WWII vets return to Normandy
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON – They’ve been back before. They’ve walked the beaches, inhaled the sweet salt air, looked up their old friends in the cemeteries. They’ve tried to retrace their steps from the beach inward, remembering the gunfire, remembering the dead who didn’t make it past the shoreline.
But this will probably be the last time World War II veterans William Doyle and Sam Krauss, both members of the famed 29th Infantry Division, are able to visit the Normandy coast, where 65 years ago they landed as young, scared soldiers unsure they’d survive.
Doyle is 94, and Krauss is 92. Today, the 65th anniversary of D-Day, they will be part of the contingent of veterans, military officials and politicians, including President Obama, in Normandy to commemorate the bold, deadly attack that led to the liberation of France. With the “Greatest Generation” dying off at a rate of 851 a day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, many think Saturday’s observance will be one of the last big anniversaries attended by a significant contingent of those who were there.
“The numbers are fewer, but the sentiment is in a way stronger,” said Joe Balkoski, the command historian for the Maryland National Guard, who has written several books on D-Day and the 29th Infantry Division. “It pulls at your heartstrings.”
“I know it’ll be my last trip,” Doyle said during an interview this week.
“You said that last time,” Krauss teased.
The two men live in a retirement community in Catonsville, a Baltimore suburb. They met about 25 years ago at a veterans reunion. They trade stories about the war and josh with each other over who’s more of a ladies man. Their smiles are sharp, and they’re quick to joke. But walking has become more difficult, traveling is tough, and now both are prepared to say goodbye to the battlefield where so many of their friends lost their lives.
The first time Doyle went back to Omaha beach, where he landed the day after D-Day, was in 1988. His French was rusty, but the people were welcoming and warm, and he became pen pals with some of them. He was amazed by the landscape, how a place that had seen so much destruction and carnage was so beautiful and calm.
After Doyle landed on the beach, he fought with his unit, C Company of the 175th Infantry, through Isigny, where “it looked like every house was on fire.” Then toward St. Lo, where a large chunk of shrapnel went through his left arm. “I still can’t use it very well,” he said.
But when he returns to Normandy, as he’s done frequently in the past decade or so, he sees the beach not only as a battlefield but also as the quaint tourist area that it has become. “It’s like Ocean City (Md.),” he said.
Which can be disconcerting. On a recent trip, he had to be led to an area known as Hill 108, where many of his friends were killed. Decades later, the region looked so different he didn’t recognize it. And without the ships and the bullets and the dead, the beach looked different, too.
Still, he could remember the view, the sea and the fields upon open fields. Looking back from a distance of several decades, it all looked so peaceful.