Veterans commemorate D-Day with return trip to beaches where they fought as young men

jwilkinson@thestate.comMay 31, 2014 

  • Honoring the heroes among us

    Twenty-two veterans from in and around South Carolina will return to Normandy this week for the 70th anniversary of the invasion. They are:

    Ralph Anderson

    Anderson was born July 29, 1924, in Aynor and grew up in Georgetown. He was in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army, in the 63th Signal Battalion. He landed on Omaha Beach about two weeks after D-Day and fought in France and the Rhineland. He lives in Columbia.

    Paul Arnone

    Arnone was 18 when he joined the U.S. Navy in December 1942. He was commissioned to the LST-44, which participated in the Normandy invasion. He lives in Jamestown, N.Y.

    John Beauford Sr.

    From Greenwood, the 19-year-old Beauford joined the U.S. Army in April 1943. He served in the 86th Infantry Division and fought in France, Germany and Austria.

    Eiba H. Begemann

    Begemann joined the Army at age 18 and was assigned to the 16th Infantry Regiment. On June 6, 1944, Begemann went into combat on Omaha Beach. He fought in Belgium and into Germany. He was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart. He lives in Saluda.

    Gaetano "Guy" Benza

    Born March 7,1925, in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was a member of the Army’s 505th Port Battalion, unloading ships on Omaha Beach. He lives in Las Vegas.

    Vernon Brantley

    From December 1944 through January 1945, 20-year-old Vernon Brantley’s 75th Infantry Division fought in Belgium, France and Germany. Brantley, of Columbia, was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge, but requested to be sent back to his unit instead of stateside. His decorations include the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

    Joe Champey

    Champey was born in June 1924 in Eastover. During WW II, he was aboard LCT 207, which was part of the Normandy invasion. He lives in Columbia

    John Cummer

    Cummer was born in Tennessee on Oct. 12, 1924. He was a Gunner’s Mate on the LCI 502 and made multiple trips between England and Normandy during the invasion. He lives in Blythewood.

    Anthony DiBartolomeo Sr.

    DiBartolomeo was born Feb. 11, 1922, in Middlesex, N.J. He joined the Army Air Corp on Dec. 2, 1942. He was with the 8th Air Force, attached to the 9th Air Force. He was a cook in a drone squadron. He landed on Omaha Beach seven days after D-Day. He lives in Myrtle Beach.

    Clifford Dill

    Dill was a part of the 331st Infantry Regiment, 83rd Division, which landed on Omaha Beach on June 21, 1944, and fought in Normandy, Brittany, Luxembourg, the Ardennes and across Germany. He lives in Liberty.

    John Anthony Fogle

    Fogle was born in Neeses on June 13, 1924. During WW II, he was assigned to the 90th Infantry Division. His division landed on Omaha Beach two weeks after D-Day and fought its way through Normandy, northern France, Ardennes-Alsace, Rhineland and Central Europe.

    John Gatton, Jr.

    Gatton, of Louisville, Ky., was born Jan. 23, 1923. He joined the U.S. Coast Guard in February 1944 and served on the LCI 96 barge. While preparing for D-Day in England, Gatton was stationed at novelist Agatha Christie’s house, Greenway, which was used as a Naval headquarters during WW II. During the D-Day invasion, Gatton’s vessel transported soldiers from England to Omaha Beach.

    Charles "Floyd" Hailey Jr.

    Hailey, a Rock Hill native, was 16 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He was assigned to the LST-315 for the Normandy Invasion. Floyd’s boat made six trips between France and England during the invasion transporting supplies from the ship to the beach. They also returned wounded men to the ship.

    Joseph Jackson

    Jackson was born in Chester on Nov. 29, 1925, and spent much of his boyhood in Pelzer. He was drafted into the Navy on Feb. 25, 1944, and was stationed aboard the destroyer USS Davis as a bosun’s mate. His ship shelled Omaha beach on D-Day. He lives in Newberry.

    Fred Jones

    Jones was born June 12, 1922, in Pelham and grew up in Greenville County. He enlisted in the Army on Dec. 7, 1942 – exactly one year after Pearl Harbor – and served in the Army Signal Corps. He landed on Omaha Beach three days after D-Day. He fought in France, Luxembourg and Germany and was awarded five Bronze stars. He lives in Taylors.

    Leif Maseng

    Maseng was born in Chicago, Ill., on August 17, 1924. He enlisted in the U.S. Army and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division. He parachuted into Normandy on D-Day and continued to fight at the Battle of the Bulge. Maseng lives in Columbia.

    Curtis Outen

    Outen was born in Chesterfield on Sept. 16, 1921. He enlisted in the U.S. Army on Sept. 16, 1942, and landed on Omaha Beach in June 1944. He lives in Matthews, N.C.

    Winston Pownall

    Pownall, of West Columbia, was born Sept. 22, 1919, in Donnelson, Ill. He joined the Army in April 1941, landed on Utah beach on D-Day plus six and served as a combat engineer.

    Marion "Red" Smith

    Smith was born in Montgomery County, Ohio, on April 11, 1924. He joined the U.S. Army at age 18 and was assigned to the 84th Infantry Division. In October 1944, he landed on Omaha Beach and fought in Belgium in the Battle of the Bulge and in Germany. He lives in Lexington.

    Theron "Ted" Teagle

    Teagle was born March 19, 1928, in Cordele, Ga., and grew up in Rock Hill. He joined the Navy at age 15 and served on a destroyer escort in the Atlantic and on a destroyer in the Pacific. During D-Day his ship swept the west coast of France for submarines. He lives in Columbia.

    Joe Watson

    Watson was born in Ridge Spring on April 4, 1923. He attended Clemson, then a military college, and joined the Army Reserve. He was called up in 1943, went overseas in November 1944 and fought in the Battle of the Bulge and through Germany. He was wounded and received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. He still lives in Ridge Spring.

    Gerald White

    White was born in 1926 in Elmira N.Y. and grew up to Lodi, N.Y. He was drafted in August 1944 and served in 2nd Infantry Division. He fought in Belgium in the Battle of the Bulge and through Germany into Czechoslovakia. He was wounded in Germany, but never got the Purple Heart because of a mix-up. He lives in Columbia.

  • More information

    Jeff Wilkinson, military affairs reporter for The State newspaper and producer of the Emmy-nominated television series "South Carolinians in World War II" and "Man and Moment," will return to Normandy with nearly two dozen veterans for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. Wilkinson’s series are broadcast locally on ETV and nationally on PBS. They are produced as a partnership between The State Media Company and the ETV Endowment. Wilkinson covered the Iraq War for the Knight Ridder Washington Bureau in 2003. A native of southern Illinois, he attended Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and is a son of Maj. Charles E. Wilkinson, a World War II veteran who is buried in Beaufort National Cemetery. Look for his reports from Normandy daily in The State newspaper and online at thestate.com/military Tuesday through Saturday.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, Leif Maseng found himself waist deep in a flooded field in France in the middle of the night. He was alone, scared and far from where he was supposed to be.

The 18-year-old paratrooper from Chicago was in the 82nd Airborne Division. The division’s mission was to jump behind German lines in Normandy, tear down telephone wires, kill as many enemy soldiers as they could and secure bridges for Allied troops, which hopefully would be advancing from the invasion beaches of Utah and Omaha.

Nothing had gone as planned. The 82nd and the 101st Airborne Division had been badly scattered in the confused nighttime drop. Slowly, gradually, men found each other. They formed small, impromptu fighting units from whoever was around and started the war from there.

“I was a private and a grunt,” said Maseng, now 89 and living in Columbia. “I just did what I was told. I shot my rifle when I was told. I ate K rations when I was told. We took a bridge, but nobody told me its name. I didn’t need to know.”

On Monday, Maseng and 21 other World War II veterans – 18 of them South Carolina residents – will return to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. They will be joined by millions of others – veterans, families and history enthusiasts from around the world – for the commemoration.

More than 5 million people are expected to flock to the rural beaches of northern France and nearby towns with familiar names: St. Mere Eglise, Saint-Lo, Caen. Among the dignitaries planning to attend the ceremonies are Queen Elizabeth of England and U.S. President Barack Obama.

Although past commemorations such as the 50th and 60th have been landmark events, this commemoration is considered the most poignant, as it will be the last decade anniversary that large numbers of veterans of the invasion will be able to attend. All of the soldiers, sailors and airmen are now in their late 80s or 90s.

Several of the South Carolinians making the trip said that advanced age swayed their decision to go. Also, the group, organized by Jeanne Palyok of Columbia and her sons Ron and Mike – who also planned trips for the 40th and 50th anniversaries - will include a doctor and nurse, dedicated guardians who paid for the privilege of accompanying the veterans and attentive family members.

One of those veterans is Winston Pownall, 94, of West Columbia, who landed on Utah beach six days after D-Day and served as a combat engineer.

“In the last five years he decided he wanted to go,” said Pownall’s wife, Ruth. “But he has some health problems, so we forgot about it entirely. This sounded ideal.”

A record invasion by sea

The D-Day landing occurred on five beaches – Omaha, Utah, Sword, Gold and Juno – over a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coastline. It was the largest seaborne invasion in history. The area was divided into two sectors, with American soldiers on Omaha and Utah beaches and British and Canadian troops on Sword, Gold and Juno.

The amphibious landings of 130,000 to 150,000 Allied soldiers on D-Day itself were preceded by extensive aerial bombings and naval shelling, as well as the airborne assault by 24,000 American and British paratroopers and glider troops. The heaviest fighting was at Omaha Beach, which was attacked by the 29th Infantry Division, 1st Infantry Division and nine companies of U.S. Army Rangers at great loss.

An estimated 2,500 Americans died in Operation Overlord, as the invasion was code-named, and more than 1,900 from the other Allied nations were killed.

Three weeks later, more than 850,000 men, 148,000 vehicles and 570,000 tons of supplies had been delivered across the beaches, forming a historic force that drove the Germans out of France, across Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands and eventually through Germany itself.

Fred Jones of Taylors crossed Omaha beach three days after D-Day and served in the signal corps of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army. He was awarded five bronze stars.

Jones is anxious to see how it and the nearby town of Saint-Lo look today.

“When we entered the beach on an LST, it was torn up pretty bad,” he said. “There was a pillbox up there but there was nobody in it. They were still fishing people and equipment out of the channel. Saint-Lo was completely destroyed, but they’ve rebuilt it. So I am really interested in that.”

A tribute that’s personal

Jeanne Palyok, an American raised in France by her grandparents, organized the trip as a tribute to veterans who, like her late husband, John, fought in World War II. She worked as a translator at the U.S. Embassy in Paris at the end of the war. In 1947, she and her husband were transferred to jobs in graves registration at the new U.S. cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.

During that time, she witnessed firsthand the staggering scope of the American sacrifice to liberate her second home. Later, Palyok would become a French teacher at Dreher High School in Columbia and, for 18 years, she led trips to France for her students.

“I saw the devastation to our people and the land in France,” she said. “I know this is the last time these men will be able to go back. I want it to be a present for them.”

Palyok and her sons, Ron and Mike, operated Pal Travel in Columbia from 1976 until last year. She and Ron will lead the veterans, 20 guests and 20 others on a 10-day tour, leaving Columbia Sunday and returning June 10.

The group will visit the invasion beaches and the war-torn inland towns, attend the ceremonies and end with a triumphant visit to Paris. They will be accompanied by a reporter for The State newspaper and a documentary film crew funded by the ETV Endowment.

The veterans are going free of charge. The guests are paying $5,000 each for the trip.

The Palyoks are seeking donations large and small to cover the costs for the 20 veterans. So far they have raised $102,000, buoyed by a $50,000 donation from SCE&G. They are still seeking another $23,000 to cover the costs of the trip. Donations can be made through the trip’s website, overlord70.com.

“Otherwise my mother will pay it herself,” Ron Palyok said. “She is that determined to do this.”

Liberators return

The veterans will see the landing beaches and numerous sites from Normandy to Paris during the trip:

•  Monday, they will arrive at their apartments in Courseulles-sur-Mer, Normandy, and have an afternoon to rest.

•  Tuesday, they will visit Arromanches, a small village where the English and Canadians landed, and tour one of the first D-Day museums. Later, they will see Bayeux, home of the famous Bayeux Tapestry, stitched for William the Conqueror and commemorating the battle of Hastings in 1066.

•  Wednesday, they will visit Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery there, laying a wreath from the people of South Carolina. Then they will visit the German cemetery at La Cambe.

Thursday, the veterans will visit the 177-foot cliff called La Pointe du Hoc, where many of the Rangers who assaulted Omaha Beach were killed.

•  Friday, is the official commemoration at American Cemetery.

•  Saturday, the group will tour Ste Mere Eglise, where the 82nd and 101st paratroopers landed on D-Day. They will attend a dinner hosted by the town’s mayor.

June 8 and 9, the veterans head to Paris to see all the major sites.

Throughout the trip, undoubtedly, the veterans will receive the thanks of the French people, who consider them their liberators.

“I really don’t know what to expect,” said Ralph Anderson, of Georgetown, who landed on Omaha Beach two weeks after D-Day and fought through France, the Rhineland and Germany. “I’m not a sentimental person, but this recognition means a lot. It’s nice to be recognized.”

Others, like Maseng, have a little trepidation about embarking on such a long trip, at their age, to revisit the site of such horrible carnage.

“I haven’t been interested in going back,” he said. “It’s not a pleasant memory, and I drop it from my mind. But that is changing. I think I ought to see it now and remember what happened.”

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