Clifford Dill of Liberty stared with amazement out of the window of the tour bus as it is rolled from Paris to Caen through fields green with spring wheat along roadsides lined with red and blue poppies.
“It’s so different,” he said. “When I was here last, it was messed up. It looked like a hurricane and tornadoes had hit it. It’s nice now. Looks like we did them a favor.”
Dill was last here 70 years ago as part of the U.S. Army’s 83rd Infantry Division, which landed on nearby Omaha Beach on June 21, 1944, 15 days after D-Day, and fought their way from the hedgerows to victory in Europe.
On Monday, he was one of 22 World War II veterans - 18 from South Carolina - to return to Normandy as part of a tour originating in Columbia that will attend the 70th commemoration of the largest amphibious invasion in history.
An estimated 5 million people are expected to attend the June 6 events, including Elizabeth, Queen of England; President Barack Obama; and Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Although the 50th and 60th anniversaries drew large crowds, this commemoration is considered the most poignant. All of the veterans now are in their late 80s or early 90s, and many likely will not be alive or able to attend another 10-year commemoration.
The veterans, accompanied by about 40 guardians and family members who payed $5,000 each to accompany them on the tour, also will visit the five invasion beaches, towns such as St. Mere Eglise and Arromanche, and end the trip with a triumphant stay in Paris.
The tour was arranged by the Palyok family of Columbia, who operated the Pal travel agency for nearly three decades. Jeanne Palyok and her late husband, John, himself a World War II veteran, worked at the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach - where the invasion’s hardest fighting took place - in 1947, shortly after the war ended.
Jeanne Palyok organized the tour as a tribute to the estimated 2,500 men who fell in the invasion and as a gift to the veterans on the tour. They are attending free of charge, thanks to a $50,000 grant from S.C. Electric & Gas and donations from the public. The group still is $23,000 short of its goal.
The tour kicked off Sunday with a rousing send-off by family and friends, accompanied by bagpipes and American flags, at Beth Shalom synagogue in Forest Acres. The celebration continued at a flag-lined North Carolina Welcome Center on I-77, where the group was joined by some Rock Hill veterans and a crush of Charlotte-area media.
The veterans were announced in flight on the packed 330 Airbus to Paris, to rousing applause from the rest of the passengers. U.S. Airways pilot Danny McGlasson of Kentucky came back to the cabin during the flight and shook the hand of each of the veterans.
“This time, you can stay on the plane until we land,” he told Columbia’s Leif Maseng, who as member of the 82nd Airborne, parachuted into Normandy shortly after midnight on D-Day.
“I have had more take-offs than landings in these things,” Maseng replied.
Having to navigate customs at both Charlotte International Airport and Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris, John Gatton Jr., who had driven from Louisville, Ky., with his son, Mike, to join the group, groused that “the last time I was here I didn’t need a passport.”
After a long and, for many of the veterans, a relatively sleepless seven-hour flight to Paris, they traveled to Caen, which was largely destroyed during the invasion but today is a bustling, modern city expecting large crowds for the commemoration. Kiosks announced myriad events surrounding the 70th anniversary. And the local mall offered many items celebrating the Allied victory, including scarves for 5 Euros ($6.80) each or three for 10 Euros ($13.61).
Their welcome at the Paris airport was underwhelming - “Where’s the band? Where’s the flags? Didn’t get kissed once,” veteran Vernon Brantley of Columbia said, laughing. But that changed as the group got to Caen.
Normandy residents, especially, view Americans as their liberators. And that was evident at the same local mall. As the vets went through the line at the Casino Cafeteria, the portions seemed to get bigger.
“I asked the server for a little slice of ham and I got half a pound,” Dill said. “I guess she didn’t speak English.”
Jason Dieusy, of Caen, began talking with the veterans as they were preparing to get back on the bus for the trip to their final destination, a seaside condo complex at the heart of Juno Beach - one of the five invasion beaches - in the town of Courseulles-sur-Mer.
“This is very important to me,” the 25-year-old Normandy native said. “It’s part of our history. I just wanted to meet them. They gave us our freedom.”