ABOARD THE BOUDICCA IN THE ENGLISH CHANNEL – The veterans hobble along on canes and lean on walking frames now, slower and weaker than they were on D-Day, when they stormed the Normandy beaches with the fate of the free world resting on their shoulders. It's hard to imagine them as soldiers carrying rifles across their chests and 60-pound packs on their backs — until they start talking.
Then the scales of age fall way. They are all young men heading to France — a place most had never been.
"The noise was deafening," said former Royal Marine Les Budding, now 93. "The black smoke and the acrid smell of cordite, which was coming from the battleships firing the big shells. They are the outstanding things in my memory coming from that day."
Suddenly it's D-Day again. The soft-spoken Budding is once again an 18-year-old gunner — a baby-faced, pink-cheeked cherub who smiles from a war-time photograph in a dress uniform that looks like he borrowed it from his father. Budding said he just did what Marines are supposed to do. In his case that meant offering cover to other Marines storming beaches and moving forward. Keep going. Stay alive.
Budding got to Sword Beach just after the frogmen who went in early to defuse the mines and clear the way for the invasion. He still remembers their heads bobbing in the sea.
"We were the first wave in at 7:25 in the morning," Budding said. "We were spot-on time as well."
For years, Budding and other veterans thought of the landings as events that were important to them, but forgotten by the rest of the world. But the 75th anniversary of D-Day has put their exploits back into the public eye.
As part of the commemorations, some 300 veterans are traveling back to France on a six-day cruise sponsored by the Royal British Legion, the U.K.'s largest veterans charity. They traveled to Dunkirk on Monday, remembering the evacuation of British forces after the fall of France in 1940. The veterans will be back in Portsmouth for Britain's main D-Day ceremony on Wednesday before sailing to Normandy for the anniversary of the landings on June 6.
The trip is meant as an act of appreciation from a grateful nation.
But it takes a team effort to help the old warriors make the trip back to France to commemorate events others might want to forget. They've come with younger friends, children and in some cases grandchildren — a strong companion to offer an elbow, or a quickly procured chair when aging joints get tired.
No one seems to be alone on this voyage.
Take the team of Budding and Philip Collins, 62, son of the late F.E. Collins of 45 Commando, who fought alongside Budding on D-Day.
Collins, you see, believes that Budding saved his father's life that day. Budding was a gunner on a "flak 34," a specially armed boat that defended F.E. Collins' landing craft as it hit the beach. He pauses at the notion he saved the life of Collins' father.
"I suppose you could say that, yes," Budding said. "But (just) one of many who helped save some of these guys."
Collins looked Budding up after his father died at the age of 59. They became fast friends.
The younger man brought along photos of his father, which he displays with pride as he tells his dad's story.
His father told him about his time in France, about how the Marines dug in around a farmyard, and how the farmer gave the men eggs and bacon in the morning. The farmer told them to return at the end of the war, and F.E. Collins did so every year until he died. The Frenchman also gave the young soldier a cross to protect him during the fighting. Collins wears the big silver crucifix to this day.
"The cross means so much," Collins said, breaking down in tears. "He loved the commandos, he loved France. He was so proud of being a commando in France. It's just a shame he's not here today."
And then Budding leaned over and offered a comforting hand to the younger man, who is part of his military family.
"Once a Marine," he said, "always a Marine."