On the morning of June 6, 1944 – D-Day – 19-year-old Curtis Outen of Chesterfield watched the carnage on Omaha Beach from the deck of the troop transport ship Santa Rosa. He saw the first wave of soldiers – the 1st infantry Division – hit the beach under incredible artillery and machine gun fire from the Germans on the bluff above.
“I wasn’t scared until I saw all of that going on in front of me,” said Outen, who now lives in Matthews, N.C. The 89-year-old is one of a Columbia-based tour group of 22 World War II veterans – 18 from South Carolina – here to attend the 70th commemoration of D-Day, to be held Friday.
But Wednesday, Outen was remembering that day seven decades ago when his 29th Infantry Division was scheduled to go in next after the first wave of soldiers. As he climbed down rope netting into the bucking landing craft, he knew he was in for trouble.
Just after he waded ashore in waist-deep water, shrapnel from artillery fire ripped his pants. Concussion from an explosion ruptured his ear drums. Men were falling all around him. He ran forward to a ditch behind a shale shelf underneath the bluff, “but it was filled with dead men,” Outen said.
The gunfire and artillery shells kept coming from above, and somehow – he doesn’t really remember – Outen made it to the top of the bluff alive.
“Everybody had that dog-faced look – that stare – after that,” he said. “I had it, too.”
On Wednesday, Outen returned to the bluff, at the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer above Omaha Beach, where rows of identical white marble crosses mark the graves of 9,387 American soldiers who fell in the largest amphibious invasion in history. Another 1,557 names of soldiers whose bodies were never found are etched on a memorial wall.
The scene was at first somber in a cold morning drizzle, and then turned invigorating for the 89-year-old former truck driver.
Swarms of tourists from around the world surrounded him and the other veterans, shaking their hands, posing for pictures, introducing them to their children and thanking them in languages most didn’t recognize.
“Well,” Outen said, mobbed by admirers. “This beats doing dishes back home.”
Friday’s ceremonies along Normandy’s five invasion beaches will feature President Barack Obama; Elizabeth, Queen of England; and Russian president Vladimir Putin. The American Cemetery was awash in tourists, American military personnel and French police. Row upon row of chairs were set up between row upon row of headstones.
A stage for the dignitaries and speakers was set in front of the D-Day Memorial. A grand stand for the nearly 500 members of the world press covering the event flanked the seats near the cemetery chapel, where the veterans laid a wreath representing South Carolina.
But Friday’s formal ceremony was far from the minds of the veterans, as they basked in the attention:
“Thank you for what you did,” Dees said.
“No, thank you for what you are doing,” Maseng replied.
“To see this outpouring and see them put on a pedestal is just incredible,” Maio said.
“The fact that we hooked up with these people is just amazing,” Carey said.
The outpouring continued throughout the day, interspersed with interviews from media outlets such as CNN, Time magazine and the Christian Science Monitor.
“They’re rock stars,” said Perry McLeod, a Richland Northeast history teacher who was accompanying the veterans as a guardian. “It’s sort of like hanging out with Bono or One Direction.”
At lunch at a brasserie just inland from Omaha – which had painted on its window a smiling Obama in a World II uniform surrounded by B-47 bombers – the veterans were embraced by Normandy residents.
“It’s very important for us in France to see our liberators,” said Dehail Francoise of Ouistreham, a professor of business, as she posed for pictures with the veterans and planted kisses on their cheeks. “We will never forget. They came when they were young and now they are here when they are old. It’s very nice. It’s very important.”
The area around Omaha Beach has become an encampment for World War II re-enactors from across Europe – sometimes seemingly as many as the invasion forces themselves. Most of the re-enactors are from Holland, Belgium and France.
“We were liberated by the British and the Americans,” said Goop Derks of Orischot, Holland, who wore the uniform of the 101st Airborne Division, which fought in his town during Operation Market Garden, the largest airborne assault in history.
“I have heard all of the stories from my father and my grandfather who saw the liberators,” The 53-year-old plumber said. “It’s deep in my heart. I dress like this because I want to see how it feels to be like them. And now I can meet them myself.”
Vintage vehicles from Jeeps to Sherman tanks clog the narrow lanes flanked by ancient churches and houses. Period military tents – all American issue on this beach – hawk goods of all descriptions from Jeep parts to books to uniforms.
“Do the French pay them to do this?” mused veteran Vernon Brantley of West Columbia.
Indeed, the rampant commercialism – stores were selling D-Day cheese and D-Day cookie tins – was bothersome to some.
“It’s one huge dog and pony show,” said Jim Murphy of Pawley’s Island, a Vietnam veteran who was serving as a guardian for World War II veteran Gerald White of Columbia.
Perhaps the most uplifting and joyful stop of the day was at the 1st Infantry Division Memorial on Omaha Beach itself. The veterans posed for what was intended to be an impromptu group photo in front of the massive stone monument. But they were promptly surrounded by dozens of visitors who snapped hundreds of photographs, then offered a rousing three cheers and applause as the vets climbed down from the base.
“Thank you,” said Navy veteran Guy Benza, of Las Vegas, who joined the tour in Paris. Benza then spent nearly half an hour fielding questions, many from children.
Many of the vets then wandered onto the beach, some using walkers, to scoop sand into anything available, from plastic bags to Tupperware containers.
At one point Cummer, the 90-year-old Navy gunner from Blythewood who ferried British troops onto Gold, scraped his hand on a granite wall as he struggled back up from the beach. Rather than flinch or complain, he held the bloody finger aloft triumphantly.
“Now,” he said, “I can say that I was wounded at Omaha Beach.”