D-Day 75th Anniversary: Reflections on a Moving Normandy Visit

John Riley (left) on Pegasus Bridge in Normandy, France with Carl Beck of the 101st

Some might argue that it was the defining moment of the 21st century — when good and evil clashed in on the beaches of France with the fate of western civilization hanging in the balance.

D-Day is a moment in time that will always be remembered but this 75th anniversary is especially poignant as the sun now rapidly sets on the surviving veterans who laid their lives on the line that chilly June morning.

I have been captivated by the story of D-Day since first learning of my father-in-law, C. Yancey Tollett’s role in the invasion and later becoming a member of the WWII Museum in New Orleans. I discovered the museum because my son, Tim, purchased a condo nearby, shortly after moving to New Orleans in 2007.

Emotional reunion for British D-Day vets

Originally called the D-Day museum, this ever-expanding resource has become a “must visit” on any trip to the “Big Easy.” The New Orleans connection occurred due to Charles Higgins building his famous Higgins Boat (landing craft for the invasion) there and the city being home to author and museum founder, Stephen Ambrose.

 

I have read several of the comprehensive histories of D-Day, such as Ambrose’s, D-Day, Cornelius Ryan’s Longest Day, and Rick Atkinson’s, The Guns at last Light. But favorite reads on the battle tell the more personal stories, such as Beyond Band of Brothers, by Major Dick Winters, No Better Place to Die, by Robert M. Murphy and The Bedford Boys, by Alex Kershaw.

Winters and Murphy’s books tell about the exploits of the 13,000 U. S. paratroopers and glidermen of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions who jumped in behind the enemy lines after midnight on June 6 in order to seize bridges and other objectives to keep the German’s from reinforcing the beaches and pushing the infantry back into the sea. The mission was deemed so hazardous that British Air Marshall Leigh-Mallory urged Eisenhower to cancel plans just days before the invasion, warning that the valuable airborne units would be slaughtered by the Germans and fail in their mission.

Kershaw’s book tells the tale of the little town near Roanoke Virginia that would suffer the highest rate of casualties on D-Day morning. I visited the town a few years ago after reading the book and sensed it has changed little since the days the 19 tragic telegrams arrived that summer day in 1944—one after another and breaking the heart of the small town.

Like many veterans of WWII, my father-in-law talked little about his experience. But he did keep photos of paratroops in the foyer of his apartment along with a display of his military awards, including two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, his jump wings and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge.

After his death in 2000, we discovered a treasure trove of memorabilia from the war that he kept in a locked chest. It included escape and invasion maps from D-Day, the metal cricket used to identify troops in the dark, a Nazi flag and numerous artifacts related to his unit, the famed 101st Airborne. In 2001 the story of the 101st would be brought to life in an incredible series based on Ambrose’s book, The Band of Brothers. The series captivated many of us from the “Baby Boom” generation, and my friend Mike Purzycki and I began to discuss the idea of visiting Normandy.

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki and John Riley on Omaha Beach, June 6, 2011

One of the most interesting undertakings of the WWII Museum is its effort to keep the history alive through its travel program. In 2011 we learned the museum was planning a week-long trip to England and France for the 67th anniversary of D-Day.

In addition to visiting Churchill’s cabinet war rooms in London, Eisenhower’s D-Day headquarters near Portsmouth, the invasion beaches, Point du Hoc (the cliffs scaled by Rangers near Utah Beach), and the American Cemetery, the trip would focus on the sites used in the HBO Band of Brothers series.

 

We would be accompanied by an 87-year-old veteran of the 101st Airborne, Carl Beck, who on his previous post-D-Day visits to Normandy for the 50th and 60th anniversaries, was dropped in by parachute. Wherever we went in Normandy, an honor guard of reenactors in 101st Airborne garb from France, Belgium and Holland would form up around Carl in a demonstration of respect for the role he played in the liberation of their countries.

As a company commander in the 101st on D-Day, it was not unreasonable to expect we would connect with others on the trip who might have knowledge of Cpt. Tollett’s unit’s experience in the war. While the museum guides had no specific knowledge of my father-in-law’s service, they did introduce me to the author Mark Bando, deemed to be the foremost authority on the 101st in Normandy.

When I shared a photo of Tollett and his platoon leaders taken in England before D-Day with Bando, he immediately recognized him and informed us that he had led B company, 1st Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

Reenactors react to photo of CPT Tollet and Ron Spies

The photo caused a stir amongst the reenactors and others since one of those in the photo was Ron Spiers, a character made famous by the Band of Brothers series. It turned out that Spiers was in my father-in-law’s unit shortly before D-Day but was subsequently moved to the Dick Winters’ unit, Easy Company.

It is hard to describe the feeling one experiences standing in the early mist of Omaha Beach. The images and the story are so familiar to us, that you feel you have been there before. Other less prominent sites around Normandy require careful listening to the guides and historians who paint the picture from decades ago.

 

One such location was LaFière along the Merderet River near the town of Sainte Mère Eglise. Here was fought one of the most significant small unit engagements of the war—a bloody affair that would cost the lives of 250 men of the 82nd Airborne. Out of the battle would come a story about one lieutenant, “Red Dog” Dolan who replied to a request to withdraw with the message, “Stay where you are, there is no better place to die.”

Ultimately the most enduring part of the D-Day experience were the people, beginning at dinner in London with Churchill’s granddaughter, Celia Sandys, who seemed to inherit some of her grandfather’s humor and speaking ability.

With Mayor Purzycki and Mayor Charles de Valavielle at Utah Beach

Perhaps the most surprising encounter occurred during our passage across the English Channel when approximately 50 British D-Day veterans gathered on the ferryboat deck with bagpipes blaring to toss wreaths into the channel to honor their fallen comrades. And in addition to veteran Carl Beck, we would have a memorable encounter on Omaha beach with 1st Division veteran Harley Reynolds. Reynolds had survived the landings in North Africa and Sicily and was inserted into the first wave on D-Day because they needed experienced troops. Reynolds was believed to be the first American to reach the spot where the American Cemetery and nearly 10,000 graves are located today.

As the sun was setting on the evening of the 67th anniversary of D-Day, we arrived at the cemetery. The museum personnel handed us each a flower to place on the grave of our choice. Not knowing anyone buried above Omaha Beach, I took the time to find a tombstone from Delaware. I placed the flower on the grave of Pvt. Peter Sosik of Kirkwood Street in Wilmington, who died during the Normandy campaign.

When recently learning about the work of Wilmington resident Nathan Field to create a website identifying and sharing the stories of hundreds of Wilmington residents killed during WWII, I immediately went to the site and looked up Peter Sosik (www.wilmingtondeww2.com). Eight years after finding his grave at the American cemetery I saw his face for the first time.

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About the Contributor

John Riley

John Riley

A native Delawarean, John Riley is retired and lives in Greenville. In addition to grandchildren and golf he pursues a passion for writing and military history.

1 Comment

  • Excellent John!!
    Thank U for Ur Writing and Sharing Ur knowledge of a personal experience on D-Day!