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D-Day’s heroes may be disappearing, but their stories have proved indelible

On today’s 75th anniversary, few of the soldiers remain. But at the 50th, I saw history passed -- often emotionally -- to new generations.

Udo Hartung from Frankfurt, Germany, a World War II reenactor, holds the U.S. flag as he stands at dawn on Omaha Beach, in Normandy, France, June 6, 2019 during commemorations of the 75th anniversary of D-Day. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
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Even in 1994, as the 50th anniversary of D-Day approached, it had started to dawn on America that the soldiers who helped save the world, the ordinary people who rose to extraordinary circumstances and lived to tell the tale, would not be with us forever. Most had advanced into their 70s, though many of their stories of the historic assault on France’s Normandy coast, and the bloody months that followed, remained muscular narratives told with a youthful glint.

On today’s 75th anniversary of the beginning of the end of World War II’s European conflict, far fewer of those heroes remain, with the youngest now in their 90s. But virtually all of them shared a sense of gratitude that they somehow survived the epic June 6 attack — 2,501 Americans died in the Allied invasion and many more were missing or wounded. And all of the survivors’ stories have borne the weight of history.

As a writer for The Denver Post at the time of the 50th anniversary, I traveled to France with photographer Karl Gehring to chronicle the commemorations for more than a week. We focused on stories with Colorado connections, for the most part, but you couldn’t take five steps without bumping into someone, visiting veterans or enthusiastic locals, willing to share memories.

There were tales of heroism, from the first wave of soldiers to come ashore and brave enemy crossfire, to the Army Rangers’ daring assault on Pointe du Hoc. There was the local cafe owner in Benouville who remembers, as a child, seeing British glider troops with blackened faces storm into her family’s house, making it perhaps the first liberated structure of the D-Day attack. Each of the veterans who ventured back to France carried their own unique narratives, stories destined to outlive them.

Those original accounts, once shared, created storylines of their own, pulling new generations into a more visceral understanding of D-Day and the moment in time when bravery and sacrifice on a massive scale changed everything.

Cellist returned to the hedgerows, for a friend

One of the most compelling tales we encountered came courtesy of Mal Walker, a concert cellist who retired to Estes Park in 1984 and died in 2013. In 1944, he was part of the 29th Infantry that came ashore in the second wave at Omaha Beach.

In the weeks after the landing, his unit was charged with taking the town of Saint-Lo, situated amidst the notorious hedgerows that crisscross the French countryside. The heavy brush that surrounded pastures and fields had been a military tactical conundrum for centuries but in this instance provided cover for enemy fire that made the American advance a slow and costly proposition.

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Walker had lost most of his platoonmates while moving across one stretch of open pasture and narrowly avoided death himself. He kept his maps of the area, still marked with battlefield objectives, with no idea that one day they would again prove useful.

Years after the war, he was contacted by the now-adult son of one of the men in his platoon who had been killed in those battles. Walker became friends with the man, who had been only a few months old at the time of his father’s death. The man asked Walker if he would show him where his father died. The hedgerows hold no good memories for Walker. But he kindly agreed.

That’s how Walker and the man — with Karl and me in the back seat — came to be driving into the French countryside on a misty, rainy June morning. He consulted his old map, but Walker also recognized the area from memory. And it hadn’t changed all that much.

We parked along a country road and Walker guided us past a barbed wire fence and into open pasture. This was where more than two dozen men from his unit had died under enemy fire from one of the hedgerows — including his young friend’s father.

Walker got his bearings and paced to a spot about 30 yards shy of where the Germans, invisible in their positions, had cut down American troops with mortars and machine gun bursts. I remember him pointing to the ground.

“Right about here,” he said, pinpointing where the man’s father had died. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and the memory became indelible — an old soldier’s painful memory laid side by side with another man’s sudden understanding of his tragic family history.

Later that very same day, another emotion-charged story emerged.

A check and a request of the choir

A World War II veteran talks to a soldier at the end of a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day at the Bayeux War Cemetery in Bayeux, Normandy, France, Thursday, June 6, 2019. World leaders gathered Thursday in France to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings.(AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

Aurora’s Overland High School choir had been invited to perform at Colleville-sur-Mer, on the grounds of the American cemetery where President Bill Clinton would be on hand to honor the sacrifice of U.S. troops who stormed the beach. The students had held fundraisers to pay for their trip. They would perform, then pass a hat.

On one occasion, a check dropped in the hat was accompanied by a note from the woman who made the donation. Her first husband — he was just 21 and she 19 when they married — had come ashore at Omaha Beach and been killed days later among the hedgerows. He was eventually laid to rest at Colleville-sur-Mer.

The woman asked that the kids, at some point on their visit, pay their respects at his grave. She included its location in her note.

It rained the day of the official commemoration. By the time I arrived at the cemetery from Saint-Lo, I had missed the Overland kids’ scheduled performance. But as I walked the grounds, I found a group of choir members assembled in a semi-circle before one of the thousands of white stone crosses.

They had found their way to the grave of their benefactor’s husband. Some huddled beneath umbrellas. Others stood apart, seemingly impervious to the rain. They sang “America the Beautiful,” in gorgeous harmony — a performance that brought passers-by to tears.

For teens to whom World War II had been little more than a history lesson, the power of this place where they sang in memory of a fallen soldier and then made their way down from the bluff to the sand where so many others died touched them on an unexpected level.

Their story offered a welcome counterweight to the observation I heard often from veterans: American kids just didn’t appreciate the enormity of the stakes and the sacrifice in a war fought a half-century earlier, an ocean away.

On French soil, the visiting American vets found a markedly different dynamic.

Karl and I had planned a day off into our itinerary, though we should have known better. Stories seemed to materialize out of thin air — which was almost literally the case when we visited the small, quiet town of Vire. We found a nice spot for lunch and prepared to relax when we noticed that slowly, people were assembling along the streets.

There were school children — lots of them — and they all clutched small American flags. Adults joined them. We weren’t sure what was about to happen, but Karl scrambled back to our rental car to grab his camera equipment and I bought a notebook and pen at a nearby shop.

Busloads of American veterans from the 29th Infantry, which liberated Vire from German occupation, slowly made their way into town while a band played and cheering citizens lined the route. Some veterans stepped off the buses and walked through town, shocked but gratified by the adulation as groups of kids swarmed them with requests for autographs.

A local school teacher explained to me that she had taught her students about the invasion and liberation, but the kids didn’t seem to understand until she brought in some of the townspeople who had lived through the occupation to tell their stories. That ignited her students — and history was embraced by another generation.

Acknowledging his own role in the battle

Before leaving for France, I had connected with a Denver man whose father, a machine gunner in the 1st Army — known as the Big Red One — was planning to join a tour group of veterans who would retrace their steps from Omaha Beach inland.

The man asked his father if he could accompany him on the trip. It wound up adding another dimension to their relationship.

Many years earlier, the father had told stories of war, but they were G-rated tales of adventure and close calls with danger. Now, on the very ground he had traversed as a young man, he shared what for him had been the more haunting side of his wartime experience.

The son expected that their visit to Omaha Beach, below the ground now occupied by endless rows of white markers where American dead are buried, would be the most emotional time for his dad. But that actually came later, when the tour group stopped at a cemetery where thousands of German soldiers are buried — a spot some of the other veterans did not even want to bother with.

But for this machine gunner, it awakened the realization that his own role in the war, however noble the cause, also brought death. He wondered how many of these enemy soldiers he had killed.

That burden was a revelation to the son. He made a point of asking all the veterans on the tour what advice they would give to his own son, two generations removed from D-Day. It became a compilation of wisdom forged by war. He even anticipated that he might return one day with his son to share the experience.

He figured the 75th anniversary sounded about right.

A lone poppy blooms in a field running up to Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on June 6, 2019, the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Red Flanders poppies are a potent symbol of remembrance. (Candice A. Sobanski, Special to The Colorado Sun)