43 WWII Veterans Visit La Fiere, Utah Beach 79 Years Later
2023 Normandy Battlefield Return – Day 6
Tears dripped down from eyes that saw the carnage of war. The waves crash just beyond the sand dunes. For 6 of 43 WWII veterans, they are standing on Utah Beach, a place they remember. Many others were emotional, thinking of the family and friends they lost on this beach.
Tec5 Robert P. ‘’Bob’’ Gibson landed on Utah Beach in the second wave on D-day. He was assigned to Battery A, 116th AAA Battalion, 1st Army. Seeing Utah Beach brings back vivid memories as it did for several other WWII veterans who attended the ceremony with Gibson.
“There wasn’t a godda** one on that barge that didn’t cry,” Gibson said. “We were all 19. The worst part was seeing all these young guys who never got on the beach. They were picked off.”
On Sunday, the Best Defense Foundation started in La Fiere to observe airborne operations that were a part of the 79th Anniversary of D-day, then attended a parade through Sainte-Mere-Eglise, and ended the day at Utah Beach.
Though the day was packed with emotions, there was plenty of happiness. Every stop led to the WWII veterans receiving hugs, kisses, and thank you’s from the youngest to oldest French citizens. Active duty soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, the 75th Ranger Regiment, and the 82nd Airborne Division embraced the veterans at both La Fiere and Sainte-Mere-Eglise.
The common response from the greatest generation? “Don’t screw it up!” and “It’s up to you now.” Several 4-Star Generals were among the soldiers to thank the veterans. General Mark Milley, the 20th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with the former soldier in the 128th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, 6th Armored Division, Andrew “Andy” Negra, Jr.
He talked with Milley about his war experience, standing in the same area his unit had regrouped in after landing on Utah Beach on July 18, 1944. Negra fought in several major battles, including the liberation of Brest, the Battle of the Bulge, penetrating the Siegfried Line, and several other significant fights in WWII.
“You’re a lucky man to be alive,” Milley said.
“Blessed,” Negra responded.
Stump was disappointed that the static line airborne jumps were canceled. However, meeting General Christopher Cavoli, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Commander of US European Command, seemed to cheer him up.
Cavoli holds the same position Dwight Eisenhower held when he planned the D-day invasion. Stump and Cavoli exchanged challenge coins, and the smiles on their faces said it all. The two talked about how Stump crash landed in his glider, fought to liberate the area, and continually repelled the Nazis’ counterattacks.
It wasn’t just active duty soldiers and locals eagerly waiting to shake the hand of the WWII veterans.
A German family traveled from Nuremberg, Germany, to say thank you to the liberators of Europe. Walter Ruf, his wife Peggy, and his son Alexander thanked Negra and his fellow veterans for liberating Europe. Ruf’s mother, Inge, was born in 1939 with a cardiac condition.
Had the Nazis figured it out, she would have been executed or prevented from marrying or bearing children. When Ruf’s mother had her first medical check-up, it was one year after WWII ended. Ruf credits his existence to the Allied forces and his entire lineage.
“We owe our lives, our existence, to what [WWII veterans] did 79 years ago,” Ruf said.
The foundation arrived in Sainte-Mere-Eglise in the afternoon. The team was welcomed by locals, people from around the world, and active-duty soldiers from France, Germany, the US, and many others.
People flocked to the WWII veterans during a parade through the city as they handed out their “player cards” that detail who they were and what they did in WWII. Not long after, the foundation traveled to Utah Beach to round out the day.
Several WWII veterans wept at the sight and sound of the beach. Some landed at that beach during WWII, and others lost family and friends there. Knowing your loved one was lost on a peaceful beach is an emotional package that would make any room dusty.
The foundation ended the day inside the Utah Beach Museum. Inside sat a WWII B26 Marauder surrounded by seating arrangements for dinner. The clink of glasses, silverware, and ceramic echoed through the hall as new friends and best friends forged stronger bonds together.
The Greatest Generation has that title because they were unstoppable in war, but also because of their pure grit and determination. With an average age of 100 across 43 WWII veterans attending the dinner, they smile ear to ear and laugh despite a hectic schedule. Monday ended with goodbyes to Utah Beach, knowing the team would visit Omaha Beach the next day.
This is the sixth 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.