A World War II veteran from Garfield was mobbed by appreciative crowds when he visited Normandy, France for the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6.
"One lady told me, 'You saved my homeland,'" recounted James Clermont, 94, who was a teenager in 1944 when his ship, the U.S.S. Herndon, played a key role in the Allied invasion of Normandy.
His crew led the attack on Omaha Beach, shelling German pillboxes along the coastline while taking heavy German fire. The Allied invasion eventually drove the Nazis out of France and turned the tide of the war.
Clermont was 17 when he convinced his mother to give permission for him to join the Navy.
During two speeches in France, he recounted his D-Day experience, how the destroyer he was on slid into the dark waters off Omaha Beach and waited for dawn to attack. Their guns fired 54-pound shells at the pillboxes (fortified concrete structures typically with peepholes to fire weapons), getting so hot their paint burned off. Fighter planes criss-crossed the skies. An explosion rocked a neighboring destroyer. A soldier who had lost an arm tried to climb up their ship's ladder. All around, tracers, bombs and shells filled the sky, "like a massive Fourth of July," he said.
French still remember
Germany invaded France in 1940, and hung flags with swastikas from public buildings and even from the Eiffel Tower. The French suffered deprivations of food and fuel, forced labor, censorship and the persecution of Jews. The role of Americans, as well as British and Canadians, in liberating their country has not been forgotten by the French.
"Everywhere we went, people stopped us and it was crazy," said Clermont's daughter, Debbie Connelly, who went along. "People would come up to dad and they didn't even speak English and they were shaking his hand."
She and Clermont figured he shook thousands of hands of all ages while he sat in his wheelchair. Though he can walk, and sees well and feels good, he has been having trouble with balance, and the wheelchair was necessary. His red hat and navy jacket embroidered with "World War II veteran" identified him as a member of a quickly-shrinking fraternity of heroes.
"One time we had to have the police help us because we couldn't move," she said. "So many people wanted to talk to him."
France has been celebrating D-Day each June since 2007, but pulled out all the stops for the 75th anniversary with parades, fireworks, parachutists, concerts and military camp reenactments. Connelly said it was obvious that the French have passed their stories of the Nazi occupation and ensuing liberation to their children and grandchildren, keeping the memory alive.
'You mean Buck?'
Clermont and his family went along with a Herndon, Virginia high school band. His ship was named after the town, and a woman there made it her mission to track down the 301 sailors who had been aboard on D-Day. She was able to contact 298 of them, or their families, Connelly said. Of those 298, nine were still alive, and of those nine, Clermont was the only one physically able to go.
Many family members of his D-Day crew also went along with the school, and Clermont was able to share stories about the experience that many of them had never heard, since their own fathers were reticent about their World War II experiences. One woman asked if he remembered her father, giving him the full name of a man who had been one of his shipmates.
"You mean Buck?" Clermont asked, and her face lit up. She hadn't heard her dad called "Buck" for years.
"Dad spent a lot of time on the bus on the microphone telling stories about their fathers," Connelly said. "Sometimes they were laughing, sometimes they were crying."
Clermont described himself as a shy man, not eager for attention, so the flood of admiration did not sit easily with him. Yet World War II veterans remain a reminder of a clear-cut battle against evil, and the relief they provided in victory and the respect accorded to their generation are finding an outlet in an increasingly small group of survivors.
Clermont nearly did not go to Normandy for the 75th anniversary because his war experiences were traumatic and he had tried to forget about them. When he was able to return home on leave, he woke his parents up because he was hollering in his sleep.
"I scared the heck out of my mother," he recalled.
However, many individuals and groups donated money for his trip, and he felt obligated to go. His children, their spouses and several grandchildren accompanied him.
Back in 1944, he never stepped foot on Omaha Beach. That was the job of other sailors who waded ashore, dying all around him, as the guns on his ship kept firing into pillboxes.
This month, he was able to lay eyes on Omaha Beach for the first time in 75 years. Connelly scooped up some of the dark gray sand and put it in a plastic baggie.
"It was kind of a whirlwind trip, really," Clermont said. "Quite emotional."
In recent weeks, he has collected a number of tributes. U.S. Sen. Tina Smith sent him a hand-written note signed "With deep respect." He received a flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, courtesy of U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson.
And on the way home from France, the Delta flight crew presented him with a Delta wings pin from the captain and a hand-written note that said, "Words cannot express our gratitude and appreciation for your sacrifice and service to this great country."