‘trip of a lifetime’
Today, Jim Clermont, 89, lives a quiet life on a lake in rural Garfield, but 70 years ago, he saw ships blow up and sink, witnessed endless enemy fire and watched the horizon turn red from battle and rockets as bombs hit nearby.
It was June 6, 1944 – D-Day – and Clermont was aboard the U.S.S. Herndon, a naval destroyer. He was 19 years old and worked fire control on the ship.
More than 160,000 Allied troops landed along the coastline to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France.
“When we invaded Normandy, we were the first ones in to Utah Beach. They were giving us 10-to-1 odds we’d never make it. It seems to me six [destroyers] went into the beach and three of us came out,” Clermont recalled.
“I think one of the scariest things I saw happen was a destroyer near us got hit by a bomb from the Germans and was badly damaged. I saw this one guy trying to climb a ladder with no arm. He was just moving his stump trying to grab the ladder. Of course, the guys reacted and pulled him aboard, but that still sticks in my head.”
It was reported that more than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and by day’s end, the Allies gained a foothold in Continental Europe.
Fast-forward to June 6, 2014 when Clermont went back to France and back to the beaches.
“I was a little hesitant,” he said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to go back and see that stuff again.”
BACK TO NORMANDY
He pursued an invitation from the French government to all D-Day veterans to return to France for the invasion’s 70th anniversary. Clermont and his daughters, Nancy Dukart and Debbie Connelly, both Twin Cities residents, boarded a flight for Paris June 3.
Their first stop was at a reception hosted by the French National Assembly, where Clermont and fellow veterans were honored during a ceremony. They received U.S. Congressional Coins and a boxed medal from the French Assembly.
The next day it was on to Normandy for the D-Day ceremony. At Omaha Beach, an American-French ceremony included presentations by dignitaries, including U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande.
Next, they ventured to Sword Beach where the international ceremony started with a reenactment of the invasion of Normandy, including modern dance, historical footage on a screen, cannons, fireworks and more.
“It was like being there [again],” Clermont said. “It was really impressive.”
“The world was much different back then,” he reflected. “It was well-defined, black and white. We knew who the enemy was. It was a different situation. Today, it’s turmoil, isn’t it? We felt that we were doing the right thing for everybody. It was the patriotic thing to do.”
At the Sword Beach ceremony, Connelly said, “We saw Queen Elizabeth and Philip, President Putin, President Obama, the president of France, Prince Charles and Camilla – a lot of big shots and who’s who.”
The veterans in their group were in their late-80s to mid-90s with walkers, canes and wheelchairs.
Connelly said, “It was grueling, but they never complained; they kept trudging along.”
Clermont laughed and added, “Well, it was like back in the military – hurry up and wait.”
During their five-day trip to France, they also had time to do some sightseeing. Visiting Notre Dame was the highlight, they said. That and the warm reception they received from the people.
“I must have been stopped 40 or 50 times by French people that thanked me for my service,” Clermont said. “Somebody said, ‘If it wasn’t for you guys, we’d be speaking German.’
“It was the trip of a lifetime. I’m really glad I went. It was fantastic,” he said.
Clermont is an eight-year Navy and Navy Reserve veteran, who also served during the Korean War.