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D-Day at 80: One more mission to Normandy for the greatest generation

OpinionD-Day at 80: One more mission to Normandy for the greatest generation

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PROGRAMMING ALERT: Watch the Fox Nation series “The Final Journey of the Greatest Generation with Martha MacCallum.”

As I write this, dozens of world leaders, including President Biden, Emmanuel Macron, King Charles III and the Prince of Wales, are all preparing to travel to a place that has deep meaning in our shared history. They will go back to the beaches of Normandy and the endless fields of crosses that mark the resting places of our fallen soldiers, sailors and airmen, many of whom were no more than boys. Their bodies lie, as they have for 80 years now, this June, beneath the soft blanket of bright spring grass and under the fair shade.

But this peaceful spot is not as they knew it. They, in their late teens and early 20s, landed more than 150,000 strong, some in Higgins boats, some jumped out of C-47s. Many scrambled up the beaches, others scaled the cliffs of Point du Hoc, using firehouse ladders brought from London. They struggled to keep moving forward, under a blistering barrage of incoming fire.  

For thousands, they took their last steps right there – on Omaha, Utah, Juno, Sword and Gold. For those who made it, they watched their buddies, some with whom they shared their last meal hours before, wounded, blown apart, and many lifeless.  

US Army troops crowd into a navy landing craft infantry ship during the D-Day Invasion of Normandy

U.S. Army troops crowd into a navy landing craft for the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. (US Navy/Getty Images)

Some, forced to bail out of the boats, drowned under the weight of their packs, giving what Lincoln called at Gettysburg, “the last full measure of devotion” to bring freedom to Europe. A continent most of them had never seen, and a people they had never met.

D-DAY VETERAN, 101, HEADS TO FRANCE FOR 80TH ANNIVERSARY OF NORMANDY LANDINGS

 Last year, at the commemoration ceremony, only a handful of the Greatest Generation were able to make the trip. But this year, the 80th, is different. This is a big one, and 150 are expected. 

In 1984, President Reagan and his White House team recognized that 40 years after the war, many of those “Boys of Point du Hoc” and their band of brothers, then about retirement age, were likely to make the trip. Reagan addressed them in a moving speech, as the wind whipped above that hallowed place where the 2nd Ranger Battalion sent 225 young men up the cliffs to fight the Germans. They suffered a 70% casualty rate. Many who were killed rest in the American Cemetery just a short stroll from where the battle began.

It has now been 40 years of France welcoming these heroes back. Forty years of reunions and big band dances, of dropping out of airplanes at commemorative ceremonies, of being welcomed by French school children, who embraced them and thanked them for the freedom they brought decades before. But this time, it is quite likely, is the last time they will ever come to Normandy, with their stories and often their tears. They are now mostly between 97 and 102 years old.   

We will be joined at Normandy by three of those men, who fought in World War II. They are men we’ve come to know in our coverage over the years, at D-Day’s 75th anniversary, in Iwo Jima and in our new series for Fox Nation, “The Final Journey of The Greatest Generation,” in which the veterans tell the story in their own words. We are honored to call them friends.

AMERICAN AIRLINES KICKS OFF D-DAY 80TH ANNIVERSARY TRIP FOR WORLD WAR II VETERANS TO NORMANDY

Rondo Scharfe and I met in Guam. He was wearing running shorts and a neon T-shirt at breakfast at the hotel there, before we were about to board the plane to Iwo Jima. Then 92, he appeared no more than 75 at the most. His boyish energy and charm belied his age.  

To join the Navy in 1943, he had bleached out the numbers on his baptismal certificate and changed them, making him 18, instead of the 16-year-old boy he was at the time. 

He would head to the Pacific and become a coxswain at that young age, steering a Higgins boat, an amphibious landing craft, ashore at Iwo Jima. He was injured and received the Purple Heart. 

He has returned to Iwo once and Normandy twice. He told us he comes because of the friends he lost, because of the nightmares he still sometimes has, where they come to him and he offers to trade places for a few days, so they can live some of the life he got to live.

Army veteran Bud Gahs invited me to his home outside of Baltimore, where he lives with his wife Angela. Ninety-eight years old at the time, and still an avid traveler, we had to plan the interview around his latest trip to Europe. He had a photo album an arm’s length away, his mind still sharp as he reminisced over photos of himself, alongside some of the men he fought with in Europe eight decades earlier.  

WHILE MEN STORMED NORMANDY, WOMEN WORKED AS CODEBREAKERS, CARTOGRAPHERS AND COXSWAINS TO ACHIEVE D-DAY SUCCESS

Part of the famed “Rainbow Division,” he was sent to France in 1944 to face a German counteroffensive. He received a Bronze Star after a house where he and his fellow soldiers took shelter was surrounded by German soldiers. He fought back from that post for more than two hours, keeping the enemy at bay. He killed 10 Germans that day, and held the territory, preventing the Germans from breaking the line in Schweghausen. 

After that, Bud would go on to be among the men who liberated the Dachau concentration camp. He and his men saw some people in the woods. Thinking they were likely escaping Nazis, they prepared to take them out. But on closer look they saw emaciated prisoners crawling through the woods toward them. Bud stared in disbelief at their condition, and choked up as he recalled the man kissing his feet. The day after that, Bud was in the first American truck to enter Munich. 

We met 98-year-old Andre Chappaz near a naval base in California. Born to French parents in San Francisco, his family moved to Paris. But as the Nazis swept toward France, the Chappaz family made their way back to the States. He joined the Army in 1943, at the age of 17. He was sent to the Pacific to help build airfields on Guam and runways on Okinawa that would be used for American planes to reach mainland Japan. A talented artist, he chronicled his time in the military through drawings.  

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In Normandy this week, we will honor those in attendance, as they take a last look at the battlefields that defined so much of their lives, and so much of our history. Normandy was the beginning of the battle that would finally bring the years of agony, fear and war to an end. 

Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower walked among the men gathered in England hours before the invasion and gave them a powerful message.

“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.” 

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Earl Mills remembers hearing those words, as he listened at the base in England, hours before D-Day. In our series for Fox Nation: “The Final Journey,” Earl recounts, “He was telling us how important it was for us to be successful as we jumped into Normandy. And he also told us that many of you here today will not come back. I’ll remember that real well.”

We remember Earl, who passed away shortly after our interview, and all the men who told us their stories as we documented them, so that everyone will be able to hear it directly from these heroes. These men, who rolled back the forces of Hitler, and the Empire of Japan, to free the world from tyranny and oppression. They are our heroes, always. And we salute them on their final journey to Normandy this week. 

CLICK HERE FOR MORE FROM MARTHA MacCALLUM

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