ess than 24 hours ago I was sitting in the Charles de Gaulle airport, patiently waiting for a wheelchair ( due to a knee operation ) to take me to gate D7 for my flight home to Rochester. Normally I would be stressing over the fact that 45 minutes had gone by since my request for assistance. In this case, I was grateful for arriving 3 hours prior to take off.
Before long, another wheelchair- assisted American joined me in our small enclave. He was tall, lean, had keen blue eyes, and wore what appeared to be a baseball cap with World War II insignia on it. I observed from a distance as this veteran and his male traveling companion talked over some obvious problems they were having in connecting with their welcome party, stranded in a different terminal of CDG airport. I learned that both of them were here for the commemorative 65th anniversary of D-Day.
The Paris police were soon on scene to help sort things out and my "vet" and I were left by ourselves, each of us pondering when help might arrive. I decided to wander over and express my thanks for whatever role this courageous man had played here in France.
I sat beside him and shared that my dad had landed in Marseille and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. "Oh", he said. "In what division?" Sadly, I couldn't recall. We exchanged names and I realized that my wheelchair delay was truly a blessing as Don told me his story. He calmly explained that this 65th Omaha Beach gathering would be his last as he was now legally blind, the result of a drive-by shooting in a suburb of Chicago. "They're not a whole lot of us left", he noted.
"I was with the 1st Infantry division that stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day on June 6, 1944. We were part of the combat engineer forces, and our job was to clear booby traps, land mines, and other metal devises planned to deter the naval ships from landing. Of course most people didn't realize what heavy artillery the German's had in store for our landing forces."
"There were hundreds of guys, weighted down with 80 pounds packs, sinking like a stone when their boats went down. They didn't stand a chance." I listened attentively as this was my first occasion to get a first-hand account from a D-Day survivor. Don explained that for days after, hundreds and hundreds of bodies floated ashore, as far as the eye could see.
"We stripped these guys of their heavy gear and dug trenches right there on the beach, first carefully registering their names, ranks, and personal details." I asked him how anyone could face that task and Don explained that a part of your brain simply turned off. "It's very hard to talk about sometimes" he said. "But, I figure that God had a reason for those of us who survived".
"You see, at the big 60th D-Day anniversary, I had the occasion to meet a widow of one of our GI's who died shortly after they were married. She had returned to his grave site every year for sixty years and was torn apart by her fear that he might not, in fact, have been buried where his grave marker was located. I explained to her that I was there
. I witnessed our men being carefully registered by grave registration personnel and I can assure you that your husband is buried where you think that he is. This woman, who had spent her whole life burdened by sadness and uncertainly, was finally at peace."
I thanked Don again as the Paris police escort came to connect him with his D-day group and as I parted, reminded so powerfully of how precious our freedom is. On D-Day the U.S saved Europe from itself
- Wall Street Journal Article June 4th 2009