Thousands of World War II veterans, together with 16 heads of state, will gather in Normandy, France this week to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day. On June 6, 1944, allied forces began landing on beaches at Normandy to drive the occupying German forces out, and ultimately to defeat them in the war. Carolyn Weaver has a profile of one veteran who served as coxswain on a Coast Guard landing craft, and who is among those returning this week.
Marvin Perrett, of New Orleans, Louisiana, has had a long and lucky life, he says. He was a successful insurance agent, happily married for 53 years, the father of a daughter, and now a widower and grandfather. But the most momentous events of his life took place when he was still a teenager. Mr. Perrett had enlisted in the Coast Guard the day before his 18th birthday.
Eight months later, on June 6, 1944, he was one of thousands of allied troops who sailed into German mortar and machine gun fire to land troops at Normandy. Mr. Perrett was the pilot of one of the small Coast Guard landing boats, charged with the responsibility of getting 36 troops onto Utah Beach.
?As we?d go into the beach, I could see the machine gun bullets hitting the water,? he remembers, ?cascading the water upwards eight or nine feet up in the air.?
The landing began with some comedy, when an officer standing became seasick ? and Mr. Perrett was standing just downwind.
?I could see it coming, but I couldn?t do anything about it. It was a mess, you had to be there. And my trusty motorman saw my dilemma, he reached over the side and got a bucket of sea water. So, he hit me with the bucket of cold sea water. And at this time, all the guys bust out laughing. And it was the thing that it took in the heat of the battle, to relax the tension of the moment, because it was almost like they were saying in unison, ?if the kid can take this, I guess he?ll get us in safely.
Marvin Perrett did get them onto the beach safely - despite his being a target as he stood in the helm of the boat. Still, he is modest about his own bravery.
?It?s one thing to be shot at,? he says, ?but to see the bullets hitting the water, that?s something else, that really gets your attention. ?Cause the ones that whiz by you, that miss, you?re not the wiser. But when you see those bullets out in front of you hitting the water, your first reaction is to say, ?whoa, let?s hole up here a few minutes, let him run out of ammunition or train the gun elsewhere, and then we?ll move on.? You can?t do that. For you see, for me to have stopped the boat in any way shape or form, and break rank with the other boats, I would cause major gridlock all the way back, to sea, because they?ve got these waves of boats close on my heels behind me to take my place.?
D-Day Normandy was not Mr. Perrett?s only battle. He had earlier landed troops in the south of France. And after Normandy, he went on to the Pacific, to help land troops both at Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Today, at home in suburban New Orleans, he watches recently discovered Coast Guard film of his boat and sees himself with his comrades of old ? many of them now gone.
?This is yours truly, to the right,? he says, pointing to an image on the television screen, ?and to the left of me is Sweeney, and behind me is Lieutenant Daniels, who was the leader of our pack.?
Earlier in the day, Mr. Perrett gave an impromptu talk for a group of junior high school students at New Orleans? National D-Day Museum ? summoning them with an earsplitting whistle on his old bosun?s whistle.
?Okay folks, if you gather round, I?ll tell you a little about the boat and my involvement in it back during World War II,? he tells the students.
In recent years, he?s spent time lecturing both in schools around the country and at the D-Day museum, where an exact replica of the boat he drove in 1944 is on display. He?s proud that it bears his boat?s numbers ? PA-33-21.
The local Coast Guard station is another source of pride, where they?ve named a duty room in Mr. Perrett?s honor. This year, he is especially thrilled to be one of 100 American veterans invited back to Normandy by the French government. He will be honored at the Normandy ceremonies there, with France?s award of a knighthood of the Legion of Honor.
?Now I ask you, does this mean my friends will have to address me as ?Sir? Marvin, or ?Sir? Perrett he jokes, "or, how about ?Sir Marvelous?
And next year, in February 2005, Marvin Perrett hopes to travel again, for another historic commemoration, the 60th anniversary of the decisive battle of Iwo Jima in the Pacific ? where he lost the boat he had piloted, in a rough sea.
U.S. Coast Guard historical video sequences courtesy of David Brinkman