Articles

The Still-Living Memories Of D-Day

June 04, 2014

One or two rely on walkers, some brandish canes. But even those stooped with age stand erect when the national anthem is played and sing with abandon. They are all in their late 80s or early 90s. But in the mind's eye, they are the young men who stormed Hitler's Atlantic Wall early on June 6, 1944, and redeemed the world.

On Tuesday I met several dozen American D-Day veterans as they embarked from Great Britain for France and the 70th anniversary celebration of the invasion of Europe. The men were the guests of the Greatest Generation Foundation, whose founder, Tim Davis, introduced them to me.

One of the veterans, Alfonso Villa, had been trained in underwater demolition and was in the first wave on Omaha Beach with the 237th Combat Engineers. The "mad ocean," he says, swept him and three others through the wires, obstacles and mines, depositing them on the shore. "Mother Nature saved us," he adds. "I was one of the lucky ones."

Al Villa spent the rest of the day clearing paths along the coastline, then fought through to the war's end in Europe. He returned home to jobs at the post office and the Denver Mint, and then spent decades in construction.

Born in Hazard, Ky., Wilson "Bill" Colwell enlisted in 1943 by lying. He was only 15. He parachuted with the 101st Airborne into Normandy shortly after 1:30 a.m. on D-Day. The last words he heard before jumping were, "Look to the left, look to the right, one of you will not see daylight." His aircraft missed the drop zone by 20 miles.

Mr. Colwell and six others from the 101st and 82nd spent five days fighting their way back to the beach, traveling by night to avoid the retreating Germans. When his 200-man company was sent back to England to train for the next major airborne offensive, 82 of his comrades had been killed, captured or wounded.

Demobilized in late 1945, Bill Colwell worked in Detroit for Ford before deciding to open a vocational school in Colorado after vacationing in Denver.

Thomas J. Kilker Jr. was one of D-Day's old men. He was 25 years old at the time of the invasion, having enlisted just before Pearl Harbor. He flew one of the 52 gliders of the 437th Troop Carrier Group, 85th Squadron. As he approached an open field before daylight, with the lead craft below and slightly ahead of him, a "reception committee" of Germans opened up.

The lead glider went left and Mr. Kilker's went right. Both landed, though Mr. Kilker's glider broke apart in the process. He was carrying Gen. Matthew Ridgeway's jeep and a driver, who was injured in the landing. Mr. Kilker and his co-pilot rescued the driver and ran into paratroopers from the 101st as they put distance between themselves and the superior German force. To this day he wonders what happened to the 5-year-old French boy hurt in a firefight with a German sniper at an American aid station.

Originally from a little town south of Rochester, Minn., Ivan Cady was an 18-year-old private with the Second Ranger Battalion that came ashore in the first wave at Omaha Beach. He was "wet, cold, full of sand, and scared." No wonder. There was no place to hide; his unit was stuck "in the shooting gallery." He will only laconically describe what he saw as "horrible."

Mr. Cady says he never expected to go home, "except in a box." He carries to this day a sense of guilt for somehow surviving when so many others did not. When I asked how he was doing Tuesday, he said good, but he didn't know how he would feel Friday, the anniversary of the landing.

My hope is Ivan Cady and the dwindling number of men who stormed the Normandy beaches in 1944 allow themselves to accept what is due them, which is their nation's lasting gratitude. "I think continually of those who were truly great," Stephen Spender begins a poem. "The names of those who in their lives fought for life, Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre./ Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun/ And left the vivid air signed with their honour."

The achievements of these men and their honor endure. By suffering the day's violence and terror and that of the days that followed, they ended a madman's dream of a 1,000-year Reich and made possible the survival of human freedom.

A version of this article appeared June 5, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline The Still-Living Memories of D-Day and online at WSJ.com.

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