Tom Brokaw called them “The Greatest Generation,” the brave young men who fought in World War II and the women who supported them behind the scenes at home. My father was in the D-Day invasion and I grew up with his stories of his time in France during the war. I have attended the fiftieth, sixtieth and now the seventieth anniversaries of D-Day in his honour.
For this anniversary, I traveled with World War II veterans and their families and we began our journey in England, just as the soldiers did, then traveled across the channel to France to attend the commemorative event with President Obama and François Hollande, President of France.
Tom Givhan, from Shepherdsville, Kentucky, came with his son, John Spainhour. Givhan, who is 87, came to the 50th anniversary and now is back for the 70th. “It’s a privilege to be able to participate. I lost six high school friends, three of them neighbors, in the war,” he said. “These anniversaries are bittersweet. You go to the cemetery and cry.”
Irv Troutman, from New York, came with seven other family members spanning three generations, to honour his father, Merv Troutman who parachuted into the invasion in the 82nd Airborne Division.
For his World War II service, Merv Troutman earned a purple heart medal when a German bullet grazed the back of his head, going in one side of his helmet and back out the other side. The family showed me photos of the helmet, an eerie testament to the hands of providence that saved his life.
For Trevor Troutman, Irv’s son, the trip back to Normandy to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather Merv was the fulfillment of a life’s dream. “My grandfather was always a hero to me. But to know that he did these heroic things in wartime for our county and for the world is so powerful and moving,” he said.
Trevor’s wife Linda shook her head over the photos of Merv’s helmet with the bullet holes. “If that bullet had been even a quarter of an inch closer to his head, none of us would be sitting here,” she said.
On June 6th, we gathered on the cliffs above Omaha Beach at the American Cemetery with thousands of others in France and with millions around the world for this one last chance to honour the men who risked their lives and to remember those who died to preserve our freedom seventy years ago.
It was bittersweet and we all cried.