Unabashed D-Day veterans revel in status as living legends
June 7, 2009
COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — Back then, they fought to get off the Normandy beaches and up the shoreline bluffs.
Now, the 134 D-Day veterans here, to reflect on the 65th anniversary of the Allied invasion, face another kind of skirmish everywhere they go in this northwest coastal French region.
At cemeteries, battle sites and museums, once a veteran is spotted, throngs converge. Americans swarm to give thanks, shake hands or snap pictures with living legends. Elderly French women kiss D-Day vets. Reporters jam cameras and microphones in their faces.
It’s almost paparazzi-ish in nature, but these men actually merit the attention, unlike the vapid Hollywood stars that have their every move scrutinized.
In a sense, these men in their 80s and 90s — some using wheelchairs and canes — are rock stars. They relish the moments and will talk at length to anyone willing to listen.
Saturday morning at Normandy American Cemetery, D-Day veterans could not make it a few feet without drawing a herd.
H. Smith Shumway held court before a rotating mob of well-wishers. Shumway, 87, landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day and was permanently blinded in a mine blast six weeks later.
"He’s a rock star, exactly," said John Bennion, Shumway’s son-in-law.
Anything rare increases in value over time, and that likely explains why the few remaining D-Day veterans are constantly mobbed — people want a chance to thank them before it’s too late.
"Look at him," said Jerry Middleton, who brought 93-year-old Willie Southerland to the Normandy cemetery for the first time Friday. "He’s eating it up, and he should. He may not have many days left to eat it up, unfortunately."
Less than 1 percent of the estimated remaining D-Day vets were present Saturday as President Barack Obama addressed the men in a ceremony at the cemetery. The youngest of the living D-Day vets are in their mid-80s.
"You, the veterans of that landing, are why we still remember what happened on D-Day," Obama said.
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans estimates that there were probably 500,000 U.S. personnel on or just off the beaches at Normandy and who could be called D-Day vets. Of those, roughly 62,500 are still alive, according to the museum.
But the press attention on Saturday seemed intrusive at times.
As soon as Southerland entered the cemetery grounds, the press followed his every move. Two news crews got into a tiff over access to the veteran. Southerland did not have a private moment even as he walked through the rows of white, marble crosses and headstones etched with Stars of David. But the press attention also gave him a voice.
He repeatedly told reporters that he’d take the ribbons from the generals who failed to have Omaha Beach bombed just before the amphibious landing.
"They might court-martial me for saying that, but I don’t care," Southerland said.
Southerland’s not the only D-Day survivor who used the spotlight to sound off.
"I just wish we had more peace in the world," Shumway said. "Doesn’t seem like we’re getting it, but I can wish for it."
Even in tucked away places, the men of D-Day drew attention. Samuel Krauss, 93, and William Doyle, 95, found a cozy corner in a hotel bar overlooking Omaha Beach on Friday to sip a beer. They were enjoying a few moments with themselves and with close friends.
But when the reporters showed up, Krauss and Doyle had no problem chatting about what happened on June 6, 1944.
Asked if he ever thought on D-Day that he’d drink a beer above the beach where he landed 65 years ago, Krauss gave a resounding "hell no."
"I’ve come back, I’ve brought people back with me just to show them where the hell I got wet," he said.
And with that, Krauss and Doyle wrapped up one interview and got ready for the next.