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.”
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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.”
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.”