Normandy veterans remember fallen D-Day comrades

7th June 2009, Comments 0 comments

Veterans, soldiers and schoolchildren took their place together among the sea of white crosses at the Colleville-sur-Mer war cemetery, on a cliff above the site of the Normandy landings, where 9,387 American World War II troops are buried.

Colleville sur mer -- American and French flags fluttered in the spring breeze, as D-Day veterans led tributes to their fallen brothers Saturday, 65 years after their sacrifice turned the tide of war.

Veterans, soldiers and schoolchildren took their place together among the sea of white crosses at the Colleville-sur-Mer war cemetery, on a cliff above the site of the Normandy landings, where 9,387 American World War II troops are buried.

Star guest of the commemorations, US President Barack Obama joined the leaders of France, Britain and Canada with moving speeches saluting the heroism of the "greatest generation," who gave their lives to push back Nazi tyranny.

But all eyes were on the 200 American ex-servicemen, most now in their eighties, who crossed the Atlantic to share their memories, and pay what for some may be their last respects to their brothers-in-arms.

Some like Kurtz Ranney, who made the journey from South Dakota with a 60-strong choir, expected it to be their last sight of the Normandy shores.

Now a frail 94, Ranney says he left behind "quite a few" companions from his elite bridge-building unit, which was parachuted in shortly after D-Day.

"I was here for the 50th anniversary, and the 60th anniversary. And I'm getting older so this is probably going to be the last one," said the veteran medical officer, now 94, who went on to become a professor of obstetrics.

George Charlesbois, coming face to face with Colleville's sea of white crosses for the first time since World War II, also said he seized what may be a last chance.

"I didn't come before because I was afraid to be too upset. But given my age I might not make it next time," said the 84-year-old, whose division landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.

Eighty-six-year-old Louis Johnson, who also landed on Omaha Beach, was joining the D-Day commemorations for the fourth time -- and last time -- to "honour the heroes who fell, who were only 18 or 19."

"It's like hallowed land, he said. "But four times is enough, it is too difficult to travel now."

But Ralph K. Manley, from Missouri, was adamant he would be back.

A spry 85, Manley was the only D-Day vet among 25 ex-servicemen who took part in a re-enactment parachute jump on Friday, before attending the 65th anniversary of the landings.

"And I'll be here for the 70th too!" he said with a huge laugh.

Manley was in the first wave of the landings, as a 20-year-old demolitionist for the 101st Airborne Division.

"I parachuted into France 23 minutes after midnight on June 6. They wanted us to bring everything we might need so I weighed 417 pounds," he said with a raucous laugh.

"I had 50 pounds of explosives, three anti-tank mines, six hand grenades, 100 rounds of ammunition for a folding carabine rifle, 40 rounds of ammunition for a .45 pistol, two knives, one bayonet."

Manley's mission was to blow utility lines, mine access routes to the D-Day beaches to block German troops, and position explosives to cut canal locks and railroad tracks if needed.

He was in Normandy for six weeks, before regrouping in England to jump again in Holland in September.

He remembers trading cigarettes for a fresh shave and haircut after getting a coveted pass to Paris, before he was recalled to fight in the mid-winter Battle of the Bulge.

Wounded six times in the course of the war, Manley lost two-thirds of his paratrooper companions in combat.

"I went from a student in school to an airborne, and a killer, and from a killer after the war back to a student in college."

"But the war made me a very positive person. I am thankful for freedom, I am thankful for opportunity. I'm thankful for all those things that the world provides."

AFP/Expatica

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