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.

At Utah Beach, a restored Sherman tank stands guard, and tourists stroll among large metal "hedgehogs" that Germans used to deter landing craft. On top of the 100-foot cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, visitors walk in grassy craters gouged by Allied bombs and tour remains of concrete bunkers where Germans lived underground while trying to stop their enemies from securing the French coastline. "One reason I love to come here is you can still see and touch history," Vernon says.

His route passes today's tranquil Norman countryside: fields of yellow canola flowers, apple orchards where sweet birdsong replaces the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns and rumble of menacing tanks once hidden in the hedgerows that border farmland. "What amazes me is how little the villages and countryside have changed," Joe Ashby says.

At 3:45 p.m., Vernon swings the van into a parking lot and gestures toward a wide swath of sand more than 4 miles long. "There she is, guys —Omaha Beach in her full entirety," he says, bringing the group onto it to diagram with a stick the American landing plan and the German forces entrenched above. He talks about young GIs "puking their guts out" in landing craft on the rough seas and the thousands of bullets that rained down on Americans racing across the exposed beach.

He reads from an excerpt of a major's diary. "Heavy mortar fire ... men run like rats ... men burning alive."

The group falls silent as children frolic nearby on the hard-packed sand.

"The beachheads are just the start — the battles inland were equally as dramatic," Vernon says, before driving to the cemetery and back to Bayeux, which miraculously escaped being bombed in the war. He deposits his group in a square behind the museum holding Bayeux's historic treasure: the 230-foot-long, 11th-century embroidered cloth depicting the trials and triumphs of William the Conqueror, the Norman who invaded England. Tourists also can stroll narrow streets in Bayeux (pop. 15,000), a rare intact medieval town in this part of Normandy. There's a grand cathedral and lots of restaurants.

Here and elsewhere in the area, you'll see more U.S. flags waving than in many stateside burgs. Residents still remember Americans as liberators, commemorate their deeds with plaques and memorials, and encourage attempts to speak fractured French without the disdain that may be encountered elsewhere in the country.

That's the case at the Manoir de la Fière, the stone farmhouse where John Marr battled Germans. Today, it is a dairy farm and guesthouse run by Yves and Chantal Poisson.

They weren't the owners when the farm was occupied by Germans, but welcome those touring battlegrounds and keep scrapbooks bulging with information on battles and photos of former soldiers who have returned — some many times. (Marr came back to pay a visit Thursday.)

In a corner of the kitchen, dominated by a grand limestone fireplace and a long table where guests who pay $65 for a double room and breakfast take their cups of café au lait, hangs a bulletin board covered with more veterans' photos and letters.

Yves excuses himself to corral a cow that wandered onto the road, then returns to give a play-by-play of the battle for control of the bridge of La Fière, just down the road. Marr also participated in that. Near the bridge is a memorial to troops that includes a photo of the young Marr, who is viewed as a hero in these parts. The majority of visitors to these and other memorials are older people, but Rima Hébert, co-owner of the Churchill Hotel in Bayeux, is seeing more young guests interested in D-Day.

French tourism officials are touting the area as a family destination. Says the Bayeux tourist bureau's Lucie Hoffmann: "For kids, World War II is the Middle Ages. We live in peace now, but D-Day is an important part of our history. More (veterans) are dying, and it's important to keep alive the memory of what happened."

Adds Lisa Steiny, 47, of San Francisco, returning to the Churchill after a day touring the beaches with her husband and 20-year-old daughter. "It's not the same (as seeing D-Day depicted in a movie or reading about it). It makes a big difference when you walk around.

"I'll never forget now."