A Trip to Normandy
(Normandy, France 10/04/11) – Forever Young had the honor of taking 13 WWII veterans back to Europe. The war heroes visited Paris, Normandy, Luxemburg, Belgium, and took a cruise down the Rhine River. For many of the veterans it was a trip back down memory lane.
“Sixty-seven years earlier, these men went to Europe to fight and now they’re going back,” said Forever Young volunteer, David Bradshaw, whose father landed on Utah beach on June 8th, 1944. “Some are going back to Normandy where they came ashore to see the beach, to see it without the blood of the dead and dying and to see it without the noise of machine guns, artillery, and the screams of their countrymen,” he added.
“They wanted to see it without the knots in their stomachs from knowing they’d probably never get off the beach. Some were going for closure of dreadful, horrible memories that were burned into their minds so very long ago,” said Bradshaw. ” He wishes he would have been experience the trip with his father, but instead, he enjoyed it with men of similar stature:
Ken Thomas, 88, was a combat medic with the 322nd Medical Battalion. Most foot soldiers would say that combat medics were their heroes. They risked their lives in the thick of battle to rescue and treat the wounded. The medics didn’t carry weapons, but they carried bandages, morphine, and hope.
Vince Rowell, 87, was a soldier with the 29th Infantry Division. He landed on Omaha Beach in the second wave on D-Day, June 6, 1944, unaware that his best friend, who went in with the first wave, had been killed before he even got off the beach. He fought all the way to the Battle of the Bulge. Vince was going back to say, ‘Goodbye.’
Sam Reaves, 85, was a ball turret gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress in the 396th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force. On his 19th mission, Sam was shot down by German artillery over France. A ball turret is a glass bubble that hangs below the aircraft and holds twin 50 cal. machine guns and the ball turret gunner. There is room for nothing else. The turret was electrically and hydraulically operated. After take off, the gunner would rotate the bubble and close the hatch. Then he would rotate the turret to its fighting position. During their bomb runs, many of these aircraft were shot up and their hydraulic and electrical systems shot away. As a result, many brave men died – trapped in a glass bubble. Sam was lucky. He got off the turret, bailed out over France, and was reunited with his group.
Olin Pickens, 89, was a combat infantryman. He was captured by the Germans and spent 26 months in a POW camp. Olin escaped after being a prisoner for several months and managed to remain free for a few weeks. He would travel at night and hide during the day. He was recaptured when an Arab saw where he and a buddy were hiding and turned them in to the Germans for $1.00. Olin said he has spent 67 years trying to forgive that man.
W.T. Hardwick, 87, was a combat infantry soldier who went on Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. W.T. was captured in the hedgerows of France by the Nazis and spent many months as a POW. W.T. was returned to Utah Beach with his wife, daughters, and granddaughter. When they arrive at the beach, they all held each other and wept.
Richard Elliott, 87, went through Normandy several weeks after the invasion fought in the Battle of the Bulge and later crossed the Rhine River. As he traced his steps on the trip, he realized the Ardenne Forest was probably the very place he fought 67 years ago. The foxholes were still visible and the forest dark and cold. He couldn’t get over the beauty of homes around the Rhine River. He said, “ When we were here, everything was destroyed. I can’t believe how perfect it looks now.”
Jack Clairborne, 86, and James Refsnider, 87, were shipmates on a naval ship at Omaha Beach. They were there as support and to drive the boys to the beach. How wonderful to experience this trip with your buddy who serviced with you 67 years ago.
The idea to go France came out of an interview Forever Young Founder, Diane Hight had with a newspaper. She was asked what would be her “one wish” would be, if she could receive one. “I’d like to visit Normandy, France with a group of WWII veterans,” Diane said. “I love listening to their stories and I know it would be a life-changing experience for me.”
The vision was born and four years later, Diane’s dream came true. “Like most people, I never thought my dream would be fulfilled,” she said. “I’m in utter disbelief of the trip I just experienced. It was very emotional. ”
The trip was a time of healing and closure for many of these veterans. “I always felt responsible for those young boys getting killed,” said Roy Cannon. “Since returning from Europe, I feel so much better about my life.” Jim Young, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge said, “It’s hard to put into words what this trip meant to me. I can’t express it. The emotion is too deep.”
Diane says thank you to everyone who helped make this trip possible. They have given a gift too valuable to comprehend. May God Bless those who have served our great nation. May God Bless America.
The Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, accompanied Forever Young and documented the events of each day. The story can be read here.
To see more pictures from the trip, go to Forever Young’s Facebook Page by clicking here.