EVANSVILLE, Ind. — The view from up high of the Downtown Riverfront D-Day Re-Enactment was not what 92-year-old Ray Clayton remembers experiencing when he fought in World War II.
Seventy years ago, he would have been manning a gun on a ship like the LST. Saturday, the Navy veteran watched the big event from the eighth floor of the Old National Bank building among other Evansville World War II veterans.
“Since I was on the water, my view was different,” Clayton said, looking out at the picturesque view of Downtown Evansville and the Ohio River.
He paused briefly.
“I sailed the Atlantic. It was nice warm water and nice smooth water,” he said with a grin. “Now that’s two lies in one sentence. Because the Atlantic is neither warm nor smooth, so now you’ll know not to believe a thing I say.”
The mood on the eighth floor was jovial, as the veterans watched the re-enactment being done in their honor, though few wanted to reminisce about their time in battle.
“I don’t like to” tell stories, Clayton said, his tone turned serious. “They’re gruesome stories, there’s no need for that. We won the war. World War II had a purpose. That man, Hitler, was going to rule the world. He killed 8 million people. I can’t imagine 8 million people, but he killed them. We had a purpose.”
And the purpose of events like Saturday’s re-enactment — in honor of the 70th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied forces stormed the beach at Normandy — is to keep history alive to the younger generation, Clayton and other veterans at the celebration said.
“They don’t teach it like they used to in schools,” Clayton said. “I was talking to a young lady the other day and I told her I was a World War II veteran, and she said, ‘What’s that?’ I can’t finish that story. It burned me up.”
But for the thousands of people who came to watch the re-enactment, there was no question of the war’s importance. Children sat on parents’ shoulders while people with cameras jostled for a spot to snap a picture. When the event ended, re-enactment actors gathered at the Four Freedoms Monument to meet with people and answer questions.
“This was a pivotal moment in the war,” the re-enactment’s organizer James Goodall, an army veteran, said after the display was over. “We lost 6,000 men in that (battle). It was a tremendous thing.”
The re-enactment was put on by several re-enactment groups from around the region.
Rick Dickerson, from Radcliff, Kentucky, played a German soldier in Saturday’s re-enactment. But when he plays an American soldier, he plays his father, a World War II veteran.
When asked about his father, Dickerson paused, and put his fist to his mouth.
“That’s hard to do,” he said, tears coming to his eyes. Dickerson’s father served first in North Africa. He earned a Purple Heart and several other awards.
Dickerson took a breath and composed himself, and it wasn’t long before he and the other re-enactors were back smiling for photos with families and answering questions from children.
Dozens, possibly hundreds, of children and adults made their way to the Four Freedom’s monuments to ask about weapons and tactics.
“This brings history to the younger generation,” Goodall said. “We want them to understand, it was human beings that did this. You owe your freedom to their sacrifice.”