43 WWII Veterans Enroute to France via Historic Charter Flight

2023 Normandy Battlefield Return – Day 7

Hours before American soldiers stormed Omaha Beach, Rangers hit the cliffs of Pointe-du-Hoc. They knocked out the enemy forces despite heavy machine gun fire and grenades raining down as they scaled the cliffs. They secured the cliff top, a critical win for the boys hitting the beachheads.

79 years later, the Best Defense Foundation attended a wreath-laying ceremony commemorating the Rangers’ success. 43 WWII veterans attended as US Air Force AC-130s flew overhead.

Mike Malone, a foundation volunteer, spoke during the ceremony. He said the WWII veterans returning to Normandy with the same strength and honor they possessed almost 80 years ago are a testament to the “boys who gave their lives to take these cliffs.”

General Jonathan Braga, commanding officer of US Army Special Operations Command, addressed the 43 WWII veterans in attendance, thanking them for “freeing the world.” Several of the veterans are thankful that the Rangers prevented the Nazis from dropping artillery down on them as their LSTs hit the beach eight decades ago.

But Braga brought up a different point of view. He pointed out Coxswain Richard J. “Dick” Ramsey, who drove small craft from the USS Nevada during the D-day beach landings. Braga said without the help of Allied bombings and support, the Rangers would not have been able to accomplish their mission.

“I stand in awe of what the [WWII veterans] who fought on D-Day accomplished during WWII,“ Braga said. “The men in that row right there.”

Every soldier, sailor, and airman who liberated Europe played a critical role in the successful defeat of the Nazis. Throughout the 79th Anniversary of D-Day Battlefield Return Program to Normandy, the Best Defense Foundation is providing WWII veterans the opportunity to reconcile with their old battlegrounds and see the fruit of their sacrifices.

But it’s not just the veterans getting that experience. Many of the foundation’s volunteers and Next Gen students have connections to the Normandy region because of family or friends that had fought there.

For Sara Holdeman, a Next Gen student, visiting Pointe-du-Hoc with WWII veterans is an experience she never thought possible. Her father served in 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, and she knows every last detail of his service. Holdeman has an unmatched passion for the sacrifices the WWII Rangers made.

“I started crying. My dad always wanted to go, and now I’m here with you guys,” Holdeman said. “I think just looking at it, like, oh my God, there were Rangers here.”

Earlier that day, the foundation attended a ceremony in Ranville, France. This is the site of the Pegasus Bridge. It was initially called the Bénouville Bridge and was one of two bridges critical for the Allies to liberate the area.

Parachutists and gliders from the Airborne Division landed nearby the bridge on D-Day. The small force of 181 men from D Company of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry took over the bridge after a fierce 10 min. Firefight. 2 men were killed, and 14 were injured, but the bridge’s capture was critical for the Allied Forces.

Former Staff Sgt. Jake Larson, well known for his TikTok account “@storytimewithpapajake,” met a British WWII soldier while viewing the Pegasus Memorial Museum. Larson landed on the beaches of Omaha on D-Day. Though the two WWII veterans had never met before, Larson became emotional talking with the British man.

He explained that the British soldiers had it worse than him. Larson detailed how their pay and food were worse and how the British soldiers joined the military with very little. But, the most important aspect of attending the ceremony is paying tribute to those killed during the battle for the Pegasus Bridge.

“I’m here now, and it’s a way of thanking those guys that were doing their job on D-Day,” Larson said. “I’m not going to get another chance like this.”

The foundation returned to the hotel for much-needed rest and dinner. The strength of everyone on the team is evident. The foundation’s medical team, led by Dr. Misty Zelk, runs all day and sometimes during the night to ensure the WWII veterans’ every need is met.

The medical team has EMTs, Paramedics, nurses, and volunteers trained up to a basic level. That includes medication assistance and treating any minor injuries like cuts or hematomas. This kind of medical attention is inherent in a group of veterans, averaging an age of 100 for the group of 43.

This is the seventh 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.