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Servicemembers pay tribute to WWII heroes at Picauville Air Force memorial

Servicemembers pay tribute to WWII heroes at Picauville Air Force memorial

Picauville, France, June 4, 2019
Pfc. Jonathan Stanley of the XVIII Airborne Corps talks to D-Day veteran Charles Shay before a ceremony honoring air crews and airborne troops at Picauville, France, Tuesday, June 4, 2019.

By John Vandiver

Stars and Stripes


PICAUVILLE, France — As the long line of American paratroopers approached the monument for those who died during the air assault 75 years ago at this small Normandy town, one soldier after another bent low to offer thanks to 94-year-old Joseph Morettini.

“I landed here 75 years ago,” Morettini, now wheelchair-bound, told the passing soldiers as they clasped hands. Five years earlier, there were rows of veterans like Morettini at the same ceremony. But on Tuesday just two who took part in D-Day were on hand at the monument in Picauville.

As the 75th anniversary of D-Day approaches, thousands of people are descending on Normandy to mark the occasion at events large and small, spread out near the beaches allies stormed in the pivotal invasion that helped pave the way for victory over the Nazis.

But this year, there is added significance to the anniversary as the number of surviving veterans dwindles. “There may not be anyone left for the 80th,” said 94-year-old Charles Shay, who as a 19-year-old was part of the first wave to land at Omaha Beach.

All these years later, Shay says he still vividly recalls the thick smoke, gunfire and screams of soldiers he tended to as a medic on D-Day.

“I am here to pay tribute to all the men who died,” Shay said. “I’ve been coming back for a few years, so I am able to cope with it.”

The memory of men falling under a hail of bullets is still fresh, though.

“When that was happening, I had to stop for a moment and try to clear my head before I could perform my duties that I was trained to do,” he said. “We lost many men. I remember so many killed. So many wounded.”

In Picauvillle, hundreds of locals along with soldiers from the 82nd and 173rd Airborne Regiments gathered at the memorial that pays tribute to the 9th Air Force, which delivered paratroopers behind enemy lines. At the site, a C-47 “Gooney Bird” troop transport aircraft and the remains of one of the engines of the plane that crashed during the Allied assault are on display. The D-Day vets were treated like rock stars, with locals swarming around them seeking autographs and selfies.

Among the World War II vets on hand was Ellan Levitsky, who served as a nurse and arrived in Normandy two months after the landings to treat the wounded.

“When you are young, it is an adventure, but we were scared,” said Levitsky, 99. “It was a rough time and I still think of all the boys.”

A flyover by Ramstein Air Base C-130s during a ceremony honoring air crews and airborne troops at Picauville, France, one of many events this week marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day in World War II.

For years, Levitsky regularly made the trip to Normandy along with her sister, Dorothy, who also served as a nurse. Four years ago her sister died and now returning is “bittersweet,” she said.

Maj. Gen. John Williams, of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Africa, was on hand to represent the military during the ceremony, where he paid tribute to the sacrifices of the troops.

Williams said the invasion serves as a reminder of the importance of maintaining alliances and fighting adversaries together.

“No matter what happens on a daily basis, or any kind of frictions we might have (as an alliance), we have to come back to what is more important and unites us,” Williams said.

First Sgt. Rudy Alvarado of the 173rd Airborne Brigade was among the soldiers taking part in the events in Picauville and has sought out veterans to talk with at other D-Day events in Normandy.

“It’s pretty hard to comprehend what they did,” Alvarado said. “I just think about what was going through their head when they were jumping. The courage was amazing.”

Morettini, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 508th Regiment, recalled his jump behind enemy lines. Tracers filled the night sky and Morettini said he didn’t think he’d survive it.

“When I landed I was stuck between two trees, my feet a few inches off the ground,” he said. The fighting was immediate and fierce and would remain so in the weeks that followed, during which many friends were lost, he said.

But D-Day, “it was worth it, to kick the Nazis out,” Morettini said.

vandiver.john@stripes.com


By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 2, 2019