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‘We’re Still in the Same Boat.’ As the World Marks 75 Years Since D-Day, the Men Who Were There Look Back—and Ahead

13 minute read

On Thursday, Americans and people around the world will mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied landing on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. And yet, for some of the Americans who actually landed on the beach, it’s not exactly a day they want to be remembering.

“When we get together with the guys, no one talks about it,” says Vern Ollar, 97, who spoke to TIME from his home in Ingram, Texas. “There are things you just don’t talk about.”

The reasons why D-Day might be one of those things are clear, based on TIME’s conversations with eight American veterans about the first 24 hours of the massive military invasion.

D-Day was the largest naval, air and land operation in history. More than 150,000 troops, representing the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, landed in five designated landing zones on a 50-mile stretch of beach on the coast of northwestern France. On D-Day alone, there were more than 12,000 Allied casualties — 8,230 of whom fought for the U.S. — while German casualties ranged from 4,000 to 9,000, according to The National WWII Museum.

D-Day landing craft.
D-Day landing craft, boats and seagoing and infantry vessels.Universal History Archive—UIG via Getty Images

Ollar, then a 22-year-old Army Corporal and mortarman, narrowly avoided being hit while landing on the stretch called Omaha Beach. Sitting in the front of his boat, he spotted a Tellermine strapped to the top of a piece of timber driven into the sand. “I was screaming and hollering, and the coxswain reversed, and we were able to get away,” he recalls. They stepped off of the ramp and into deep water, so with the sea over their heads, holding their breaths, they pulled mortars to shore. “I was so cold. I was shivering,” he says. “That water was just like ice. The first thing I wanted to do was get a cigarette, and I was worried about my cigarettes because I had them wrapped them in plastic to keep them dry.”

Russell Pickett, then a 19-year-old Private First Class in the Army remembers thinking he couldn’t wait to get on the beach and get the mission over with. He remembers sitting on the side of a Higgins boat, holding a flame thrower — designed to kill Germans hiding in bunkers by shooting flames through the gun slits — when, suddenly, he heard a muffled boom. He wondered whether his boat had been hit. “Just before our boat touched down, we sunk,” he says. The next thing he remembers is waking up, lying on his back on the beach, seeing a big cloud and hearing “a constant huge roar.” He was put on a ship headed back to England for treatment, and returned to Normandy about a week after D-Day.

John Raaen, then a 22-year-old Army captain, likens “the frightening pop” of the countless bullets flying over his head that morning to the sound he hears these days during space shuttle launches near his home in Winter Park, Fla. One bullet that day hit the man behind him, Raaen’s messenger, while he was running across the beach. Amid the smoke, with the steep hills in flames, they made their way to Pointe du Hoc, where they successfully dismantled a battery of German artillery. Everything was burning — vehicles, rubber, ammunition, belts, packs, uniforms, human flesh, “all giving off awful smells,” he says. “The smells were almost as bad as the sounds.”

Herman Zeitchik was a 20-year-old Army sergeant when he landed on Utah Beach on June 6. “I used to be afraid of beaches and forests because the Germans were hiding in the woods shooting at us,” he says, from his home in Silver Spring, Md. He credits the Bible in his pocket that day for protecting him; of all the 23,000 troops who landed on Utah Beach, only 197 were killed or wounded.

D Day anniversary
Radioman Peter Orlando sitting behind a typewriter on the recue-tug USS ATR-2. Orlando witnessed the landings at Omaha Beach from his tugboat.The National WWII Museum

Peter Orlando, then a 22-year-old Navy radioman, was stationed in the pilot house of the rescue tug USS ATR 2, parked several miles off Omaha Beach, which was communicating with the flagship helmed by General Omar Bradley, one of the commanders of the U.S. forces on D-Day. Very early in the morning, the tug started pulling in men who had drowned, and at a certain point, Orlando remembers the crew getting a signal to stop doing that. “Somebody blinked to us and said where are you going to put them, so we stopped picking them up,” he recalls from his home in Concord, Mass.

Dominic Geraci, then a 20-year-old Private First Class Army medic, still can’t talk about what he saw on Omaha Beach the day after D-Day on June 7, as he helped clear the wounded.

Harlan Lincoln Harner, a 19-year-old Army radioman, encountered a different boatload of troops early in the morning on June 7, just hours after his unit arrived at Gold Beach on the night of D-Day. Serving with a battalion attached to a British unit, Harner was on the deck of the landing ship tank when he saw a small craft down below, full of German prisoners. “My first job was to guard those prisoners. I guess I looked a little uptight, so my sergeant came by and said, ‘Harner, relax. They aren’t going to hurt you,'” he recalls from his Lansdowne, Va., home. Arriving on the beach, though, he knew he could in fact be hurt, and was constantly afraid of running into mines and snipers as he sat high up in a Jeep during the “fireworks display” of machine gunfire.

Norman Riggsby recalls the many men who weren’t so lucky, who died before they made it to land. “The water was supposed to be only a few feet deep, so a lot of guys jumped off the ramp of the Higgins boat and never came up because they had a lot of equipment on their backs and they just sank and drowned,” he says. “I’m kind of a small guy so I floated pretty good, so I held my rifle in the air and managed to get my feet on the sand.” After landing on Omaha Beach on June 7, the 18-year-old Private First Class sustained shrapnel wounds to both arms. He turned 19 two days later, and shortly after, a blast from a Tiger tank exploded and knocked him out, and he woke up from a coma three weeks later in a hospital in England.

Pfc Norman Riggsby sitting on his Harley Davidson during the European campaign. After receiving wounds in Normandy, Riggsby transferred to the Military Police.The National WWII Museum

“It’s something I’d rather forget; you’d have to be in the war to understand that,” Riggsby says, “[Seeing] guys you trained with being shot up and killed, bodies and parts of bodies, right there on the beach. A lot of us wondered, ‘What the heck are we doing over here? Why are we here?'”

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Choosing to Remember

These eight veterans are part of a shrinking group. According to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, 496,777 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were alive in 2018. “This is the last big anniversary in which there will be any sizable presence of veterans at all. By the time the 100th anniversary of D-Day comes around, there will be no veterans left,” says Rob Citino, Senior Historian at The National WWII Museum.

And they were the lucky ones, considering Americans bore the brunt of the casualties from the operation.

But while the historic importance of D-Day was immediately clear, the feeling of not wanting to discuss that day remained the norm for decades. When the Americans who made the surrender possible returned home, they tended not to get into the nitty-gritty with their civilian counterparts. Many just wanted to move on, as quickly as possible.

For example, Peter Orlando’s daughter Susan Pierce had grown up hearing her father talk about how great the Navy was, but she didn’t know that story about her father watching his rescue tug pull in drowned men until 15 years ago, when the two of them were in hospital waiting room while her mother was having surgery. “The older you get, when you start facing death yourself, you start talking about it,” Orlando says.

He’s not the only one who noticed a change in the last few decades.

As time has passed, many became more comfortable talking not only about the good times serving in World War II, but also about the bad times like D-Day. “That came out of retirement and reunions and being around their buddies, taking their families to the reunions,” Alex Kershaw, author of the new book The First Wave: The D-Day Warriors Who Led The Way to Victory in World War II, argues. “There were fathers who never talked about the war, who didn’t want to share the horrors and the pain and the guilt, didn’t want to tell their wives what they were forced to do.”

Film depictions — Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, in particular — helped jog their memories too, and in the mid-1990s, as more milestone occasions to talk about these memories came up (the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994, the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1995) more veterans became willing to talk about what they faced. On the 75th anniversary, they know the need for those discussions is more urgent than ever. So they’re taking the opportunity: six of the eight veterans TIME talked will be in Normandy on the anniversary of D-Day. Four are on cruises organized by The National WWII Museum while Raaen and Pickett are on other organized trips. Harner and Zeitchik are attending commemorations stateside, at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va., and at the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., respectively.

“When I first walked out on the beach, I stood there just shaking,” Pickett, who lives in Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., says of returning to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of the invasion. “I wasn’t crying, but I felt like it, standing up there and looking at that pillbox I was supposed to burn out. I’m a little anxious about going back.”

Battles Past, Present and Future

The goal of D-Day was simple enough, but far from easy: to liberate Europe. By that point, Nazi Germany had largely conquered the continent’s mainland, but Germans were flagging. Still, Adolf Hitler believed he had a chance to regain the upper hand.

“[For the Allies], it was a one-shot deal,” says Citino of D-Day. “If it failed, the entire invasion of western Europe was up for grabs. D-Day was the day America became a great global power.”

Omaha Beach
A Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP) approaching Omaha Beach, Normandy, France, on June 6th 1944. These U.S. Army infantry men are amongst the first to attack the German defenses.Galerie Bilderwelt—Getty Images

While the massive buildup of forces on the British Isles would have been hard to miss, Germany was not expecting the Allies to land on June 6. Ironically, many of the German generals were meeting to practice how to defend the beach against Allied invaders. The landscape put the Allied forces at a disadvantage in “as hard a military campaign as anyone has ever fought in the 20th century,” says Citino. But it worked. D-Day was just the beginning of a summer-long campaign that ended with the liberation of Paris in late August. Ten months after D-Day, Hitler killed himself, and on May 8, 1945, almost exactly a year after the invasion started, the Germans surrendered to the Allies.

But even after peace arrived, the impact of the war would linger. And while survivors may not have always wanted to talk about their experiences on D-Day, it has shaped how they see the world today in significant ways.

“To be an American in those days, you were God, I mean, everybody respected you,” Orlando says. “I don’t think we get anywhere near the respect that we used to get. I think [other countries are] laughing at us, as a nation. Everybody is laughing at us because of who we chose as President.” On the flip side, President Trump’s mantra “Make America Great Again,” resonates with the so-called Greatest Generation. “Our generation lived in good times,” says Harner. “I look back at how America came together back then, and I wish we could return to that really united spirit and cooperation during the war effort at home and that continued shortly after the war — instead of all of this division and arguing and politics.” (While he likes some of Trump’s ideas, he also thinks the President “hurts himself by popping off too much.”)

Raaen worries about what he perceives as an anti-war feeling in Hollywood and Ollar worries today’s young Americans aren’t prepared to fight if another war does come. (He, like many of the veterans to whom TIME spoke, believes the U.S. should have a mandatory service program of some kind.) Orlando worries terrorists are harder to fight than armies. Harner worries about assault weapons in the hands of civilians and that the U.S. isn’t intervening to stop the very kinds of forces he and his peers fought against 75 years ago.

“My outlook on life is that we should not let dictators rise up like we did with Japan and Germany and Hitler. We saw this coming and the world did nothing about it until it was almost too late,” he says. “We have to stand up against these people early. I think it’s good to help the nations like Venezuela right now. Where someone or some nation is creating havoc that will affect so many people, you have to take action, and D-Day is when we took action.”

Beneath these worries, for many, is a sadness that their fight did not lead to a more lasting peace.

“We’re still in the same boat, same as we were before World War II, arguing, fighting with everyone,” says Geraci, from his home in Mount Prospect, Ill. “We’re no better off with other countries than we were in 1941.”

Riggsby put it even more simply: “What the heck did we fight World War II for if we’re still fighting?”

These men know that they won’t be the ones to fight the next battles. Orlando got his driver’s license renewed just days before talking to TIME, and Raaen attributes his long life to his daily afternoon martini, but these men aren’t in their late teens and early 20s anymore. Their journey to Normandy this week will be arduous in a different way.

After all, Raaen will be 102 when the 80th anniversary comes around. “I just don’t think you’re going to get a lot of 102-year-olds over there,” he says. “This is probably my last time.”

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com