As one of 500 veterans at a D-Day ceremony in France Friday, John Cummer of Blythewood never expected to meet President Barack Obama. And if his friend had saved him a seat, he might never have had the honor.
Cummer, 89, who served as a World War II gunner’s mate on a troop landing ship, was one of a mass of veterans and other onlookers on a huge plaza behind Obama at the towering memorial at American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.
Before the ceremonies began, Cummer tried to find a seat next to his friend John Gatton, of Louisville, Ky., in the second row. But no seats were open. So an attendant took to an empty seat on the front row.
“The guy who took me there pointed to the seat next to me and said, ‘That’s the president’s chair,’ and my jaw dropped,” Cummer said. “It was the craziest thing ever.”
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The ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day, held in front of more than 12,000 people seated among rows of white crosses and a worldwide television audience, was the crowning point of a 10-day trip to Normandy for 23 World War II veterans in a tour originating in Columbia.
When the vets - 18 from South Carolina - arrived at the cemetery with about 40 family members and friends, the men, all in their late 80s or 90s, were escorted into a white hospitality tent and feted with canapes and orange juice. There, they met former President George W. Bush, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
Having arrived early - about 7 a.m. for the 10:30 a.m. ceremony - the veterans were among the first to be escorted onto the plaza, which served as a stage for the event. Most were clustered in the first, second and third rows overlooking the graves of 9,387 American soldiers who died in the largest amphibious invasion in history.
Obama took the stage behind French President Francois Hollande. Hollande, then Obama shook hands with Winston Pownall, of West Columbia, who was seated next to Cummer. Then they shook hands with Cummer and sat down next to him.
As they rose for the French and American national anthems, Pownall, 94, who was a combat engineer in the war, struggled to stand. Obama lent a hand.
“I was trying to get up quick, but was a little slow,” Pownall said. “He was very gracious.”
Obama spoke after Hollande offered the veterans attending as an example of the values and dedication that defined the Greatest Generation.
“Whenever the world makes you cynical, whenever you doubt that courage and goodness is possible, stop and think of these men,” Obama said.
After he sat down, Obama leaned toward Cummer and spoke with him.
Obama thanked Cummer for his service, and asked Cummer to “say hello to all my close friends in South Carolina.”
“I said, ‘I will, sir’. But I thought, ‘That won’t take very long,’” Cummer, a Republican, joked. “I didn’t say anything else to the president. I don’t think you should speak to a president unless he wants you to. It wasn’t a time to bend his ear.”
Cummer added that he thought Obama made a great speech, capturing the historic significance and meaning of the moment. “He did a great job.”
After the hour-long ceremony, marked by a 21-gun salute, a flyover by F-16 fighter jets and the playing of taps, the president turned to greet other veterans.
At least five other local vets shook his hand and spoke with him.
Gatton, 91, told the president: “I’m starting a basketball game this afternoon.” Obama responded: “You can be point guard.”
Ted Teagle of Columbia didn’t really remember what the president said to him. “I was thinking what I was going to say to him. What do you say to a president?”
When Obama reached to shake the hand of Leif Maseng of Columbia, the former paratrooper asked him to shake the hand of child sitting near them first, then shook hands with the president.
“It’s special to be here. It really is,” Maseng said. “It goes to your head if you let it.”
The ceremony followed four days of touring the fertile fields and small villages of Normandy, where the veterans were greeted with large crowds of admirers, mostly from the countries of France, Belgium and Holland, which were liberated by advancing Allied troops, mostly from America and Britain.
The ceremony at American Cemetery was one of 16 to be held on the five invasion beaches of Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. The ceremonies were attended by hundreds of thousands of people from across the world and featured heads of state such as Elizabeth, Queen of England.
The ceremonies and motorcades clogged the narrow roadways and streets, snarling traffic and caused the veterans to spend long periods on the bus. But the significance of the event -- it is the last decade reunion most of these vets will be around to attend - calmed most attendees even in the most trying of logistical circumstances.
After the ceremony, the South Carolina veterans returned to their activities, touring a cider distillery and visiting bombed out German bunkers overlooking Sword Beach. They received Jeep rides from Dutch re-enactors, had a picnic supplied by their trip organizer Jeanne Palyok and her son, Ron, of Columbia, and answered even more questions and accepted more handshakes and hugs.
Saturday will be a day of rest for the group, except for a quick evening trip to St. Mere Eglise - site of a fierce battle conducted by Maseng’s 82nd Airborne Division - where they will attend a dinner hosted by the town’s mayor. Then it is off to Paris for two days of relaxation and sightseeing.
They return to Columbia on Tuesday. They are expected between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. at Northeast Presbyterian Church, 601 Polo Road, and the public is invited to welcome them home.
“It’s a cliche, but this has truly been the trip of a lifetime,” said Cummer, who hasn’t been back to Normandy since that fateful day 70 years ago. “Everybody was a lot friendlier this time.”