D-Day Vets Return to Normandy for 75th Anniversary

 - June 14, 2019, 10:04 AM

In the early hours of June 6, 1944, U.S. Army Air Corps pilot David Hamilton flew a C-47 Dakota filled with British Pathfinder paratroopers over Normandy, France, on his first combat mission. U.S. Navy signalman Vincent Unger was sailing toward Utah Beach on LCI 525, a landing craft carrying about 200 infantry troops on the first wave of the invasion. Royal Air Force driver David Teacher of the 103rd Beach Unit was in the seat of his three-ton wagon on a landing craft waiting to be delivered to Juno Beach. And U.S. Army infantryman Gerald Anderson would soon land on Omaha’s “Easy Red” beach with the second wave of the 1st Infantry Division. 

All of these veterans, young lads at the time but now in their nineties, returned to Normandy for the 75th anniversary of the pivotal Allied invasion that turned the tide of World War II in Nazi-occupied Europe. More than 300 WWII veterans, including about 65 U.S. veterans of the Normandy campaign, attended a series of ceremonies on June 5 and 6 that included paratrooper drops, aircraft flyovers, and remarks by dignitaries.

The Veterans

During the 75th anniversary week, World War II veterans were hailed as celebrities wherever they appeared with cheering, standing ovations, and requests for photos and autographs. Forever Young Senior Veterans, a Tennessee-based non-profit sponsored 14 U.S. D-Day veterans on their first return to Normandy in 75 years, including Unger, who helped deliver troops to three different beaches until his landing craft was hit on June 8, 1944.

“I was only 18 years old,” said Unger, now 96. “My duties included weatherman, signalman, and quartermaster. We were the first wave on Utah, and it was terrible with the sound from all the canons. We landed troops at Utah, Juno, and Sword beaches. After we got hit, we had to go to Belfast for repair. I was deaf for five days.”

The Aircraft

Fifteen twin-engine C-47/C-53 cargo or DC-3 passenger planes (generically called Dakotas in this article after the British designation for that airframe) journeyed from the United States to Europe to participate in the 75th anniversary festivities. Organized by the non-profit D-Day Squadron, the Dakotas participated in anniversary activities in the U.S. before crossing the North Atlantic in small groups beginning May 10.

While the individual aircraft owners were responsible for their own costs, more than two dozen companies including Atlantic Aviation, Clay Lacy, Hertz, Satcom Direct, and Aeronautical Data Systems provided donations, goods, or services to assist with the effort. Signature Flight Support provided discount fuel and waived ramp and handling fees at several locations. Approximately $3.5 million in donations and sponsorships was raised for the overall D-Day Squadron effort.  

Once in England, the D-Day Squadron joined up with eight European-based Daks Over Normandy-sponsored planes at Duxford Aerodrome about 50 miles north of London. Duxford served as the base for the Dakotas that participated in flyovers at Prestwick, Scotland on May 24, and for public events on June 4-5.

Included in the American contingent was That’s All, Brother, the plane that led the main airborne invasion of 800 C-47s dropping 13,000 paratroopers behind enemy lines just after midnight on D-Day. Now fully restored and owned by the Texas Wing of the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), Brother was scheduled to be converted into a turboprop cargo plane before historians found it in 2015. Brother was one of seven D-Day veteran Dakotas participating in the 75th anniversary events and was flown by veteran CAF pilot Doug Rosendaal.

“Flying over the Channel with the other C-47s all bearing D-Day stripes was awe-inspiring,” said a passenger on That’s All Brother after an early morning flight of five C-47s from Duxford to Cherbourg, France, on June 5. “That’s All Brother was configured with the same paratrooper seating as it had been on D-Day. The weather was perfect, not like on D-Day, but with the noise of the round engines and the cool temps of an unpressurized cabin, it still gave a good perspective of what the flight itself was like—without the flak or anticipation of dropping into combat.”

Daks Over Normandy coordinated several parachute drops and flyovers during the week. On June 5, the group dropped nearly 200 parachutists in WWII gear and modified round parachutes near Carentan, commemorating the U.S. Army 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions paratroop drop behind enemy lines in the early hours of June 6, 1944. 101st Airborne vet Tom Rice, age 97, recreated his D-Day jump by jumping tandem out of a C-47. As reported by Associated Press, Rice said, “it went perfect, perfect jump. I feel great. I’d go up and do it all again.”

Later that day in a combined military and civilian operation, another 250 parachutists dropped from C-130, C-160 and C-47 aircraft in fields near Caen, including D-Day veterans Harry Read and John Hutton, aged 95 and 94 respectively, who completed tandem jumps with the British Army’s Red Devil parachute team.

“It’s great to be back. I’m very pleased to be back firmly in my legs again,” said Hutton after his tandem jump. Hutton was one of the British paratroopers who secured Pegasus Bridge. On June 9, the Dakotas joined another joint commemorative parachute drop as more than 900 paratroopers and 110 civilian parachutists from seven countries dropped near Saint-Mere-Eglise. 

The Ceremonies

June 6 saw several anniversary ceremonies conducted across Normandy, including at Gold, Sword and Juno beaches; the new British memorial at Vers-sur-Mer; the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Bayeux; and the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. The American ceremony included a welcome from American Battle Monuments Commission secretary William Katz, remarks by French and American presidents, and flyovers of aircraft from several nations.

French president Emmanuel Macron’s remarks addressed the sacrifices Americans made for the French and other European people. “The USA is never greater than when it is fighting for the freedom of others,” Macron said in French. “You freed a land with no other compass than a cause that was greater than yourselves, the cause of liberty.” Addressing the 170 WWII veterans on stage, Macron said in English, “We know what we owe to you veterans: our freedom. On behalf of my country, I just want to say thank you.” Macron presented the Legion of Honor medal, France’s highest order of merit to five D-Day vets—Vincent Hynes, Stanley Friday, Charles Juroe, Harold Terens, and Paul Wirth. “Stanley Friday was wounded twice, took part in liberating concentration camps...maybe then you understood what you were fighting for,” Macron said.

U.S. president Donald Trump also included the stories of D-Day veterans in his marks at the American Cemetery, including that of two brothers, Ray and Bill Lambert, who had fought in Sicily together and landed on Omaha Beach in the early hours of D-Day.

“The two brothers stood together in the Higgins boats,” Trump said. “Of 31 men in Ray’s landing craft, only Ray and six others made it onto the beach called Easy Red. Ray ran back into the water and dragged wounded men out onto the beach one after another. He was shot, leg torn by shrapnel, back broken, and had been on the beach for hours when he finally lost consciousness. He woke up on a cot the next day, looked over and saw his brother Bill, who didn’t make it. At age 98, Ray is here with us... Ray, the world salutes you!”

Trump honored the 9,388 fallen Americans buried in the cemetery saying, “They had a job to do and they were going to get it done without hesitation or complaint...To those boys who rest in the fields before me, your example will never grow old. Your legend will never die. Your spirit will never die.”