By Ms. Christie Vanover (IMCOM)November 4, 2009
NORMANDY, France - Sixty-five years ago, men of the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions were lacing up their boots, strapping on their chutes and jumping into the unknown for not just a battle, but a war.
As their feet left the firm foundation of the aircraft, they were airborne for only seconds before landing in villages around Normandy, but on just that one day, 1,465 Americans lost their lives, according to the National WWII Museum.
Today, the daily number of U.S. WWII Servicemembers dying is reaching that same tragic mark. As of September 2008, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported that approximately 900 WWII veterans die every day.
It's because of those losses, both 65 years ago and today, that a group of Airborne veterans traveled to Europe this past spring.
"I'm here to honor those that didn't make it and to thank God that I've lasted as long as I have," said Lt. Col. (Ret.) Tom Kennedy, a war veteran who jumped into Normandy with the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
The same was true for Robert Herriot, a veteran of the 327th Glider Regiment, 101st Airborne. "I left a lot of friends here, and I wanted to see them," he said.
The two 89-year-old men joined a small group of veterans, widows, families and friends on a 16-day tour that traveled across battlefields of Market Garden, Bastogne and Normandy.
This was Kennedy's second trip. He returned to Europe on the 50th anniversary and said, at that time, the group had seven buses, but this year, it was down to two.
To honor those who had passed on, Kennedy, Herriot and another 101st Airborne veteran, Jim Norene, were asked to lay flowers in Bastogne. Kennedy placed an arrangement at the base of the Screaming Eagle Memorial, and Herriot and Norene placed flowers in the center of Mardasson.
The USAG Benelux color guard presented the nation's colors, and the U.S. and Belgian National Anthems began to play. The veterans in the audience offered a proud salute. However, little did they know that as they rendered their salutes toward the American Flag and the veterans representing the group in the center of the monument, one of them would soon be among the fallen.
It was June 5, one day before the 65th anniversary of D-Day. The veterans were headed to another ceremony being held in their honor in Picauville, when the news hit.
"We only got about 50 minutes down the road, and our tour guide received a phone call from the tour guide on the other bus," said Rusty Dicks, a friend of the veterans who joined them on the tour. "Apparently, they were held up because they realized that one gentleman was not with them."
As they questioned his whereabouts, they realized he was not at breakfast...Jim Norene, a 502nd veteran with the 101st Division was found dead in his bed," he added.
According to Dicks, Norene sensed that he would not return home because he was very ill.
"Sad, very sad, but in a way a fitting tribute to a man who 65 years ago jumped in to liberate Europe and returned - which we understand was something he really wanted to do - only to pass away where many of his buddies did," said Dicks.
Ceremonies across Normandy continued. The townspeople of Carentan gathered around a monument, symbolizing the battle at the cabbage patch. Around 150 active duty Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division stood in formation, but the chairs of the guests of honor were empty.
Then, just moments before the ceremony was to begin, the bus full of veterans arrived. Kennedy, Herriot and the others were escorted to their seats, minus their friend Jim.
"This is hallowed ground," said Col. Arthur Kandarian, commander of 2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, as he translated the Carentan Mayor's speech. "Many died in the prime of their lives for freedom."
Following the ceremony, citizens of France swarmed the veterans for autographs, pictures and simply to say thank you. Amidst all of the commotion, a man who spoke only French approached Kennedy with a brown box wrapped in a small purple bow.
Roger Girard, placed the box on Kennedy's lap and began to open it for him. No words were spoken, but as he broke through the ribbon, he reached inside and pulled out an old helmet that had received a bullet hole through one side and out the other. He handed Kennedy a small French flag and then handed him the helmet.
Kennedy immediately removed his baseball cap and donned the helmet with a huge smile of appreciation. The men shook hands, gave each other a nod and Girard simply walked away.
Through the help of a translator, Girard later said that his father found the helmet on a farm near Saint-LAfA' in 1944, soon after D-Day. Girard said now that his father had passed away, he didn't need to keep it anymore, and he thought the celebration that afternoon was a fitting place to pass it back to an American Soldier.
Kennedy continued the tradition and passed it onto his son, just as Girard's father had done to him.
"It now sits proudly on my desk, and when anyone asks me about the helmet, I have all the stories of my father to tell them and how the helmet came to be," said Tom Kennedy Jr.
The next day, the anniversary of D-Day and the 11th day of their emotional journey, the veterans finally arrived at Omaha Beach. They were center stage at the ceremony, surrounded by 8,000 spectators, world leaders and nearly 10,000 fallen comrades.
Despite the fanfare, the younger Kennedy said the small ceremonies meant more to his dad. "The reason is simple. People were there to see the veterans not the other way around. I think that most of the vets had rather spent their time among their heroes - the ones in the cemetery," he said.
While the anniversary did garner international media attention, partially because of the presence of dignitaries like U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Prince Charles, the meaning of the remembrance came back to men like Norene.
"Jim was gravely ill when he left his home, and he knew that he might not return. But just as he did 65 years ago, he came anyway," Obama said during the ceremony. "May he now rest in peace with the boys he once bled with, and may his family always find solace in the heroism he showed here."
Since their European step back in time, the veterans have returned home. However, on June 27, news spread that another in the group had passed - Len Keck, a veteran of the 504th PIR, 82nd Airborne, a former prisoner of war and a Purple Heart recipient.
"Len actually had asked me to come with him to Europe," said Dicks, as he reminisced about their times together. "He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last fall and was told that he would not live to see 2009 much less get to Europe for the 65th anniversary, but those paratroopers are tough old birds. He got there and the cancer took him less than two weeks after he got home."
Veterans of the Greatest Generation are rejoining their brethren in arms. They fulfilled their missions on the battlefield, helping to liberate the nations of Europe. They fulfilled their lives with family and friends. And, veterans like Norene and Keck fulfilled their dreams, by returning to Normandy.