In this May 14, 2019, photo, World War II U.S. veteran Frank DeVita, who took part in the D-Day battle, poses for a picture at his home in Bridgewater, N.J. This June he’ll make his 12th trip back to Normandy. He likes to bring people with him so they’ll know what happened there. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

In this May 14, 2019, photo, World War II U.S. veteran Frank DeVita, who took part in the D-Day battle, poses for a picture at his home in Bridgewater, N.J. This June he’ll make his 12th trip back to Normandy. He likes to bring people with him so they’ll know what happened there. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

D-Day veterans revisit Normandy, recall horror and triumph

It’s been 75 years since that fateful day

Planes spread out across the sky, nearly wingtip to wingtip. A sniper’s bullet whizzing by the ear. Squeezing a dying soldier’s hand, so he knew he was not alone.

Across three quarters of a century, the old veterans remember that epic day on the beaches of Normandy. For historians, D-Day was a turning point in the war against Germany; for men who were among the 160,000 Allied fighters who mounted history’s largest amphibious invasion, June 6, 1944, remains a kaleidoscope of memories, a signal moment of their youth.

Not many of those brave men remain , and those that do often use canes, walkers or wheelchairs. Few are willing or able to return to Normandy for the anniversary. But listen to the stories of some who are making that sentimental journey that spans thousands of miles — and 75 years.

___

The day before Dennis Trudeau parachuted into Normandy, he wrote his parents a letter saying he was about to go into battle but they shouldn’t worry.

“Everything is going to be fine and dandy,” he wrote. “After all, I’m not scared.”

Trudeau had joined the Canadian military at 17 and became a paratrooper, in part because they were paid an extra $50 a month.

He’s 93 now, living in Grovetown, Georgia. But his memories of D-Day — and the day before D-Day — are undimmed.

On June 5, 1944, he and the other paratroopers sat on the tarmac and joked about how they’d be in Paris by Christmas. But when they climbed into the plane, the chatter stopped.

Trudeau’s position was by the open jump door; he could look out across the vast array of planes and ships powering toward Normandy. Planes were strung out across the horizon.

He prayed: “I just kind of told the Lord, ‘Let me see one more sunrise.’”

And then, he jumped.

Trudeau landed in water up to his waist in a flooded field. In the dark, he rendezvoused with other paratroopers. They were on the way to their objective when friendly fire hit — an Air Force bomb.

Thrown into a ditch, Trudeau heard a dying friend nearby, calling out for his mother.

“You train with him and you ate with him and you slept with him and you fought with him. And in less than three hours, he was gone,” he said.

Within hours, combat would be over for Trudeau, as well. He was captured by German forces, and spent the duration in a prisoner-of-war camp. By the time the war was over he had gone from 135 pounds to about 85.

He returned to Normandy in 1955 to see the graves of eight platoon members who didn’t survive. This time, he’ll say a prayer over their graves.

“They’re the heroes. They’re the ones who gave everything they had,” he said.

READ MORE: Mint to make special toonies to mark D-Day anniversary

__

There had been a number of false starts ahead of the invasion of Normandy. But Vincent Corsini knew June 6 was different. There was a certain feeling in the air — an “edge,” as he describes it. Chaplains on deck encouraged troops to pray and troops were given a good breakfast.

Certain other D-Day memories are crystal clear: peeking out over the edge of the landing craft with amazement at the U.S. firepower directed at the beach. Machine guns splattering the water as he unloaded. The weight of the 60mm mortars he carried.

Tucked against the bottom of the hill overlooking Omaha Beach, he heard someone yelling for help from the water. Taking off as much equipment as he could, he ran back to the waves and found a stranded officer.

“As I was standing there looking at him, somebody up on the hill pulled the trigger,” he said. The bullet narrowly missed his ear, feeling like a “sonic boom,” as it passed. Corsini grabbed the officer and pulled him to safety.

Corsini went on to fight through the dense hedgerows of Normandy with the 29th Infantry Division until they captured the strategic city of Saint-Lo. At his home in a retirement community in Burlington, North Carolina, a plaque on the wall — “D-Day to St. Lo” — commemorates his efforts. Another marks his receipt of the National Order of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest decoration.

He went back for the 50th D-Day anniversary and looked across a cemetery’s field of white crosses. His wife and members of the French Club he meets with monthly encouraged him to go on the 75th anniversary, at age 94.

His wartime experiences affected his life forever, he said.

“I wouldn’t change my experience for a million dollars,” he said, adding: “I wouldn’t go through it again for a million dollars.”

___

Frank DeVita remembers the moment he froze.

He had wanted to join the Air Force but had no peripheral vision. He wanted to join the Navy but it would take weeks to start basic training. That’s how he ended up in the Coast Guard on D-Day, ferrying troops to Omaha Beach.

His job was to lower the ramp when the craft got to shore and then raise it after the troops clamoured out. But in the early morning hours, as machine-gun fire rained down on the boat, that ramp served as DeVita’s shield, protecting him and the other men inside. The coxswain screamed at him to lower the ramp, and in the roar of the cannons and the craft’s diesel engines, DeVita couldn’t hear him. The coxswain screamed again.

“I froze. I was so scared because I knew when I dropped that ramp the bullets that were hitting the ramp were going to come into the boat and I’d probably be dead in five minutes,” said DeVita, 94, speaking from his home in Bridgewater, New Jersey. When he finally dropped the ramp, he said 14 or 15 troops were immediately raked by machine-gun fire.

One soldier fell at his feet, his red hair full of blood: “I reached down and I touched his hand, because I wanted him to know he wasn’t alone.”

Then, when he tried to lift the ramp, it was stuck. DeVita had to crawl over dead bodies lining the bottom of the landing craft to fix it.

Again and again, the landing craft ferried men to the beach. When there were no more men to ferry, DeVita and the other sailors pulled bodies from the choppy seas.

For decades — until recently — he never spoke of these things. This June he’ll make his 12th trip back to Normandy. Eager to keep the memory of what happened there alive, he has often brought others along to places like the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer .

“Pick out a tombstone, any tombstone. Place your hand on that white marble and say to yourself, ‘Six feet down is a boy.’ …. He gave his life for his country and then you lift your eyes up and you see 9,400 white marble tombstones,” he said. “They all gave their lives for their country.”

___

At 93, Norman Harold Kirby looks back at D-Day and the months of fighting that followed and finds it hard to remember exactly what happened.

“A lot of it, I tried to forget,” he said.

The Canadian, who now lives in Lions Bay, British Columbia, had joined the army when he was only 17 and was barely a 19-year-old private when he climbed into the landing craft that would take him to shore. The landing craft hit a mine, blowing a hole in the ship. His ears ringing from the explosion, Kirby abandoned the heavy gear he was carrying, his Bren machine-gun and ammunition, and climbed over the side. Many who couldn’t swim died in the water.

“I landed on the on the beach with my knife, fork and spoon,” he said.

On Juno Beach, he remembers an intense cacophony of sounds. Aircraft flying overhead. Navy shells rocketing toward the German positions.

“The noise was just unreal…You couldn’t hear anything, anybody talking or anything. People were yelling,” he said. “You couldn’t hear them because of all the racket going on.”

Kirby went back to France and Europe several times after the war as a tourist but for years never returned to Juno Beach.

“I would not go to the beach. I always stayed away from it. I didn’t want to go,” he said. Finally his wife sent him on a trip to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of the invasion. This time, she’ll accompany him to the 75th anniversary.

___

Climbing into the plane that would take him to Normandy, Eugene Deibler had no idea what to expect. The 19-year-old had joined the paratroopers to avoid being a radio operator, trained for months and survived a broken ankle in jump school, but had yet to see combat.

Gathered at Merryfield Airfield in southwest England, the paratroopers had already gotten geared up to jump the night before, and then the operation was called off due to bad weather. All that pent-up energy had to go someplace, and Deibler remembers troops getting into fights.

The second night, it was a go. Climbing into the plane, Deibler remembers telling himself that if his buddies could do this, so could he.

“If you weren’t scared something was wrong with you,” he said. “Because you’re just a kid, you know?”

As they arrived at the French coast, he remembers heavy antiaircraft fire and tracer bullets from machine-guns lighting up the sky like fireworks.

“We said ‘Let’s get the hell out of this plane,’” he said. The jump light went on, and out they went.

On the ground, their job was to secure a series of locks on the Douve River to prevent the Germans from opening the locks and flooding the fields. But they ran into such fierce resistance trying to secure another objective — a set of bridges — that they had to fall back.

Deibler went on to fight across Normandy, Holland and Belgium, in the Battle of Bastogne.

This will be his first time back to Normandy since the invasion, and he’d like to see what’s changed. At his Charlotte, North Carolina, home, the 94-year-old retired dentist has a collection of World War II books. He’s afraid that the great conflict will be forgotten.

“How many people remember the Civil War? How many people will remember World War I? And now it’s the same with World War II,” he said. “World War II will fade away also.”

___

Of all the medals and awards that Steve Melnikoff received as a 23-year-old fighting his way across Europe, the Combat Infantry Badge means the most to him. It signifies the bearer “had intimate contact with the enemy,” he said.

And Melnikoff certainly did.

When he landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day-plus-1 — June 7, 1944 — victory was far from secure. His unit was part of the bloody campaign to capture the French town of Saint-Lo through fields marked by thick hedgerows that provided perfect cover for German troops.

He remembers the battle for Hill 108 — dubbed Purple Heart Hill — for its ferocity. His job was to take up the Browning Automatic Rifle should the man wielding it go down. The Germans had shot and killed his friend who was carrying the BAR, and Melnikoff picked it up. About an hour later, he too was shot. As he went down, he looked to the side and saw his lieutenant also come under fire.

“He’s being hit by the same automatic fire, just standing there taking all these hits. And when the machine-gun stopped firing he just hit the ground. He was gone,” Melnikoff said.

“That is what happens in war,” he said, speaking from his Cockeysville, Maryland, home.

For decades he didn’t talk about the war and knows some men who went to their graves never speaking about it again. But he feels an obligation now to talk about what he and others went through. In his hundredth year, he works closely with The Greatest Generations Foundation which helps veterans return to battlefields where they fought. This year on June 6, he’ll go back to the cemetery and pay his respects.

“This prosperity and peace that we’ve had for all these years, it’s because of that generation,” he said. “It can’t happen again and that’s why I go there.”

__

Associated Press reporters David Martin in Bridgewater, N.J. and Tom Sampson in Cockeysville, Md. contributed to this report.

Rebecca Santana, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Houston physician Dr. Stefanie Steel receives her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine Jan. 19 from RN nurse manager Cindy Cockle. (Northern Health photo)
COVID-19 vaccinations get underway in Smithers

First doses are being administered to long-term care residents and priority health care staff

The COVID-19 outbreak at the two Coastal GasLink workforce lodges has officially been declared over. (Lakes District News file photo)
COVID-19 outbreak at Coastal GasLink worksites declared over

In total, 56 cases were associated with the outbreak in the Burns Lake and Nechako LHAs

Fentanyl was among the drugs seized by New Hazelton RCMP in a big bust in early January. (File photo)
New Hazelton RCMP arrest five, seize drugs and large amount of cash

Police find suspected heroin, fentanyl and crystal meth during early January drug bust

Smithers Local Health area reported 32 new cases of COVID-19 for the second week of January. (BC CDC graphic)
Weekly new cases of COVID-19 rise to 32 in Smithers LHA Jan. 10 – 16

Northern Health reports 35 new cases for 501 active, 44 hospitalized, 17 in critical care Wednesday

Brett Alexander Jones is wanted on several warrants province-wide, in connection with multiple charges. Jan. 21, 2021. Kitimat RCMP photo
Kitimat RCMP searching for man wanted on several warrants province-wide

Jones is described as a five-foot 10-inches Caucasian man, with blond hair and blue eyes.

Toronto Public Health nurse Lalaine Agarin sets up for mass vaccination clinic in Toronto, Jan. 17, 2021. B.C. is set to to begin its large-scale immunization program for the general public starting in April. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
B.C.’s COVID-19 mass vaccinations expected to start in April

Clinics to immunize four million people by September

Surrey provincial court. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
New COVID-19 protocols set for provincial courthouses

The new rules were issued on Jan. 21, and took effect immediately

Police in Vancouver looking for male suspect who allegedly spat and attacked a store manager for not wearing a mask, at 7-Eleven near Alma Street and West 10th Avenue just before noon on Dec. 17, 2020. (Vancouver police handout)
VIDEO: Man spits on 7-Eleven manager over mask rule, sparking Vancouver police probe

‘Unfortunately, the store manager sustained a cut to his head during the assault’

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

The Vancouver-based SAR team successfully rescued two lost snowshoers off of the west side of Tim Jones Peak in the early morning of Monday, Jan. 19. (North Shore Rescue photo)
B.C.’s busiest SAR team raises alarm after 2021 begins with fatality, multiple rescues

‘People beyond ski resort areas of Seymour, Grouse, and Cypress go without cell reception,’ SAR warns

Police are searching for an alleged sex offender, Nicole Edwards, who they say has not returned to her Vancouver halfway house. (Police handout)
Police hunt for woman charged in ‘horrific’ assault who failed to return to Surrey halfway house

Call 911 immediately if you see alleged sex offender Nicole Edwards, police say

A screenshot from a local Instagram account video. The account appeared to be frequented by Mission students, and showed violent videos of students assaulting and bullying other students.
Parents, former students describe ‘culture of bullying’ in Mission school district

Nearly two dozen voices come forward speaking of abuse haunting the hallways in Mission, B.C.

Joe Biden, then the U.S. vice-president, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take their seats at the start of the First Ministers and National Indigenous Leaders meeting in Ottawa, Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau, Biden to talk today as death of Keystone XL reverberates in Canada

President Joe Biden opposed the Keystone XL expansion as vice-president under Barack Obama

Prince Edward Island’s provincial flag flies on a flag pole in Ottawa, Friday July 3, 2020. A lozenge plant in Prince Edward Island has laid off 30 workers, citing an “almost non-existent” cold and cough season amid COVID-19 restrictions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘Almost non-existent’ cold and cough season: P.E.I. lozenge plant lays off 30 workers

The apparent drop in winter colds across the country seems to have weakened demand for medicine and natural remedies

Most Read