BEDFORD - More than 150,000 Allied troops participated in the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. The ranks of survivors who can share firsthand accounts dwindle with each passing year.
For over an hour Tuesday, though, an overflow crowd of about 100 people, young and old, filled the Bedford Area Welcome Center as four area veterans who experienced the Normandy invasion and its aftermath shared their stories.
Carter Fisher, Bill Overstreet, Charles Shaeff and Evelyn Kowalchuk served as the panel of veterans for the free presentation organized by the National D-Day Memorial Foundation.
"I remember D-Day well," said Overstreet, of Roanoke, a fighter pilot who was flying at 20,000 feet over Normandy.
He recalled looking down and seeing the channel so full of ships "you could walk across." The pilots' mission, he said, was to keep German forces from heading toward the beach. Only two German planes approached that day, he said.
"We had more than two so we had them outnumbered," Overstreet said.
Shaeff, of Campbell County, joined the Navy at age 17 and on D-Day ferried three boatloads of soldiers to the beach - and continued to do so for several days afterward. Today, he volunteers at the memorial and often steers visitors by cart through the grounds.
He said the ship anchored at 3 a.m. on June 6, 1944 about 10 miles out from shore. He recalled getting into the 327-foot-long carrier that took the troops to land, but he could not remember exactly how many boat trips he and the three other crewmembers took during that month. Returning to the ship around July 1, he said, was "like coming home."
The four-man crew was very fortunate, he said. "It worked out fine. So I'm here."
Carter Fisher, of Roanoke, was on a ship that day, aboard the USS Arkansas as it took position some 4,000 yards from Omaha Beach. He said he remembered arriving off the beach at 2 a.m. and staying there until 5 a.m.
"You talk about a long three hours to wait that was," he said.
He spoke in detail about the ship's age and how much manpower it took to maneuver and operate its guns.
"Thank goodness I was never wounded," he said.
Kowalchuk, of Huddleston, was one of the 500 flight nurses during the war; she arrived at the beaches three days after the invasion to help evacuate wounded men.
She said she can still see the grisly injuries they endured, the amputated limbs and the "tearing of heart and soul" to treat them in such agony. The flight nurses were like sisters, mothers and cousins to the men who were longing for home, she said.
"You can't understand how these boys took the pain," Kowalchuk said. "But they never complained about it."
The veterans also spoke about other aspects of the war, such as the food they ate and the places they traveled.
Overstreet, who flew in more than 100 missions, shared his experience of chasing a German fighter plane under the base of the Eiffel Tower to shoot it down.
"He gave me a good workout," he said to the crowd's laughter.
He said he was amazed when one day a man showed up at his front door in Roanoke to say his father was in the tower when Overstreet flew under it. In 2009, he was given the highest military honor in France, the Legion of Honor, during a ceremony at the National D-Day Memorial.
Kowalchuk, who turns 93 next month, said several nurses still keep in touch and always talk about the happier times of the war, such as dancing the jitterbug.
"It was an experience I'll never forget," she said.
The panel members received a standing ovation and many in the audience lingered to shake hands and thank the veterans for their service.
Vickie Claybaugh, of Lynchburg, came with her family to hear the veterans. She said it is necessary for children and future generations to learn from the living branches of history and "true heroes" while they still walk among us.
"I believe it's a real precious moment to meet a living veteran," she said. "It's a piece of history we can still see."