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In Normandy, gratitude and grief ahead of D-Day’s 75th anniversary

In 1944, thousands of Allied soldiers landed on five different beaches in Normandy. The operation set the stage for liberation of German-occupied France during World War II. For those who participated in the critical mission, the challenges they faced and the losses they suffered will never disappear. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant speaks to veterans commemorating D-Day's 75th anniversary.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Utah, Omaha, Juno, Gold. Names that will live on in history, given to the beaches in Normandy, France, where American-led allied troops landed on June 6, 1944, to begin the liberation of Europe.

    Of the 16 million Americans who served during World War II, an estimated 500,000 remain alive. Only a few have returned on this 75th anniversary of D-Day. And it may be the last time a large group veterans of that epic battle will gather.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant spoke with a group of them in Normandy.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    At a chateau in Normandy, the soundtrack of the Greatest Generation here to remember the defining moment of their lives and of World War II.

    Artilleryman Pete Shaw landed at Utah Beach. Thus began nearly 300 days of combat, which earned him four Bronze Stars.

  • Pete Shaw:

    I wanted to come back at the 50th anniversary, but my wife was diagnosed with cancer. So I didn't come. But I wanted to come so bad. That's why I never turned down this opportunity to come for the 75th.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    This is what they came for, the beaches, where the Allies gained their first foothold in German-occupied France. Staff Sergeant George Mullins crash landed on Utah Beach in a glider.

    What's it like to be back?

  • Staff Sgt. George Mullins:

    Feels good.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    At the Omaha Beach memorial, German soldiers surprised ranger Roy Huereque by thanking him for liberating them from Hitler's Nazi regime.

  • Man:

    Well, you don't want to hear my story of Germany.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Man:

    I think it's a good story because you freed us.

  • Man:

    How far out was the tide when you came in on June 6?

  • Man:

    It was way out.

  • Man:

    It was way out.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Jerry Deitch was in the initial wave on Utah Beach.

  • Jerry Deitch:

    I almost wanted to say I was too scared to be scared. But I was terrified. I says, you know what, I trained for this for six months. We had a job to do, and we did it. I didn't have any time to be afraid or anything. This was it.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    His mission was to blow up obstacles and anti-tank mines while under fire.

  • Narrator:

    Another of the decisive battles of world history has been joined. This is the day for which free people have long waited. This is D-Day.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    French children paid tribute as the veterans saluted in front of the Omaha Beach memorial.

    Polish reenactors were awestruck by at being in the presence of the real deal. Deitch, who served in the forbearer of the Navy SEALs, recalls men were dying all around him, before he was knocked unconscious. He woke up eight days later in an English hospital.

  • Jerry Deitch:

    The ones that went into Omaha Beach, they had a 75 percent loss out of 50 people. Utah Beach we were fortunate. We had a 20 percent loss.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Such selflessness securing the beachhead enabled servicewomen like nurse Leila Morrison to come ashore later on.

  • Leila Morrisson:

    Every day is a memorial day. All of them were injured and suffered. And I try not to remember that part. But I want to remember the courage that they showed, remember that they never complained, and they were there for a reason. And if they — all of them would say, if I had to do it all over, I would do it again.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Private Brad Freeman was a member of Easy Company immortalized in the HBO TV series "Band of Brothers."

  • Brad Freemant:

    Well, we knows what we come for. We was ready. We were all just kids.

  • Narrator:

    Paratroopers landed in Normandy behind the coastal defenses.

  • Brad Freemant:

    We knew whenever we stepped out that plane, we didn't have a way back. And we'd better do something if we wanted to live.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    At the American cemetery above Omaha Beach lie some of Freeman's brothers in arms, Private Earle Williams from California, Private Donald MacMillin from New York. Many were picked off by the Germans after being dropped in the wrong place.

    George Mullins is now 94 and has just written a book detailing how he fought across Europe, was wounded, patched up, carried on, and reached Hitler's Eagle's Nest redoubt in the German Alps.

  • George Mullins:

    I'm proud of the outfit I represent, 101st Airborne. They're special men to fight with. They — you know what you have when you fight with them. And I did the best I could.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Russell Picket was carrying a flamethrower in the first wave onto Omaha Beach. He was wounded and had to use life preservers from those killed to save himself from being pulled out to sea by the tide.

  • Russell Picket:

    Depending on how you look at it, now, eagerness to go and do, I was proud of that.

    But what I got done, I wasn't proud of it. If I could have burned out the pillbox within the 30 minutes that I was supposed to have burned it out, there would have been hundreds of people saved. I criticize myself all the time, even though I couldn't help it. I know I couldn't help it. I got sense enough to know that.

    But if I had my choice, I would go on definitely knowing that I was doing a suicide job.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    But, here, he's regarded as a genuine hero. In villages like Colleville-sur-Mer, they are paying homage to the men who liberated them from four years of Nazi occupation.

    At the moment, it's like being on a giant film set in Normandy. There's a really festive atmosphere, as tens of thousands of people celebrate the sacrifices and the courage of those who participated in The Longest Day.

    Certainly, there's solemnity. But the overriding emotions that will be the legacy of this anniversary are gratitude and respect.

    There's intense gratitude in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first village to be fully liberated. Mayor Jean Quetier studies the bell tower where wounded paratrooper John Steele hung for hours, suspended by his chute. He only survived by pretending to be dead. Like many of his comrades, Steele was mistakenly dropped in an area bristling with Germans.

  • Jean Quetier:

    Maybe it's the last anniversary with veterans, because they are now old men. But it's necessary we remember the story. It's a very expensive price for freedom and democracy.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Medic Gene Kleindl landed at Utah Beach. This time, he had a different reception.

  • Gene Kleindlt:

    I'm being treated like a rock star and with pictures, and not realizing that. All these many, many years, I still can't believe it.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Today's American paratroopers are naturally drawn to Sainte-Mere-Eglise. For those following in their footsteps, the Greatest Generation has a simple message.

  • George Mullins:

    Just don't let it happen again. That's all the advice I have got to the world. Don't let it happen again.

  • Narrator:

    Every soldier knew his station. Every man knew just where he was to fit into the gigantic pattern.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    At this moment 75 years ago, 150,000 men steeled themselves for the landing and the assault, not knowing that, by the end of The Longest Day, an estimated 10,000 would be killed, wounded, or listed as missing in action.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant at Omaha Beach.

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