Veterans Reflect on Challenges They Faced During the Invasion of Normandy

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.

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