70 years after D-Day, there are still stories to tell

President Obama tells the lessons of D-Day, as two 91-year-old vets from Georgia look on.

It was an awful day to fly.

The rain and haze over Normandy on June 6, 1944, provided little visibility. But Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had said go, so Richard Bailey and Dave Andrews Jr. were piloting bombers headed to blow up enemy railroads. The invasion was on.

Now 91, both men flew across the Atlantic once again last week — Andrews from his home in Atlanta, Bailey from Kennesaw — to celebrate the 70th anniversary of D-Day. They had prime seats behind President Barack Obama, part of a contingent of at least 400 D-Day veterans who made the trip, as firsthand recollections of a turning point for Western civilization are constantly receding.

What the vets share is a compulsion to tell their story and tell it again so the memory remains alive. The tales are rehearsed and concise at some points, rambling in others. Each word matters.

Many Georgians never lived to share their war stories, including a pair buried at Omaha Beach who died in attempts to tend to wounded comrades.

Others remain with true stories as rich as fiction.

Carl Beck, 88, of Atlanta still gets a gleam in his eye when telling of the barn named after him in Normandy, where he and a buddy holed up after parachuting behind enemy lines. But Beck was unable to make the trip this time.

Still more Georgians are too young to have been there but are dedicated to keeping the flame going in their own ways.

Former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, who splits his time between Atlanta and Arlington, Va., runs the federal agency that looks after the American cemetery at Omaha Beach — the site of Friday’s remembrance — and 23 others around the world. Jim Micko of Bonaire re-enacted the D-Day parachute jumps in Normandy this week, with the same planes and uniforms.

Georgian Max Cleland in the center of 2014 D-Day osbservances

Sally and Bruce Bobick of Carrollton are collecting civilians’ memories in Georgia and Normandy.

“There’s just so many damned stories,” Bruce said.

Here are a few:

The jumper

Beck was only 17 when he arrived at Camp Toccoa in the North Georgia mountains from a small town in Missouri to begin his career as a paratrooper. There were no illusions of what they were getting into. Beck recalled the drill sergeant’s refrain: “What are we here for? Kill! Kill!”

After a stop in Fort Benning in Columbus, where he made training jumps, Beck went to England as part of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment to train and prepare for top-secret Operation Overlord. The invasion was years in the making and preceded by months of tension. Yet Beck and his mates did not give that much thought to the historic import when they settled in for the night drop in the early hours of June 6.

“We didn’t think it was all that big of a deal,” Beck said. “It was just: There’s the sons of bitches. That’s what you’re here for, to kill the sons of bitches.”

The drop was chaotic. Beck was meant to seize the locks at La Barquette on the Douve River. He’s still not sure where he landed, but after linking up with pal Robert Johnson, the two roamed the countryside for a couple of days. Then they happened upon some French people in a field and caught a break — their new friends were hooked in with the French Resistance.

The homeowner, a man Beck recalled was named Robert Marmion, let the men sleep in a hayloft in his barn and snuck them food. The Germans were executing anyone helping Allied troops, so when Marmion led Beck and Johnson down from the loft one day, Beck assumed the worst was finally happening.

Instead, they were led to the nearby town of Baupte. It was June 13, and the Americans had arrived.

Beck and Johnson manned a machine gun post to pin down the Germans and help the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment take the town. “We shot ‘em up pretty good,” Beck said.

On his return trip for the 50th anniversary — he parachuted out of a plane then and for the 60th — Beck made it back to Baupte, where the townspeople dedicated a “tableau” of him at his brief home. They call it Beck’s Barn.

The fallen

There are some 200 Georgians buried among the 9,387 Americans whose graves overlook the cliffs at Omaha Beach. Their life stories are short but no less valiant.

Lt. Col. William Turner from Sparta was known as Billy and boasted a thick Southern drawl. He parachuted behind enemy lines at 1:30 a.m. on D-Day and led a mission to destroy a German strong point to prepare the way for a forthcoming beach landing. On June 7, he was at the head of a force moving further inland, directing artillery fire at German positions.

Turner noticed an injured soldier in a ditch and rushed to his aid. As Turner was calling out instructions, he was killed by a German sniper, a beloved officer dead at 27.

Col. Augustine P. Little Jr. of the Army Corps of Engineers arrived with the first aviation unit to hit Omaha Beach, eight hours after the first landings. The Louisville, Ga., native’s unit won plaudits for reconnaissance and construction of airfields for Allied forces as the group pressed into France.

In August 1944, Little died on the outskirts of Paris when he, too, rushed to the aid of a wounded man and was hit with German machine gun fire. He was 29.

The storytellers

Bruce Bobick is the retired chairman of the art department at West Georgia College, and he and his wife, Sally, spend much of their time these days at an apartment in Bayeux, not far from the invasion beaches. Along with a friend who is a retired French general, they came up with a project to gather oral histories of the home front experience from civilians in Georgia and Normandy.

Rationing and newsreels made sure Georgia remembered there was a war on. In Normandy, it was German soldiers — and then, the Allies. The Bobicks have uncovered many a gem, including some lingering resentment in Normandy to the American liberators, which stands in contrast to the effusive public displays that have marked this week. Some of the Americans, it appears, were a little too willing to take advantage of farmers’ stocks.

Those battlefield stories are of strong interest to Cleland, who is focused on preserving and enhancing them. The agency Cleland now heads, the American Battle Monuments Commission, runs the Omaha Beach cemetery and 23 others around the world. A refurbished visitors center at Pointe du Hoc — where Army Rangers took out German howitzers at a crucial moment on D-Day — was opened last week, and Cleland is trying to adapt the agency to the digital age.

“You have to get people where they live,” he said. “And now they live on the Internet.”

The pilots

On D-Day, Bailey flew three B-26 missions. The first two did not go so well.

Bailey recalled that they were supposed to bomb the beaches to aid the ground forces, but they could not see well enough and did not want to harm Americans, so they dropped their bombs, mostly harmlessly, a little ways inland.

For the third mission, Bailey’s group was to take out a rail yard. Again, visibility was horrendous, so after a couple of passes at normal altitudes, Bailey guided his plane in at 500 feet off the ground — so low they could feel the heat of the bombs they were dropping — and faced groundfire from German rifles.

But they succeeded, and Bailey’s plane came back with hardly a scratch.

“Those were tough airplanes,” he said.

Andrews’ mission that day, piloting an A-20 aircraft as part of the 416th Bomb Group, took him north of the invasion, near Calais. The French Underground reported that the Germans were moving a Panzer division by rail from there down to Normandy.

“They sent us over to go wipe ‘em out,” Andrews said, “which we did.”

He downplays his own heroism — “I don’t think we did so much” — because as an airman he always had a bed waiting for him if he came home, while the ground forces experienced far worse conditions.

Still, Andrews said, destroying so many tanks “probably helped save a lot of lives.”

As it turned out, the two metro Atlantans did not cross paths Friday at the Omaha Beach ceremony. Their sons happened upon each other in the aftermath because Don Bailey was wearing a hat identifying them as being from Cobb County. At the time, Dave Andrews Jr. was napping in the car — having captured maybe four hours of sleep the night before. But he perked up immediately when asked to talk about D-Day once more.

“I like to talk to anybody that’s interested in what went on,” Andrews said, “as best I can.”