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'You didn't think about dying,' WWII veterans recall D-Day invasion, 80 years later

Colleville-sur-Mer, France — Their immeasurable sacrifice saved the world, 80 years ago to the day. Now, World War II veterans from the United States, Britain and Canada have traveled to Normandy to commemorate the D-Day landings that lead to Hitler’s defeat.

Few witnesses remain who remember the Allied assault. Here are some of their stories. 

BIll Parker



World War II Veteran and Purple Heart recipient Bill Parker stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day at the age of 19. It was the largest amphibious invasion in the history of warfare.

The movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ portrays some events of that day, and Parker, a bull-riding cowboy from Oklahoma was in the thick of it.

“I rode at smaller rodeos, but I was good. If war didn’t come around, I’d have given (bull riding legend) Jim Shoulders some competition,” Parker shared with the Professional Bull Riders before his death on Sept. 11, 2023.

A private in the 116th Infantry, 29th Division of the U.S Army, Parker was a wire cutter, whose objective was to remove razor barriers laid thick by Nazi soldiers.

“You can’t imagine what that beach looked like. There were bodies everywhere. The sea was blood red,” Parker told the PBR.

The Americans suffered 2,400 casualties that day, according to the Department of Defense.



“Thank you, guys. Thank you.” Sitting in a wheelchair in front of the graves of fallen comrades at the Normandy American Cemetery, D-Day veteran Jake Larson wanted to let them know out loud that they are the real heroes for giving their lives for the liberation of France and Europe from Nazi Germany — not him.

The 101-year-old American, best known on social media under the name “Papa Jake,” with more than 800,000 followers on TikTok, Larson said “I’m a ‘here-to.’

“People say what is a ‘here-to’? I say I’m here to tell you I’m not a hero. It’s those guys up there that gave their life so that I could make it through. That’s what a ‘here-to’ is.”

Larson likes to describe himself as “the luckiest man in the world.”

“How is it possible that I went through five battles, plus landing on Omaha Beach without getting a scratch? Say there is a God. God just protected me.”

Born in Owatonna, Minnesota, Larson enlisted in the National Guard in 1938, lying about his age as he was only 15.

In 1941, his guard unit was transferred into federal service and he officially joined the Army. In January 1942, he was sent overseas and was stationed in Northern Ireland. He then became the operations sergeant and assembled the planning books for Operation Overlord.

He landed on Omaha Beach in 1944, where he ran under machine-gun fire and made it to the cliffs without being wounded.

“I’m lucky to be alive, more than lucky. I had planned D-Day. And everybody else that was in there with me is gone,’’ said Larson, who now lives in Lafayette, California.



Floyd Blair, 103, served as a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps. On June 6, 1944, he flew in two support missions across Omaha Beach as the Allied invasion began.

“I saw one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. The color of the water changed,” he recalled Tuesday as he was paying tribute to fallen comrades at the American cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer. “Those poor guys on the ground deserve all the credit they can get. The paratroopers, the armored forces, the ground troops. They are the ones,” he said.

After D-Day, Blair participated in missions to support and protect Allied troops. His targets included German tanks, troop trains and other threats to the advancing troops and his radio was tied directly into the U.S. tanks on the ground.



George Chandler, 99, served aboard a British motor torpedo boat as part of a flotilla that escorted the U.S. Army assault on Omaha and Utah beaches. The history books don’t capture the horror of the battle, he said.

“Let me assure you, what you read in those silly books that have been written about D-Day are absolute crap,” Chandler said. “It’s a very sad memory because I watched young American Rangers get shot, slaughtered. And they were young. I was 19 at the time. These kids were younger than me.”



“I’m living on borrowed time now,” Bob Gibson, 100, said enthusiastically as he arrived at the Deauville airport in Normandy. “I want to see the beach again.”

Gibson was drafted into the Army in 1943 and was sent to Britain. On June 6, 1944, he and his unit landed on Utah Beach in the second wave.

“Terrible. Some of the young fellows never ever made it to the beach. It was so bad that we had to run over (them) to get on the beach. That’s how bad it was,” he said.

Gibson drove an M4 tractor with guns, engaging the enemy day and night. He continued to serve through Normandy and headed to Germany.

“You wake up at night every once in a while too. It seems somebody’s shooting at you. But we were glad to do it. That was our job, we had to do it, right?’’

Gibson, of Hampton, New Jersey, pondered the time that’s passed since then, and said this will probably be his last D-Day anniversary in Normandy.



Les Underwood, 98, a Royal Navy gunner on a merchant ship that was delivering ammunition to the beaches, kept firing to protect the vessel even as he saw soldiers drown under the weight of their equipment after leaving their landing craft.

“I’ve cried many a time … sat on my own,’’ Underwood said as he visited Southwick House, on the south coast of England, the Allied headquarters in the lead-up to the Battle of Normandy. The event Monday, sponsored by Britain’s defense ministry, came before many of the veterans travel to France for international ceremonies commemorating D-Day.

“I used to get flashbacks. And in those days, there was no treatment. They just said, “Your service days are over. We don’t need you no more.’’’



About 20 British veterans gathered on the deck of the Mont St. Michel ferry bound from England for northern France, as crowds gathered on the deck and along the shoreline to wave and cheer for them on their voyage to D-Day commemorations.

“It was more pleasant coming today than it was 80 years ago,’’ chuckled Royal Air Force veteran Bernard Morgan, who worked in communications on D-Day.



Andy Negra, 100, was born in Pennsylvania and was the first in his family to graduate from high school. He joined the U.S. Army in 1943 and landed on Utah Beach in Normandy on July 18, 1944, with his unit. At that point he said, German forces were still only 20 miles (32 kilometers) away from the beach.

“You didn’t think of dying. ... You knew what you had to do. And when the time comes, you did it. That’s the way I looked at it,” he said.

“What could you be scared of if you don’t know what you’re going to be scared of? That was my philosophy. ... So I was never scared. I had close calls, there was a lot of action. But until you entered into that action. Why be scared?”

Negra visited this week the Normandy American Cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer and attended a series of D-Day celebrations with a group of about 50 U.S. veterans. The 80th anniversary “is the same as when I went through the towns during WWII,” he said. People “were in the windows, in the doorways and they were on the streets. The difference is there were not as many people then as there are now.”

Negra said he is still deeply moved by the warm French welcome in Normandy. “The celebration started when we liberated each town because they clapped and they’ve been clapping and saying nice things all the way from World War II, all the way until now,” he said.



On D-day, Marie Scott experienced British forces landing on the Normandy coast through her earphones. As a 17-year-old radio operator in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, she relayed messages to the Normandy beaches and waited for the recipient to open his channel and reply.

“I heard everything,” Scott, who will soon turn 98, said. “I could hear all the background noise, the machine gun fire, the bombs dropping, aircrafts, men shouting orders, men screaming. It was horrendous.”

“But I had the job to do,” she explained. “I had no time to be alarmed.”

“When you heard that amount of firepower, you knew there had to be casualties … It was an enormous price to pay. But the price we had to pay,” she said.

Scott was awarded the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest order of merit, for her role on D-Day, in 2019.

“Women are very important even in war. They may not be part of the fighting element, but we were very, very small cogs in an enormous wheel. And without those cogs, the wheel doesn’t work,” she said.

On Tuesday, Scott attended a ceremony at Pegasus Bridge, one of the first sites liberated by Allied forces from Nazi Germany. She said it was important for her to be back for the 80th anniversary commemorations, because “it evokes memories of a very special day for me, when I first realized the true horror of war I suppose. I think, probably, I grew up on that day so it’s important to come back. Very emotional but important.”



D-Day veteran Dick Rung was 19 when he was assigned to a tank landing craft that landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. Now 99, the memory is still alive as he remembers time spent hosing down the deck of the blood of those killed.

“Two of the soldiers that got hit — badly hit — we couldn’t save them but we covered them with blankets and the blankets soaked up their blood. Finally, the skipper said ‘we can’t leave it like this’ so we got out the fire hose and we washed down the deck and the blood sort of disappeared,” he recalled.

“I was only a kid and most of the crew was too. I wasn’t trained for this,” he said. Rung’s craft stayed in Normandy for almost 5 months transporting troops, supplies and vehicles from larger ships to shore. He then headed to the Pacific Theater where he spent the rest of World War II. Describing the brutality of war, Rung concluded: “I’m a peacemaker, I’m not going to do this again.”

Copyright Associated Press/Merit Street Media 

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