John Beauford Sr., who was born in Greenwood and raised in Abbeville, was never supposed to land on Utah Beach 70 years ago. It was all a mistake.
He was an anti-tank gunner training at Fort Hood, Texas. When his 86th Infantry Division set out to California for more training, a military policeman put Beauford on the wrong train and he ended up in New Jersey. Soon, he was on a ship bound for Great Britain, then aboard a tank transport ship headed to Normandy.
Two days after D-Day, he found himself - a guy who was supposed to destroy tanks - helping drive one off a landing craft on Utah Beach, under fire from German guns.
“I wasn’t supposed to be there at all,” said Beauford, 90, one of 22 veterans - 18 from South Carolina - on a Columbia-based tour to the 70th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day landings. “It was as crazy as it could be.”
An estimated 5 million people have jammed the 50-mile long invasion zone on Normandy’s coast for events on the five D-Day landing beaches of Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. President Barack Obama is heading the dignitaries at the U.S. ceremony, being held today at the American Cemetery above Omaha Beach.
Curtis Outen of Pageland, who landed on Omaha Beach in the second wave on D-Day, said he was more than excited about the ceremony.
“I’m fired up,” the 89-year-old infantryman said while ordering pizza Thursday at the seaside town of Courseulles-sur-Mer, on Juno Beach, where the group is staying. “This is what I came for.”
But the veterans haven’t had much time to think about the ceremony. The last three days, they have toured sites up and down this fertile region of wheat fields, orchards and small villages with familiar, historic names like Colleville, St. Mere Eglise and Saint-Lo.
At each stop, they have draw adoration from large crowds of admirers, from groups of French school children to tourists from across Europe and North America.
On Thursday, they were guests of honor at the tiny village of Picauville, which was the epicenter of the parachute drops by men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions. The keynote speaker at the event was Gen. Phillip Breedlove, the four-star general who is the supreme commander of all NATO forces in Europe.
The event featured flyovers by vintage C-47 transport planes, which dropped paratroopers in the area on D-Day, a balloon launch from the children of Picauville and a skydive into the town square by Helen Patton, daughter of Gen. George S. Patton, who commanded Third Army in World War II.
Leif Maseng of Columbia was a paratrooper in the 82nd - the All Americans - who jumped just after midnight on D-Day. He said as the tour bus drove into the small town he was charged with emotion, even though he didn’t recognize the town or the fields around it because they have changed so much in the past 70 years.
“I could sense something,” he said. “I felt myself getting tense.”
But as Maseng was greeted by the townspeople, visitors and especially modern paratroopers of his 82nd Airborne Division, he became more comfortable.
“I didn’t think I needed closure; I had turned it all out of my mind,” said the normally stoic combat veteran of D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. “But the outpouring was so emotional that it brought out an unexpected good feeling to the point that it almost made my eyes water. I’m mentally comfortable now.”
Among those greeting Maseng and the other veterans was Lt. Col. Michael Larsen of Charleston, an assistant battalion commander with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Vicenza, Italy. The Citadel graduate and former 82nd Airborne officer, said it was an once-in-a-lifetime experience to meet a D-Day paratrooper on the ground where he fought.
“This is the Mecca of the airborne,” he said. “This is the root of our airborne community.”
The veterans were later treated to a filet mignon lunch, sponsored by a Maryland-based credit union and cooked by an Austin, Texas catering service. The lunch was served in a tent on the sprawling lawn of a chateau once used as headquarters by German commander Erwin Rommel, and later taken by the 82nd in the early hours of D-Day.
The spot was slated to host dinner later in the evening for Breedlove, Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno.
Owners Simon Rock de Besombes and Dorothea de la Houssaye said they were equally honored to host the South Carolina veterans as they were the Army’s top brass. They opened their private residence to all of the 60 members on the tour - veterans, guardians and family members.
De la Houssaye is Dutch. De Besombes is French. They said hosting the lunch was “a privilege.”
“In some small way, we can participate in the eternal gratitude to the people who fought and the people who lost their lives for our liberty,” de la Houssaye said.
For Beauford, Outen, Maseng and the other South Carolina veterans and family members, the scene was a bit surreal.
“I feel like I’m in a movie,” Maseng said. “I would like to see it again some time.”