World War II veterans return to the Normandy beaches they stormed nearly 70 years ago

NORMANDY - By Tom Charlier

The Commercial Appeal

Just like that history-changing morning so long ago, the tide is out and a stiff wind scours the sand, but W.T. Hardwick can't quite reconcile the serene beach before him with the smoke and chaos of his memories.

He's dreamt often about this place, about the artillery raining down and men falling and his capture. Now, hand-in-hand with his daughter and granddaughter, he looks out beyond the breaking waves and sees an empty horizon where thousands of ships once clogged the English Channel.

Deep into the ninth decade of life, wearing sneakers and a windbreaker instead of boots and fatigues, Hardwick is retracing the steps he took as a 20-year-old infantryman storming Utah Beach on D-Day.

"I wanted to come out here to see if it brought back any memories, and it did," said the 87-year-old retired Memphis Area Transit Authority bus driver. "So many got killed and me being spared -- it just doesn't make sense."

 Hardwick, who was captured four days after landing on Utah and endured a 10-month ordeal as a POW, isn't alone in trying to come to grips with his wartime experiences. Twelve other World War II veterans have traveled with him from Memphis to revisit battlefields from the Normandy beaches to the forests of Belgium and Luxembourg.

As America marks the 70th anniversary of its entry into World War II this week, the most devastating conflict in human history is fading inexorably from memory, overshadowed in recent years by the 9/11 attacks and prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Census figures show that only about 9 percent of the nation's current 313 million citizens were alive when Pearl Harbor was bombed.

But for many of the men on this trip -- most of them survivors of D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge -- the war never really ended. Nearly seven decades later, several still are plagued by nightmares, stress, anger and intense, almost unbearable feelings of guilt.

This trip, sponsored by a Collierville, Tenn.-based nonprofit group, will take them to battle sites, cemeteries, monuments, museums and towns across Northern Europe. They will receive medals and official proclamations from mayors and officials and hear spontaneous outpourings of gratitude from citizens whose land they helped liberate from Nazi occupation.

Perhaps more importantly, they will try to make peace with the past.

"This is going to be a very healing trip," Diane Hight, founder of the nonprofit group Forever Young, tells the group as the tour bus gets under way in France.

The trans-Atlantic trip, which will last eight days, is a particularly daunting challenge, given that the vets range in age from 84 to 90; one uses a walker, two others sometimes need wheelchairs and a few lean on canes.

 As if to underscore the risks and challenges, three of the veterans who were signed up to go on the trip died in the weeks leading up to the October departure, while another was forced to pull out late because of a failed defibrillator.

First it was 95-five-year-old Louis Patrick, a former POW, who died of a heart problem, and then Johnny Oakley, 86, passed away in his sleep.Then, in early August, 91-year-old Will Sawyer, who had survived battles across Europe as an infantryman and who already had packed his bags for the European trip, was killed when the car he was driving was struck by a sanitation truck.

"It just shows how fast we're losing them," Hight says.

In fact, of the more than 16 million Americans who served in World War II, only 1.87 million were still alive in 2010, Census figures show, down from 5.17 million in 2000.

In Shelby County, Tenn., Census estimates put the number of World War II vets at 3,468 last year, down from 11,299 a decade earlier.

By the end of this decade, barely a quarter-million will be left nationwide, according to the Veterans Affairs Administration.

 

As representatives of a dwindling group, the men enduring the seven-hour flight from Cincinnati to Paris are returning to the scene of a war that was a defining event of their lives -- one that was bound up in unspeakable horrors but also led to unimagined opportunities.

Veterans such as Richard Elliott, for instance,

used the GI Bill to attend the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and get the degree that allowed him to eventually become longtime president of the Memphis Area Teachers Credit Union.

"That was the best thing that ever happened," said Elliott, who fought with Gen. George S. Patton's Third Army in the Bulge. "I hadn't graduated high school when I was drafted."

For black soldiers such as Clarence Mason, however, the war and service overseas only underscored the inequalities they faced at home.

In the segregated Army of the time -- it wasn't until three years after the war that President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order integrating the armed forces -- Mason was part of the Quarter Master Service Corps and guarded German POWs in Cherbourg, France.

Unlike people in his adopted hometown of Memphis, the French seemed accepting of African-Americans. "They were real nice. Race didn't matter," said Mason, the only black veteran on the trip.

 After the war, he returned to a city still deeply segregated. A series of mostly menial jobs awaited him, one paying 40 cents per hour at Defense Depot Memphis and a porter's position at a downtown clothing store that paid $22.50 a week. For Mason, the main benefit of the GI Bill was the monthly expense check that augmented his earnings.

"Everything was the same (after the war). Nothing changed," Mason said.

The vets had dreamed of returning to Europe, though not all for the same reasons. For each, there are special emotions raised by visits to the different sites.

That much was evident the day after touring Utah Beach, when the group headed to the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, which sits high on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach.

It is a place of soul-stirring beauty and tranquility, with the breeze off the beach whispering through fir trees lining the manicured grounds that serve as the final resting place for 9,300 U.S. service members killed in the Normandy campaign.

It has special meaning for 87-year-old Memphian Vince Rowell.

As the Memphis group begins its visit, Dwight "Andy" Anderson, director of Normandy Visitors Service for the American Battle Monuments Commission, which oversees the cemetery, notices Rowell's jacket identifying him as a member of the 29th Infantry Division.

 "Your division is the most represented in this cemetery," Anderson tells him.

 Rowell already knows this, having traveled here twice before to visit the fallen soldiers he calls "my heroes."

A former artilleryman, Rowell is one of the group's two veterans of Omaha -- by far the bloodiest of all the D-Day beaches, the place where almost nothing went right on June 6, 1944.

U.S.troops had to wade through the surf and scramble across hundreds of yards of open beach, then fight their way up a 300-foot bluff while under fire from an unexpectedly large German resistance force. The assault left more than 3,000 Americans dead, wounded or missing.

Rowell, landing with the second assault wave, recalls using his legs to clear a path through the floating bodies of GIs. At water's edge, he took cover behind a blown-up landing craft while German machine guns continued to rake the beach with impunity.

Walking among the graves here "gives me peace," Rowell says. "That's all I can do for them guys."

But he has no interest in setting foot on the beach.

"I already did it one time," he said. "Too many memories, too many memories."

If the visits to the five D-Day beaches evoked shattering memories for Hardwick and Rowell, emotions among others on the trip are no less intense as the tour bus winds through the Ardennes Forest along the Belgium-Luxembourg border.

It's a haunting place for survivors of the Battle of the Bulge, the surprise December 1944 German offensive that marked Hitler's last-gasp effort to turn the tide of the war. During the nearly six-week-long battle, Americans died at a rate of 500 per day.

It is in this area that Roy Cannon, 87, of Brownsville, Tenn., who served in an anti-aircraft battalion during the battle, begins opening up about feelings of guilt that haunt him still.

As a corporal in charge of two guns, it was his job to assign men to positions on the 40 mm and 50-cal. weapons. The two men on the 40 mm gun were seated 4 feet off the ground, making them easy targets for German snipers. Several were picked off in rapid succession, and each time, "I had to tell another boy to get up there," Cannon said.

"I sent boys onto those guns knowing they'd probably get killed. They asked me not to send them, but I told them I had no choice."

Asked where he's kept that guilt all these years, Cannon tapped his chest with his fist. "Right here.     

Although many might find it unusual that veterans could hold on to feelings of guilt, stress and anger for nearly 70 years, experts in post-traumatic stress disorder aren't surprised. The Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated that 1 in 20 World War II vets still suffer from PTSD, although others call that figure low.Kent Cox, a

retired clinical psychologist who treated many World War II vets, including some on the trip, during his 33 years at the Memphis Veterans Medical Center, said wartime memories can become more problematic as veterans age.

 Cox said that at events such as the Europe trip, in which veterans can talk to one another, feelings become "normalized" and less troubling.

There were other potentially therapeutic aspects to the trip, as well, including the signs of gratitude the veterans heard and saw throughout Northern Europe.

In Normandy, there are churches with stained-glass windows depicting U.S. paratroopers and private homes flying American flags. Bars and other businesses are named 6 Juin in honor of D-Day.

 In Bastogne, the main square is named Place de McAuliffe, for Anthony McAuliffe, the U.S. general who famously responded with one word -- "Nuts" -- to a German surrender ultimatum. When the bells of St. Pierre Church ring out in town, they play the first few bars of the Star-Spangled Banner.

At the Utah Beach Museum, Charles de Vallavielle, whose father founded the museum, gives the veterans medals for their roles in the liberation. "I don't know if we can ever say ‘thank you' enough," he tells them.

Similar sentiments are expressed by local officials in Belgium. And in Luxembourg, Constant Goergen, honorary president of a group dedicating to honoring U.S. veterans, tells the group that "your great nation and you, dear World War II veterans" gave his country the longest period of peace in its history.

Throughout the trip, the veterans also encounter civilians who, upon seeing the insignia on the caps Hight has given them, offer their thanks.

At a German bunker overlooking Normandy beaches, a French family approaches Rowell. A boy no more than 12 years old, the only English-speaking family member, steps forward. "Thank you," he says.

And in St. Mere Eglise, a town that U.S. paratroopers fought a bloody battle to liberate in the early hours of D-Day, four young professionals visiting from Liege, Belgium, notice Rowell's jacket identifying him with the 29th Division. Family members who had survived the war had taught them to be thankful for their American liberators.

"Where did you land?" Chresta Vandormael, one of the Belgians, asks him. Rowell points to the "Omaha Beach" embroidered on his hat.

"Why do you come back?" she asks.

Again, Rowell refers to his fallen comrades. "Because I left all my heroes over here," he responds.

Tears are spilling from Vandormael's eyes before she speaks again.

"Merci," she says softly, giving Rowell a hug.

On their last day in Europe, the group boards a boat at Koblenz, Germany, for a cruise up the Rhine River.

It's Pickens' first time back in Germany since his captivity, an ordeal during which his weight dropped from 195 to 120 pounds.

And as the group travels by bus that evening to a hotel in Frankfurt, he tells other vets how much the trip has helped him deal with his nightmares and bitter memories of the Tunisian civilian who had betrayed his hiding place to German soldiers in February 1943.

"I'm trying real hard to forget him," Pickens said. "Now, after talking to you fellers, I'm ready to do it."

As the tour ends, the acting chaplain for the trip, Rick Bradley, 56, tells the group he hopes their burdens have been lightened.

"I've heard from some of you that this trip has allowed you to get off your chest some things that have been there 67 years," Bradley says.

"If anyone deserves God's blessing, it's you."

For some the vets, including Hardwick, who has been plagued by memories of the hardships he endured as a POW, there is no simple answer to the question of whether the trip helped.

In the days following his return to Memphis, Hardwick had another dream about his captivity. But there was one difference, he said.

In this dream, just as it was ending, he was about to be set free.

           

(Contact Tom Charlier at charlier(at)commercialappeal.com.)

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