GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As the 70th anniversary of D-Day approaches, veterans who fought at Normandy have gathered in Grand Rapids.
D-Day — June 6, 1944 — is generally accepted as the day that turned the tide of World War II in favor of the Allies. Taking the beaches of Normandy in France eventually led to freeing Europe from Nazi rule.
The group of Americans who first arrived on the beach was the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. They parachuted in behind enemy lines hours ahead of the main assault and held ground forces back.
Wednesday, members of the 501st started their annual reunion in Grand Rapids. The celebration will last until Saturday evening.
Each year the group is smaller in number. This year, only eight members are expected to attend the reunion, though five of their regulars will be traveling to France to commemorate one of the most famous days in military history.
Wednesday at the Crowne Plaza hotel, there was a small registration area, displays of memorabilia and ice cold beer.
But the thing the vets have the most of is stories.
“There is a young mother that run up to me and her boy was about 10 years old and he threw his arms around me and he said, ‘Thank you for saving us,'” veteran Ed Hallow, 94, remembered. “And she said, ‘Will you hold my baby so I can take a picture.’ It’s things like that that really get to you.”
And even after 70 years, it seems some scars are still healing.
“War is a terrible thing. It is not some great thing like a lot of people think that it is,” veteran Russ Layton said. “I am a Christian and I am proud of that. I don’t even like to swat a fly, and I was forced into this thing and I must have killed 20 or 30 of the enemy. And it bothers me to this day.”
The group has met each year for 39 years, but it’s unclear how much longer the reunion will be held. The men are in their 90s and more die each year.
To put their age in perspective: One of the men said he remembers meeting Civil War veterans as a child. He said some had worn blue in the war and some gray.
A 2 p.m. Thursday ceremony at the Wealthy Street Theatre will honor the greatest generation.The event is open to the public.
Friday evening, the veterans will attend a 70th anniversary ceremony at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum. That event is not open to the public.