Memorial Day: Fateful D-Day Pulls Survivor Back to Normandy

PHOTO: Bill Harper returned to France with his family as a 93 year old veteran of World War Two to retrace his footsteps of war.

WW II veteran Bill Harper had long dreamed of one day returning to Normandy, France, with his great-grandson, Liam Turner. He'd hoped to show Liam, a history buff, the place where so many of his memories were forged as one of the few survivors of his infantry.

Harper, now 93, finally got the chance earlier this month. Joined by his 94-year-old wife, Peg, their granddaughter and her husband, and three great-grandchildren, including Liam, the Harpers saw the place he landed nearly 70 years ago during the war's pivotal D-Day invasion.

At 4:30 a.m. June 6, 1944 -- D-Day -- Army Capt. Harper arrived near Omaha Beach with the 29th Division, 111th Field Artillery Battalion.

About 25 percent of the infantry who made it to shore were killed by enemy fire within moments of landing. But Harper and the five men under his command survived. As they traversed the length of the beach, Harper's sergeant, John Brown Weaver, was shot in the right knee.

Harper ran to a medical tent to seek help, but they were unable to give any. "There were too many wounded and waiting for treatment," he said.

Weaver soon died. Harper never forgot him.

While Harper was away, his bride, Peg, was in Washington, where she worked as a secretary for the War Department. The two had met there in April 1941 and married eight months later, shortly before Harper deployed.

"It was very lonely for the three years he was gone," Peg recalled."It was very worrisome when the invasion started until he returned home. And that is putting it mildly."

They were reunited May 8, 1945, the last day of the war.

"I was just so happy to be home that it was delirious," said Harper, who grew up in Richmond, Va. "I can remember the train back and across the Mississippi River taking me to Fort Snelling. It was the first time I had been north of the Mason-Dixon line.

"Seeing my wife was unbelievable," he said. "I can't describe it. She looked just as beautiful as she did when I married her three years before."

Peg, for her part, remembers the first time she saw her husband as he walked across the grass toward her. He was dressed in full military regalia and "looked so strong, healthy, and not battle-worn, which is what I expected he would look like," she said.

Harper served 24 years in the military, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel, and was awarded two Purple Hearts and several Bronze Stars for his efforts during both World War II and the Korean War.

Harper retired from the army in 1961, and began working as a mechanical engineer. Although he and Peg traveled to Normandy once in the 1970s, he wanted to share his wartime experiences with his family. He often spoke of wanting to retrace his footsteps with them, especially great-grandson Liam, who has a interest in history.

After moving into Edina Park Plaza two years ago, a senior community in Edina, Minn., run by Brookdale, Harper was told about a partnership between Brookdale and Wish of a Lifetime.

Founded in 2008 by Olympic athlete Jeremy Bloom, Wish of a Lifetime grants wishes to seniors. Since its inception, more than 550 wishes have come true for seniors in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

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In July 2012, Harper filled out a "wish application." Ten months later, Wish of a Lifetime and Brookdale sent him and Peg to Normandy, where they met with their granddaughter, Heather Turner, her husband, Eric, and their children, Riley, Aisleen and Liam.

It was an emotional experience for everyone. "He has told me several stories about D-Day and his other experiences during World War II," said 12-year-old Liam, who has studied the war in school, and always wears his great-grandfather's dog tags. "These include the Battle of the Bulge and stories about his friends and how they were affected, too."

Before going to France, Liam, whose family lives in Costa Rica, said he was slightly concerned that the trip might prove painful for his great-grandpa. "I'm a little worried that if he sees a spot where something emotional happened, like where a friend died, he'll become sad," Liam said. "I don't want him to be sad on this trip."

While the visit was clearly emotional, Harper said he was moved by how grateful and respectful people were, lining up to thank him and shake his hand

But the most memorable part was the lowering of the flag in cemetery for Americans, with its nearly 9,400 gravestones perfectly aligned above the beach. "It was so powerful," he said. "I was overwhelmed."

Peg said she understood why her husband wanted to go back: "For his Sergeant John Brown Weaver who was killed on the beach, and his other buddies," she said. "And to show Liam what it was like for him. I knew it would be a healing experience."

The Harpers were also grateful to be able to share the experience with their family.

As Peg put it, "When I saw Riley searching for seashells at the same beach where his great-grandfather had been on D-Day, I thought, I would have never dreamed this day would be possible and that we would be here to see it."

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