WWII Veterans Prepare for Return Voyage to Normandy 8 Decades Later

2023 Normandy Battlefield Return – Day 1

Almost 79 years ago, American military members and their allies were preparing for D-Day, the start of the fight to liberate Normandy, France, from her Nazi occupiers.

Today, the Best Defense Foundation is kicking off the 79th Anniversary of D-Day Battlefield Return Program to Normandy with the sole mission of “taking care of those who took care of us.” 43 WWII veterans, many of whom fought throughout France, are making the great pilgrimage back to the land they liberated almost eight decades ago.

“How many guys on your gun?”
“Each shell weighed 360 pounds.”
“When did you land on Omaha Beach?”
“I landed on Utah — D+22”

Just a conversation between two former artillery guys – two WWII veterans. From 1943 to 1946, Joseph “Joe” Picard served on a 240mm Howitzer M1 crew, and Robert “Boots” Chouinard served as a member of a 90mm anti-aircraft gun crew. They were honorably discharged in January 1946, only four days apart.

Both veterans received a warm welcome on their Delta Airlines flight. ‘Welcome aboard’ and ‘Thank you for your service’ was a revolving thank you from Delta flight attendants, pilots, and passengers on the flight to Picard and Chouinard.

Picard 98, and Chouinard 99, are making the great pilgrimage back to their old battlegrounds in Normandy, France. The two are joining up with 41 other WWII veterans, 42 veteran caretakers, and several Best Defense Foundation volunteers for the Battlefield Return Program to Normandy, France.

This is the first return to Normandy with the foundation for 20 of the 43 WWII veterans and a second return program for 19.

Delta Air Lines staff welcomed the WWII veterans waving American flags and cheering upon their arrival. Throughout the first half of Thursday, the WWII veterans were introduced, some reunited from previous trips. The room was a buzz with nervous energy, excitement, and happiness.

Chouinard said he’s excited to return to Normandy for a second time because his daughter is with him on this trip.

“I liked being there last year, being there with the soldiers, and so forth. But, I was alone,” Chouinard said. “I don’t remember a lot of it. My daughter is very social, and she’ll help me. It’ll be more fun.”

After everyone was checked in, the veterans settled into their rooms, and after a few hours, it was time for the farewell dinner at the Delta Flight Museum. 43 WWII veterans wearing their uniforms is a sight you don’t see every day, and it was made possible through the Best Defense Foundation and its sponsors, Delta Air Lines, and Michelin.

1940’s era live music boomed, some veterans danced, and others proposed toasts to the upcoming trip and thanks to the sponsors. The “Spirit of Delta” Boeing 767 adorned the space, and the kick-off dinner was in full swing.

Jim Graham, the Senior Vice President of Delta Connection and CEO of Endeavor Air for Delta Air Lines, welcomed everyone and described Delta’s role in the Battlefield Return Program as a privilege.

“I’d like to begin by taking a moment to truly recognize the reason that we’re all here today. And that’s our WWII veterans,” Graham said. “They protected our freedoms through commitment, dedication, sacrifice, and so much more. We are forever grateful to each and every one of you.”

Alexis Garcin, the President and CEO of Michelin North America, and Anne-Laure Desjonqueres, the Consul General of France, echoed Graham’s thanks to the veterans. Still, they had a more personal connection to them.

“Dear veterans, it’s an incredible honor and a privilege to be with you tonight. 79 years ago, you made history. You risked your lives for the freedom of France and Europe,” Desjonqueres said. “France is what it is today, a free and sovereign country, thanks to your courage. Thanks to the huge sacrifice of so many of your comrades who rest on French soil. They will forever remain in our hearts.”

This is the first of nine stories published over the 79th Anniversary of D-Day Battlefield Return Program to Normandy.