More than 100 World War II veterans received a hero’s welcome on Friday evening, June 6 at Hanes Mall in Winston-Salem. For many, it was the first time they’d been so warmly welcomed home since returning from the war.
“That was great,” said Robert Grier, one of at least eight Kernersville residents who traveled to Bedford, Va. to visit the D-Day Memorial there on Friday, June 6, the 70th anniversary of the largest military amphibious invasion in history.
The group left Hanes Mall at 6 a.m. Friday morning and then returned 12 hours later to hundreds of flag-waving supporters cheering their arrival.
The Patriot Guard provided escort for the five charter buses, each named for one of the codenames of the Normandy beaches – Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah and Sword – where the assault began, and lined the sidewalk around their arrival point at 6 p.m. that evening.
Two red carpets lined their path into the mall and honor guards and patrons lined the way to center court. Women dressed in 1940s attire greeted each of the veterans as they made their way inside. Many sported lipstick on their cheeks by the time they got through the opening line.
It was an emotional moment for many, both veterans and those there to welcome them.
“I saw so many with tears in their eyes,” said Grier.
Grier was in the Army Air Force serving in the China, Burma and India theater during World War II. That campaign is oftentimes referred to as the “forgotten theater,” but on Friday, Grier was thrilled at having had the opportunity to visit the D-Day Memorial on such a momentous anniversary. He knows there aren’t too many anniversaries left for veterans like himself, all in their late 80s and 90s.
“What stood out most was being alive to do it, and I know there won’t be another,” Grier said of an 80th anniversary.
“It was a great trip and they 100 percent honored us,” said Grier of a day when thousands of veterans, their families and dignitaries from around the country converged on the memorial to pay homage to those who lost their lives in the invasion.
According to organizers of Friday’s trip, the D-Day Memorial staff anticipated a crowd of over 10,000 people. In honor of the 70th anniversary, there was a special D-Day ceremony, honor guard, guest speakers and a USO show.
Harvey Griffin grew up in Kernersville, raised on a farm just a little ways out of town. He was 18-years-old when he was drafted into the Army and was a part of General George S. Patton’s 3rd armored division that advanced into Germany during a campaign that lasted from late summer of 1944 and through to the end of the war in Europe.
On Thursday last week, Griffin said he was looking forward to visiting the memorial.
“It means a whole lot to me. I am going to feel honored,” said Griffin. “I am looking forward to the trip.”
World War II Army veteran Ivey Redmon was making his second trip to the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, but it had been several years since his first visit.
“It’s a beautiful place,” said Redmon.
Redmon was in service in Florida when the D-Day invasion began and by the time he arrived in France, the Allied forces had already established a threshold against the Axis forces. He traveled through Belgium and Holland before moving into Germany.
“We traveled 2,000 miles in 17 months,” said Redmon.
Thinking back on the war makes Redmon think about those who did not make it back.
“I know a lot of guys that didn’t come back,” said Redmon. “I was lucky enough to come back without any injuries.”
T.D. Brann of Kernersville attended Friday’s trip. Like Redmon, he had been to the memorial before, but this time was different.
“I have never seen such a demonstration as that before in my life,’ said Brann as he talked about the throngs of veterans, their family members and others who visited the memorial on Friday. “It was a huge presentation of people, thousands.
Brann, an Army veteran, was in Fort Hood, Texas on D-Day but it wasn’t long before he and his fellow soldiers were on their way to Europe, joining in the last push of the war, with troops making their way into Germany. Brann would go all the way to Berlin and remain there as a military police officer even after the end of the war in Europe.
He was appreciative of the people who turned out Friday to welcome the veterans back to Winston-Salem. When Brann was discharged from the Army, there were no parades or fanfare for returning soldiers. He and a buddy just caught a bus home, he said.
“I thought it was the most wonderful thing anyone had ever planned for us,” said Brann.
Burch Idol of Colfax also made the trip to the memorial on Friday, as did Army veteran Harvey Rachael and Navy veteran Rodger Williams, both of Kernersville.
“It’s a beautiful place,” said Idol, who was making his second trip to the memorial. “I think knowing the circumstances, a lot who didn’t make it back, it was quite an honor to be with this group.”
It was Rachael’s and Williams’ first trip to the D-Day Memorial.
As World War II veterans, both wanted to be a part of the special occasion.
“I wanted to be a part of it. It was a beautiful service,” said Rachael, adding that the welcome home was “wonderful.”
Williams thought the program at the memorial on Friday was great and the arrival to waving flags and cheering crowds was just as memorable.
“Coming home, that was good,” said Williams, who had previously participated in a Flight of Honor trip to visit the World War II veterans memorial in Washington, D.C.
Williams should know a great homecoming when he sees one. Who met Williams and his ship when it returned to the United States after World War II? None other than President Harry Truman.
Friday’s D-Day Honor Trip was made possible by Rotary District 7690, the same organization responsible for the Triad Flight of Honor trips.