Resting place of D-Day's fallen heroes is vivid reminder of sacrifice

World War II veteran returns to Normandy for 1st time

By Nicole Perez - Anchor/Reporter, Andrea Torres - Digital Reporter/Producer

Harold Stephens, a World War II veteran, recently traveled from Florida's Ocala area to northern France.

Stephens, 94, stared at the Prussian-blue sea. He saw it frame Omaha Beach, the historic landing area in Normandy where Allied troops marched into Europe under heavy enemy fire. He was stationed in Birmingham, England, and was sent to the seaside town of Torquay when the invasion started.

This week, Stephens got emotional when he saw the rows of endless white marble tombstones. There were 9,388 burials at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. He said those are the graves of some of the fallen comrades who didn't get to go back home to their families like he did.  

Lawrence Madill is among the 130 men from Florida who are buried in the cemetery. He is also among the 900 men with the 29th Infantry Division who didn't survive the chaotic invasion that marked the beginning of the end of World War II. He died June 7, 1944.

"It's very emotional," said Stephens, who was born in Jellico, Tennessee, and served with the 246th Signal Operations Company. "It's my first time over here. I get all choked up."

George Shenkle, 98, understands Stephens' feelings well even though it is not his first time attending D-Day anniversary ceremonies in northern France. He served with the Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division.

"It's very touching," Shenkle said, adding that the crosses and stars of David at the cemetery "represent people that at one time were alive."

World War II veterans Harold Stevens, left, and George Shenkle, right, visit northern France for the D-Day anniversary ceremony.

The World War II-era paratrooper, who was born in New Jersey and now lives in Pennsylvania, remembers jumping from a C-47 into Nazi-occupied France. He landed backwards about 2 a.m. on D-Day. 

Four days after the invasion started, Stephens, who was assigned to Gen. Omar Bradley's 1st Army, landed on Utah Beach, one of the five D-Day beaches. 

Stephens made it up to Saint-Lô, a commune in north-western France. He was later re-assigned to Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army and traveled through Belgium and Luxembourg on his way to Germany. Meanwhile Shenkle, jumped into Holland Sept. 17, 1944.

Six months after D-Day, with the onset of winter in the Ardennes Forest, Stephens and Shenkle fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the bloodiest battle of the war and the second-deadliest battle in American history.

About 89,500 Americans were killed, wounded, vanished or were captured. Shenkle was wounded. And when the Allied forces defeated the Nazis in 1945, Shenkle and Stephens went back home.

"I feel lucky to still be alive," Shenkle said.

Shenkle and Stephens, both great grandfathers, plan to be at the 75th anniversary ceremony of the D-Day landings this year. It will likely be their last since the ceremony is held every five years.

The first burials at the the 172.5-acre Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial were in 1948. The military gave the families of veterans a choice: They could bring their bodies back to the U.S. for burial, or they could have them buried in Normandy.

Susan Lawrence was in Normandy this week to honor her uncles -- twins Julius and Ludwig Pieper from South Dakota-- who are buried together at the cemetery.  They were 19 when the U.S. Navy radiomen fought to serve together. They died in their attempt to deliver supplies to the troops ashore.

Their ship, the Landing Ship Tank-523, hit an underwater mine and sank June 19, 1944 off the coast of Normandy. They weren't buried together. Ludwig Pieper's remains vanished and his name was recorded in the walls of the missing at the cemetery. 

In 1961, French salvage divers dismantled what was left of the Landing Ship Tank-523. They found human remains in the radio room of the ship, but since they could not be identified, the remains were interred in Ardennes American Cemetery in Belgium as "Unknown" until 2017. 

Twin brothers Julius Pieper, left, and Ludwig Pieper in their US Navy uniforms. The Associated Press

After the remains were disinterred, they were sent to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency for analysis. Last year, the U.S. military returned Ludwig Pieper's remains to his family for burial with military honors. The brothers were buried next to each other June 19, 2018 -- 74 years after their death.

The horticulture crew at the cemetery was preparing for some 12,000 visitors to arrive for the D-Day ceremony. Scot Desjardins, a former U.S. Army cavalry scout and tank crewman, became the superintendent of the Normandy American Cemetery in 2017.

"There is a lot of emotion. You have to figure that each one of these crosses isn't only a soldier. It's a mother and father who lost a son," Desjardins said. "It's a sister and brother who lost a brother. It's someone who lost an aunt or an uncle, so there is a lot of sacrifice here."

Copyright 2019 by WPLG Local10.com - All rights reserved.