You can learn the most interesting things riding on a train. The train I'd chosen was crowded and the closest seat open was next to three people in military uniform -- two men and a woman -- so I sat down with them.
They barely noticed me. They were intent on their conversation; it was about war. War in extraordinary detail -- story after story of narrow escapes, and excruciating days and a fog of war that made me wonder how the three of them had lived through it. I was riveted.
"We could hear the bullets coming from the plane," the woman said, leaning forward to repeat the sound that they all knew too well. "Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop."
She was a combat nurse; her uniform was full of medals. Her name, I later learned, was Vera Hay.
The two other soldiers nodded as she described that day. Enemy aircraft had strafed the ground all around her position, but it stopped shooting just as it was drawing near the hospital. Hay had been helping patients in the combat field hospital and, inexplicably, the enemy bomber paused in its shooting just long enough to spare the hospital and, consequently, Hay. The plane resumed shooting within seconds after the hospital was out of its sights.
"And that was that," she said.
Her fellow soldiers on the train didn't say anything, just looked out the window for a bit, and nodded. It was simply understood -- for some reason, it wasn't Hay's day to die. They had all had days just like that, days when suddenly death seemed certain. And then, just as suddenly, it didn't. It was simply part of living in war.
Oliver Fox, the soldier sitting across from me, had been in all kinds of combat. Listening, I learned that the battles still bothered him. The intensity. Death. He had a gentle personality; he was sweet and funny. War had been hard on him.
George Batts, sitting across from Hay, had seen the most. He had enlisted as a teenager, sent right to combat. Hay and Fox were quiet as Batts recounted the day he watched helplessly as two of his comrades fell to their death -- trying to leap onto a landing craft in high seas while under vicious gunfire.
Batts, looking at Hay, made a swiping motion with one hand against the other; this, it said silently, was what the ship had done to those two soldiers.
"War," he said, shaking his head and staring out the window again. "War."
Hay looked out, as well. There was nothing to say that could erase the pain of that day. It was silent for a very long moment, and then the conversation jumped back to the subject of day-to-day of living in combat -- the sorrows, the triumphs.
I never said a word. If they noticed me listening, they didn't show it. Back and forth their conversation went, pulling from the memory bank of war: terrifying nights, uncertain days, fear, loneliness, hunger and deep, desperate sorrow. And friendship, humor, small joys and miracles of every possible size tucked in the middle of chaos.
D-Day Vets Struggle With Painful Memories
Over the course of an hour, my respect for these three grew so much that I couldn't keep quiet.
"Excuse me," I said to Hay.
She turned, startled. They had forgotten I was there.
"Could you tell me," I persisted. "Could you tell me what was it like? The battle you were in?"
Hay and her entire nurse corps had raced up a beach still riddled with mines, with gunfire sounding everywhere, casualties pouring in. In my mind, it had to have been terrifying for a girl just barely out of college.
"It was busy," she said, without a hint of irony. It was, to her, simply fact. "And noisy. Very, very noisy."
She turned back to her comrades, gently signaling that my curiosity had no place in their conversation. What they had all lived through was too intense, too personal to share with just anyone. So I just kept listening to these extraordinarily brave people.
Did I mention that Hay is 87 years old?
Fox is 90, and Batts, who enlisted in the British Army at the age of 16, is in his late 80s.
These are veterans of D-Day, the day when thousands of men -- and hundreds of women -- began pouring onto the beaches of Normandy, France to push the Nazis back, day by brutal day.
We hear about these veterans about once a year, in the first week of June, on D-Day's anniversary. We hear from fewer and fewer of them though, because there are fewer and fewer of them. And their stories, their incredible and inspiring and instructive stories, are dying with them.
"No one wants to hear it," Hay later explained to me. "They just see us as old."
She keeps meaning to write down her memories -- her searingly, vividly real memories of an extraordinary war -- but she isn't encouraged to do it.
I tried to explain to the three of them that so many people are very interested in their stories, but Batts and Fox said no, not really, and they concurred with Hay. Their war is history, and their history has been shelved.
The train we were on was in Normandy, and they were there as part of the D-Day anniversary observance, part of the British contingent. The anniversaries are, Hay noted, when she talks about "the war" -- when she and her peers get together and they know that those listening want to listen. They care because they know what that war meant -- to them and to the world. They put their "Normandy Veterans Association" jackets on, pin their medals to it, seek each other out, and walk together back in time.
So many American veterans of D-Day have told me the same thing: their memories are tucked away, on the verge of becoming lost history. In fact, I was on the train because we had just completed a day of interviewing some of those American veterans. We had been at Utah beach. For some, it was their first time back since the war ended. And, for many, it was the first time in a long time they had really stopped to remember ... everything.
Veterans Share Their Stories With College Students
There was a difference, though, for these American vets. They had traveled to Normandy with a group of college students -- 20 of them -- from the College of the Ozarks in Missouri. It is part of a living history project, organized by a non-profit group "The Greatest Generation Foundation," which sponsors veterans on trips back to the battlefields of their youth.
The students on this trip were chosen from more than 200 applicants, a bit remarkable for a college of fewer than 1,500, but these students are remarkable in this respect: They are extraordinarily interested in these veterans. They want to hear their stories. They believe their generation needs to understand World War II, all that it stood for, all the victories, defeats, brilliance, mistakes and the lives that ended there on the beaches and battlefields. And they want to get the veterans' stories down, while there is still time.
Eden Doss is a history major who helps to run the college's museum. She plans to archive interviews with the veterans so that their eyewitness accounts are available to those researching D-Day. On this trip, she kept a long journal, and blogged as the group went from battlesite to battlesite: Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, Juno Beach.
Ben Wilson is a senior art major at the college. He has always had an interest in history and still regrets that his grandfather never talked with him about "his war" before he died.
"He knew that I wasn't ready to talk about something as intense as that, his involvement in the war, so I never spoke with him about it," said Wilson.
Traveling with 10 D-Day veterans this week, Wilson felt that he's getting a second chance to understand his grandparents' generation, their war.
"It's like I have 10 grandfathers; I get to hear about their experiences," he said, "their personal struggles in a world-wide war."
Wilson was assigned to veteran Buster Simmons, a vibrant man now in his late 80s.
Simmons has kept drawers full of mementoes and records from D-Day, from the Battle of the Bulge, from battles too numerous to count. He was a first sergeant, tasked with one impossible decision after another on the march from the beaches, through France, into Holland and Germany. He was only 20 when he scrambled onto Omaha Beach -- making his way past bullets in the air, bodies in the sand.
"I was a combat medic," he said. "We started taking casualties immediately, because we were trying to get in and them boys over on the other side, they were fighting back. Believe me, they were fighting back."
Wilson had an uncanny ability to draw the stories from Simmons, especially when they walked the beaches at Normandy.
"I can't imagine having to run there from a boat and having machine guns firing at you," Wilson said to Simmons, pointing to the enormous stretch of beach before them.
"It's tough to get your head around it," Simmons said. "Even if you've been to it."
Doss was assigned to Simmons as well. The quieter of the two students, Doss usually walked beside Simmons with a hand on his shoulder or under his arm, a steady and reassuring presence. In the evening, she would write down what he said, what she thought. What it meant.
"It's so important that we never forget what these men did for our freedom," Doss explained. The other students feel the same way -- they want to know how it happened, why it happened, how it changed these veterans as young men. They want to document it and share it.
Vets and Students Tour Normandy Together
This week, they walked together through Normandy's battlefields, war museums and churches, talking and questioning and bantering like family -- very much like family.
When one veteran suddenly turned to the student walking with him and began weeping, she enfolded him in her arms and let him mourn the friends he lost here.
At a church in St. Mere Eglise, 82-year-old Pfc. Wilson Colwell wept as he recounted what the war had cost them all.
"So many men were lost. So many," he said.
And the students sat, hushed and solemn, until he had no more to tell.
Sgt. William Simpkins, 84, fought in France and Belgium and Germany. He wasn't sure what to expect from a trip with college students in tow, but he said this has changed everything for him. He is hopeful now that so many of the memories, the lessons of World War II, will not die with his generation. He has gained faith in this youngest generation.
"We look back at what we did here, those who died here, and sometimes we wonder, was it all worthwhile?" Simpkins said. "And I see these kids, and I know it was worthwhile."
All this happened the day before I sat next to three extraordinary people on a train in Normandy, France. As I spoke with Fox, Batts and Hay, I wished so much that I could convince them that their memories do matter, that the bravery of their youth can still inspire, that they should -- somehow -- summon up the will to recount it all, document it all, for the generations to come.
I can understand their reluctance. Hay is a silver-haired, soft-spoken woman whose gently-lined face reveals nothing about the war of her youth, the incredible bravery of her days at the battlefield or the hard lessons she learned from war.
Few would think to draw the stories from her now. Perhaps her family has heard it often enough that it doesn't mean as much to them now as it would to the rest of us. It's hard to press on when the interest doesn't seem to be there.
Maybe, just maybe, a group of students like those at College of the Ozarks will discover Hay, Batts and Fox -- and they'll get them to tell their stories, to hear what I heard that day on the train: that a generation that will soon be gone left us a legacy of bravery and wisdom and resilience.
We really, really should treasure that -- before it's too late.