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Veterans Remember D-Day as 'Most Formative' Day of Their Lives - 2004-06-05

President Bush and other leaders will attend Sunday's ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of D-Day, when 150,000 allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy and went on to liberate France from the Nazis. The French are making sure this anniversary will be a special one, recognizing that this is probably the last time sufficient numbers of World War II veterans will be alive for a full-scale gathering.

They are old now, most in their 80's and 90's, these ordinary men who pulled off an extraordinary feat. But most remember June 6, 1944, as the most formative day of their lives.

They were part of the greatest sea invasion ever seen, with thousands of ships massed off the Normandy coast. After 25,000 paratroopers were dropped to secure the hinterland, landing craft deposited their human cargos on five beaches.

On all but one of those beaches, resistance was lighter than expected. At Omaha Beach, two U.S. divisions were hemmed in by the rising tide and fire from German defenses. Three thousand died that day on Omaha Beach. The total allied casualty for Day One of the invasion was close to 10,000 dead or wounded.

Richard Todd, a British soldier who went on to become a film actor, says his life was marked by what war historians have come to call "The Longest Day."

"My memory is not so good these days. But, nevertheless, that was one occasion that you could never possibly forget," he said. "And I think the most abiding memory I have was my actual landing in France. The other day, when I was there, I found the spot where I landed. There isn't even a dent in the ground. That has to be the abiding memory. You were taking part in something enormous. You were a small part of something enormous."

As a 19-year-old, British paratrooper Dennis Edwards was one of 28 men who flew in the first glider across the Channel. He said he and most of his buddies huddled in the flimsy aircraft, but were able to evade heavy German ground fire.

"I was literally frightened to death. I've never been so frightened in all my life," he said. "My teeth were chattering, and my knees were knocking. I grabbed my rifle between my knees, so people wouldn't see my knees knocking. But a strange thing happened. The moment that glider hit the ground, all my fears disappeared."

In recognition of the sacrifices made by American, British and Canadian soldiers, and those from a handful of other countries that day, French news media and government and locals throughout Normandy have been sponsoring evening gatherings to keep alive the stories and emotions of their country's occupation by the Nazis and its liberation by the Allies.

Gilbert Declos told a hushed audience at the war memorial at Caen what it was like that day for a seven-year-old orphan, who witnessed the titanic clash between two opposing forces.

"The Americans were coming from the sea, and the Germans were coming to the sea," he said. "At one point, their paths crossed. It was a blood bath. When you see that sea now, you'd say it is magnificent. But in 1944, the sea wasn't blue. It was red."

As the torch of memory is passed on, so that the lessons of the high spot of World War II are not forgotten, some of the elderly survivors want to make sure that those who died will continue to be honored.

Bill Campbell, an American veteran who now lives in Normandy, is one of those who remembers the sacrifices of his fellow soldiers. He believes this year's anniversary should keep their memory alive, but also should act as a caution to the living.

"If we cannot forget that, these boys who have died here and are buried here will not have died in vain," he said. "Give them a chance to at least be the heroes."

Bill Campbell and the others who have taken part in the project to teach the young about D-Day say the time will soon come when there will no longer be anyone alive who stormed the beaches of Normandy, or recalls just what it felt like to be liberated.