Area D-Day veterans touched by heroes' welcome in Europe

Area D-Day veterans touched by heroes' welcome in Europe

Dick Quint was standing at a train station platform in Paris with his grandchildren while his daughter searched for the train to Bayeux, when the French woman noticed his plight – and his World War II veteran's cap.

In short order, the woman had collected three French policemen, who hauled the Quint family's luggage through the station to the right gate, walked the bags onto the correct train and deposited them on the luggage rack.

"It was like that everywhere we went," the 81-year-old Rantoul man, a former Army combat infantryman who fought in France after D-Day and in Belgium and Germany, recalled last week.

President Bush, who spoke at the 60th anniversary commemoration of D-Day, didn't have anything over Quint and other local veterans in Europe for the celebration.

"We were followed like we were traveling with Tom Cruise," Karla Bishop said of a bus tour with her father Carl Hatcher of Mahomet and other veterans.

"They'd ask you for your autograph," said Hatcher, who parachuted in with the 82nd Airborne Division early the morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944. "I'm not used to giving out autographs. But over there, I autographed more books than you'd believe. They were lined up."

Quint found himself posing with a collection of four-star generals, including Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"I kept the camera lens kind of warm," he said.

"I know how grateful the people were when we liberated them, and I didn't think it would be the same way, but it was," said Bill Anderson of Champaign. Anderson was on the same anniversary bus tour as his buddy Hatcher, but he came in by landing craft on Omaha Beach with the First Infantry Division's initial waves on D-Day.

Before the trip, Anderson said he looked forward to sizing up the beach, known as "Bloody Omaha" for the heavy German resistance and the number of Allied casualties, without anybody shooting at him.

"It wasn't as big as I remembered it to be," he said. "The first time, it was an awful long way. I did bring back a rock this time."

Anderson and Hatcher got a little taste of their first trip to Europe when their luggage didn't arrive for four days. Of course, the first time, they wore the same clothes for more than a month; this time they were able to get a shower, as opposed to a sponge

bath out of a steel helmet.

Jim and Jay Yost also got a taste of what it was like for D-Day participants – intentionally. The father and son from Mahomet, both veterans of the 82nd Airborne in more recent years, shipped their vintage World War II-era Jeep to England and then took a ferry to France with other classic military vehicle owners to participate in the commemoration.

Dressed in period uniforms and driving to Sainte Mere Eglise, at 40 mph no less, they started seeing American flags and welcome signs, far out in the countryside.

"If there was a house in Normandy that wasn't decorated, we didn't see it," said Jim Yost, a Vietnam War veteran and Purple Heart winner who is a World War II history buff and has made repeated trips to Europe.

Yost also recounted the heartfelt well-wishing a Frenchman extended to current American soldiers, on leave from Iraq and dispatched to the D-Day commemoration as a kind of reward, an incident belying the tension between the two countries' leaders over the Iraq war.

"It was just a very moving moment," he said. "But that was the ... feeling of the whole time we were there."

Yost ended up as a tour guide for some of the young American soldiers and also participated in a D-Day re-enactment parachute jump from a vintage C-47 cargo plane.

He and Jay Yost said Sainte Mere Eglise, a key crossroads town just in from the beaches and the goal of Hatcher's unit on D-Day, was packed with people for the anniversary.

"A friend of ours from New Orleans said it's just like Mardi Gras," Jim Yost said.

Quint, whose daughter urged him to make the trip, started in Germany, reunited with friends he had met there after the war. He visited the famous bridge at Remagen on the Rhine River, a battle he participated in, before ending up 150 yards from Bush at the big D-Day ceremony in Normandy. He was presented one of the shell casings from the ceremony's 21-gun salute after the event.

Hatcher and Anderson visited Belgium, Holland and Germany, all places where they had fought, on their route to France and the Normandy festivities. There were ceremonies and banquets pretty much twice a day every day in the towns they stopped at along the way, to be honored with commemorative medals and flowers, among other things.

"The favorite thing was the people, how grateful they were to us," Anderson said. "People coming up and grabbing ahold of you, kissing you on both sides of the cheek, you know."

Hatcher said he thinks the Europeans recognized that not many World War II veterans will be around to fete on the 70th anniversary.

"I figure this will be the last hurrah," he said.

He and Anderson said much of the scenery had changed in 60 years, although Hatcher spied a windmill he remembered seeing on a wartime parachute jump into a field in Holland.

"It would be like comparing it to Mahomet back when it had like 800 people and comparing it now with all the subdivisions," Hatcher said. "Most of the places you couldn't recognize. It's changed so much."

There were some sad moments visiting war cemeteries, and Anderson didn't feel entirely comfortable in the hedgerow country of France, where Allied and German forces fought bitterly after the D-Day invasion.

"It brought back memories, let me put it that way," he said. "The hedgerows looked the same as they always did."

But the trip also brought back some less unpleasant memories.

In Eupen, in the German-speaking region of Belgium, Anderson recalled a guy in his unit with the last name Schultz who got friendly with a local girl, visited her home and, flipping through her family photo album, came upon a picture of his mother and father.

The girl turned out to be his cousin and her mother his immigrant mother's sister.

"He was in his aunt's house, and he didn't even know it," Anderson said.

You can reach Greg Kline at (217) 351-5215 or via e-mail at kline@news-gazette.com.

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