what makes them cry — is the thought that those who died may be forgotten, that they would have died in vain.

So perhaps it was cruel. But I came to think of the tears as necessary.

Otherwise how would they tell their stories? How would be know what to remember?