1,200 Children Welcome WWII Veterans to Jeanne d’Arc Bayeux school, Best Defense says Adieu to Normandy

2023 Normandy Battlefield Return – Day 9

The Collège et Lycée Jeanne d’Arc welcomed 43 WWII veterans along with the rest of the Best Defense Foundation and its partners on Wed. The air was electric with the cheers of 1,200 French children beyond excited to see the veterans visiting their school.

The foundation visited the school for a meet and greet that would allow children from Bayeux, France, to meet with their heroes, the liberators of Europe.

The veterans split up into groups of two and spread out to the different classrooms. George Hamilton and Robert “Bob” Gibson were one of the teams. Gibson opened up first and asked the interpreter to translate, “We did this for you kids, so don’t screw it up!” But the two WWII veterans received some tough questions from the kids in their classroom, but they had zero hesitation in answering them.

“Were you afraid to lose your family back home and not know it,” a student asked.

“Not really, because when you left home, there was a feeling — of course, you miss your family,” Hamilton said. “But we left home and didn’t know what the next day was going to bring, so you lived one day at a time.”

Questions like ‘What was your worst day in the war,’ and ‘Have you been shot at?’ were asked. Hamilton and Gibson answered without skipping a beat, eager to inform the next generation of kids. One question left an eerie silence in the room after it was asked.

“What did you feel like when you first killed someone,” said a student.

“It’s not comfortable, let me tell ya,” Gibson said. “It hurts. Especially when we landed on [Utah] beach, and I landed in the second wave. There was nothing but 19-year-old fellas laying in the water who never even hit the beach.”

Hamilton and Gibson didn’t dodge these tough questions but answered them head-on – a trait of the Greatest Generation. As the translator would interpret the veterans’ responses, the looks on the students in the room marked sadness, horror, and sometimes happiness.

Gibson told the class that war wasn’t always death and carnage. They had fun at times too. He described a point during the war when his unit — the 116th AAA Battalion, 1st Army — crossed the Rhine River. They posted up and made camp for ten days but didn’t have much to do.

“So what we do is go down to the winery. We had a two-and-a-half-ton gallon tank of water. We emptied the water and filled it with wine,” Gibson said. “So we had wine for breakfast, wine for lunch, and wine for dinner.”

When asked how long the tank lasted, Gibson said, “About a week.” The classroom laughed in response, and shortly after, everyone headed to the school’s cafeteria for more of a one-on-one interaction between the team and the students.

The school served up something not typical of their diet as a thank you to the WWII veterans. Cheeseburgers, french fries for the main course, and a few French side dishes accompany the All-American lunch. The foundation wrapped up at the school and regrouped at the hotel for the farewell dinner.

The Caen, France, city hall is something straight out of a blend of medieval architecture and something you’d see in the world of Harry Potter. The original parts of city hall, first called Abbaye-aux-Hommes, were built in 1077 under the orders of William the Conqueror. It would later serve as his final resting place in 1087, though only a thigh bone remains in his marked grave on the grounds.

The foundation and its partners were hosted within the city hall’s grand dining room. Paintings depicting scenes from the Bible sat atop finely crafted wooden walls. Glass chandeliers hung from the ceiling. But the most precious factor of the dinner was the 43 WWII veterans convening for the last time during the 79th Anniversary of D-Day Battlefield Return Program to Normandy.

Donnie Edwards spoke during the dinner and pointed out how close everyone had become — this program brings everyone together. For Bob Somers, Senior Vice President of Global Sales at Delta Air Lines, this has been an unforgettable experience.

“It’s truly been one of the highlights of my entire life or my 40-year Delta career,” Somers said.

He went on to detail his observations on the program. Somers attended an Omaha Beach ceremony at 6:30 am on the 79th Anniversary of D-Day with Charles Shay, a medic who landed on Normandy 79 years ago to date.

When Somers looked across the beach, it struck him how far Americans had to fight despite the downpour of machine gun fire and artillery rounds. Then it hit him: how would he respond to such an onslaught of carnage?

“Would I react with the same bravery? The same courage?” Somers said. “I can tell you I probably would not.”

Seeing Omaha Beach firsthand put into perspective just how much respect, honor, and reverence Somers has for all WWII veterans. He described how awe-struck he was with the French people’s reception of the 43 WWII veterans attending the foundation’s program. France shows how it has not forgotten the sacrifices of the Allied Forces almost eight decades ago.

David Chapman, VP of Michelin’s Public Affairs, spoke during the dinner and pointed out how all veterans in the room had been influenced or trained by the WWII veterans. He talked about his first platoon sergeant, a Vietnam War veteran who was “hard as nails.” Chapman said that the platoon sergeant received his training from a Korean War veteran, who a WWII veteran trained.

“We are, in a direct and indirect way, the recipients of all the guidance and lessons you learned on the battlefield and supply lines that we carry forward,” Chapman said. “I’ve probably trained someone of younger age in here, and you will continue to train the next generation, but the lessons you learned […] continue to live through all of us and the next generation of service members.”

The Next Gen students spoke about their profound experiences at the night’s end. Léo Riviere, from Paris, France, is one of eight Next Gen students that attended the program. He discussed meeting Edwards and WWII veterans during last year’s program.

“On that day, in June 2022, I thought it would be my last chance to meet these heroes,” TK said. “Then, the Best Defense Foundation set up this exceptional concept. You can’t imagine how happy I am to be a part of this team for 2023 and hopefully beyond.”

The day gave way to night, and the hall was filled with well wishes, cheers, and singing. The 79th Anniversary of D-Day Battlefield Return Program to Normandy is concluded. Now, only an international flight remains.

This is the ninth installation of a series of stories. Keep an eye on the foundation’s social media on Instagram: @bestdefensefoundation, Twitter: @bestdefense_, and Facebook: Best Defense Foundation.