On the 75th anniversary of the historic Allied invasion that set the stage for vanquishing Nazi Germany in World War II, America’s remaining D-Day veterans are a small army indeed.
Their total number is unknown — perhaps a few thousand aged men in their 90s or north of 100.
Their ranks are a fraction of a swiftly vanishing group, Americans who fought in World War II, an estimated 400,000 left from what was once 16 million men and women. An estimated 348 World War II vets die each day.
Memories fade among those who in their youth lived D-Day, June 6, 1944, splashing ashore and parachuting to enemy ground in German-occupied France, bracing themselves against torrents of fire and exploding shells.
The operation, cloaked in secrecy and teeming with diversion, was full of risk. It needed the right tide, moonlight and weather to successfully launch from England and land in Normandy 160,000 troops from 5,000 ships and 11,000 airplanes.
The ultimate mission: Secure a beachhead from which the Allies could press east and end a horrific war.
In D-Day’s wake, 75 years later, it falls largely to fellow soldiers, historians and everyday people to ponder the immense and daring D-Day operation.
Thoughts from World War II veterans not party to the Normandy invasion confer a genuine reflection of the unassuming personalities who made D-Day happen.
They came from the same generation of young people who knew the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor and their homeland’s rapid conversion to a war footing.
Alfred Dusey, 94, is the last World War II veteran in Andover’s American Legion Post 8.
He’s talkative and frank, and lights up when humor is afoot. He weighed 120-pounds in 1944 and now, a father, grandfather and great-grandfather, he still fits into his government-issue woolen Army Air Forces dress jacket.
The top-turret gunner on a B-17 that survived 23 missions wondered why we wanted to talk to him? He wasn’t in D-Day.
We told him we couldn’t find any D-Day vets to talk to so we looked for the next best thing.
Two remaining D-Day men from the Merrimack Valley died just this winter, James McCue, 97, of Lawrence, on Feb. 7; and Albert “Al” Corn, 95, of Methuen, on March 7.
They reportedly died without family in the area and calls went out to members of the public to attend their funerals.
Dusey enlisted in the military at 17 in 1943 during his senior year of high school. His service in Europe came later in 1944, and included 23 missions to Germany, destroying Nazi infrastructure.
Flying at 20,000 feet aboard a B-17, called a “heavy” — any aircraft with four or more engines — brought its own hazards. One in 10 missions ended with the craft failing to return. He witnessed other B-17s in his formation, just in front and just in back, blown from the sky.
“The Germans must have been reloading,” he reasoned for his plane’s survival.
“We were lucky,” Dusey said.
Today only he and a fellow from Fitchburg remain of the crew that manned their airplane, named “Old Boomerang.” Dusey, who lives at Edgewood Retirement Community in North Andover, never visited Normandy but he knew what happened there and flew over it on each of those 23 bombing missions.
He felt bad for the crews that went down and the soldiers who perished in the invasion. They included two classmates from his schoolboy days.
“I had two of my good buddies, Gallagher and Hogan, both of these boys were killed during D-Day,” he said “Army guys in the infantry.”
Delayed one day due to weather, D-Day, on June 6, 1944, was the largest coastal assault in history. Years in the planning it brought American, British, Canadian and other Allied forces to Normandy, France, to knock out the defenses of the Axis powers and establish an Allied foothold for future operations.
About 73,000 of the landing forces were Americans, 23,250 to Utah Beach, 34,250 to Omaha Beach, and 15,500 airborne troops. Three thousand Americans — among 6,000 casualties — died on that single day.
The operation, code named Overlord, had five beachhead landings where tens of thousands of Germans were positioned in pillboxes, mortar stations and artillery posts.
The Germans knew an invasion was coming but not where or when. For two years, they had constructed a coastal defense, the Atlantic Wall, from Scandinavia to France.
Many thousands more German soldiers were stationed to the east on the French coast, near Calais, where Hitler thought the invasion was more likely.
Normandy waters were mined and beaches rife with barbed wire and Czech hedgehogs (steel cross members) to prevent tanks from advancing.
The Allied forces employed deception and diversion to confuse the Germans.
The International Museum of World War II in Natick has among its documents and artifacts two straw-filled “Ruperts” found in England. These ones were not used in the invasion but 500 others were dropped from planes along the coast of northern France on June 5 and 6.
“The parachute dummies were part of the Allied deception plan to convince the Germans that the invasion was going to take place at Calais (not Normandy),” said Sue Wilkins, the museum’s director of education.
D-Day was unimaginable to all but a few military leaders, says the museum’s founder Kenneth Rendell.
“Nothing like it had ever happened in history,” he said.
UMass Lowell Professor Robert Forrant teaches World War II in his 20th century U.S. history class.
His father was a veteran of the war. The professor visited Normandy in 1990s. Looking across the water gave him a sense of the monumental task of having to land all those troops and the 50,000 vehicles.
One word in particular describes the mission.
“Audacity,” he said.
“It is hard to get your brain around the scale and scope of it all, the drama leading up to it, then it taking place, then afterwards (the soldiers) were so matter of fact about it,” Forrant said.
In retrospect we think of the World War II generation as the Greatest Generation, Forrant said, but he doubts they thought of themselves in that way.
“They thought they were doing what they were supposed to be doing, and the concept of greatest didn’t factor into it,’ he said.
Forrant’s father, like a lot of his fellow veterans, rarely talked about the war. He might tell his eager-to-hear son a single story, then would say that’s enough.
The story of D-Day also includes a chapter about the American homefront. Spared the civilian casualties and destruction experienced in Europe, America had the infrastructure to produce the enormous numbers of tanks, planes, ships, rifles, uniforms and bullets needed in the invasion.
It was part of the reason why D-Day succeeded, Forrant said.
And factories in Lawrence and Lowell manufactured uniforms, parachutes and bullets.
Cities and towns throughout the Valley provided fighting forces.
Among them was Sam Pauta of Lawrence. The Lawrence High graduate, Class of 1941, enlisted and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and the Korean War. He wasn’t part of D-Day but fought in the Atlantic and the Pacific.
He is now 96 and proud of his military service. He was aboard the USS Winooski, an “oiler,” a ship that carried fuel oil to replenish other ships.
The Winooski was involved in the invasion of North Africa, earlier than D-Day, and was once hit by a German U-boat torpedo but survived the damage.
Pauta, like millions of other World War II veterans, came home, went to school and to work, and had families, fathering the baby boomer generation.
He was a leader in a since-closed Italian-American veterans organization, the Cardillo-Campagnone Brothers Post 1, named after Benjamin Cardillo, killed in action while serving in the Army in World War I.
Later, the Campagnone name was added to the Post’s name in memory of the three brothers — Albert, Bernard and Carmen — all of whom died on battlefields in 1944 and 1945 during World War II.
Pauta and his fellow World War II veteran Al Dusey survived the war and are among the small number who remain.
After the war, Pauta became an electrician. Dusey became an electrical engineer.
The war was in the past.
“You didn’t talk too much about the things over there,” said Dusey.
You remember the good and forget the bad, he said.
“It was a helluva war,” Dusey said.
And 75 years ago, D-Day was a helluva day.