Back to the beachheads: D-Day veterans return to Normandy

At 2:38 a.m. on June 6, 1944, American infantryman John Marr parachuted into an area where floodgates had been opened by German forces and landed in cold water up to his armpits. No one was in sight.

After struggling out of his chute harness, he found higher ground on a railroad embankment, discovered other U.S. troops huddled there, and by 11 a.m. on D-Day had helped kill or capture 38 Germans in and around a farmhouse.

"They fired on us, but we took them out," says Marr, 91. The Arlington, Va., retired colonel is in Normandy again this week telling tales of combat where it happened to participants in an annual tour organized by the New Orleans-based National World War II Museum.

This year has special significance: Saturday is the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings on Normandy beaches and countryside by American, British and other Allied troops. President Obama is due to attend ceremonies at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, hosted by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The wind-swept cemetery is an expanse of immaculately maintained emerald grass with rows of white marble crosses on a bluff overlooking the Omaha landing beach. It's an affecting place that holds the remains of 9,387 Americans.

The cemetery and other Normandy war sites are magnets for the few remaining veterans, their relatives and thousands of tourists from many nations. They tour landing beaches, revisiting the 20th century's most famed mass deployment, and savor the peacetime pleasures of hearty Norman cuisine, cider and Calvados apple brandy.

In the cemetery's 2-year-old bunker-like visitors center, films and exhibits tell the story of some who gave their lives on D-Day in an Allied operation that involved more than 155,000 combat troops, 5,000 ships and landing craft and 11,000 aircraft, according to estimates by the National World War II Museum. Other estimates vary.

On a recent day, Battlebus tour guide Jules Vernon, 40, once in the British army, walks five men on a $120, day-long "American Highlights" excursion into the cemetery, where the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan was filmed. (While Private Ryan is fictional, he is said to have been inspired in part by a family named Niland with three brothers in the war. Preston and Robert Niland are buried here.)

Vernon's stories of the deeds and deaths of real-life World War II participants bring D-Day alive to tour participants, including father and son Don Ashby, 73, of King, N.C., and Joe Ashby, 49, of Stone Mountain, Ga. Don's uncle was wounded in the war and had a steel plate put in his head.

After meeting his charges in the town of Bayeux, Vernon, clad in a camouflage jacket, stops the Battlebus van in the village of Sainte-Mère-Eglise. Hanging from the church steeple is a dummy representing American parachutist John Steele, whose chute was caught by it on D-Day and who hung there pretending to be dead before being captured in the German-occupied village.

It was the first village liberated on D-Day. "Otherwise, we'd be speaking German now, guys," Vernon says, pointing to bullet holes still embedded in walls. Wartime planes, gliders, guns and soldiers' belongings are displayed in the village's Musée Airborne, one of a dozen area museums dedicated to D-Day.

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