As 60th Anniversary Dawns, D-Day Vets Remember

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Retired Lt. Col. Al Alvarez felt similarly. Anxious to join the effort, he and his friends tried to enlist underage.

"You need[ed] your mother's signature to enlist less than 18," Alvarez remembered. "We all tried that, too." Alvarez had to wait until he was 18—"I couldn't understand why my mother wouldn't sign"—but enlisted promptly in 1942.

Both men will join Allen in leading National Geographic Expedition's trips to Normandy this June. Each will bring his own vivid memories and reasons for returning.

Alvarez, a member of the 7th Field Artillery Battalion of the 16th Regimental Combat Troop, landed with the first invasion wave on Omaha Beach. His task: to carry cumbersome radio equipment to the top of the hill, "which I did, thank goodness—otherwise the sergeant would have killed me right there," Alvarez said.

Van Roosen had a similar task at Omaha with the 2nd Battalion of the 115th Infantry Regiment, part of the invasion's third wave. "My function was to carry everything they could possibly give me," he recalled, which included equipment totaling over 100 pounds (45 kilograms). "I was glad I landed in chest-deep water, because I think I would have been a long time coming up if I had landed in deeper water."

Easy Red

Omaha, the beach at which Alvarez and Van Roosen landed, had what became an ominous Allied code name: Easy Red.

The designation originally had a more mundane derivation, Alvarez said. Each beach was assigned a letter and a color. In the military's phonetic alphabet, the letter e was given the word designation "easy." Omaha Beach thus became E-Red, or Easy Red.

The battle at Omaha was anything but easy, and the beaches quickly ran red with the blood of the fallen. Because of its tough terrain and 150-foot (46-meter) bluffs, explained Van Roosen, the Germans had an excellent vantage point from which to attack Allied landing forces.

Combined with 20-foot (6-meter) tides and numerous submerged mines and other devices designed to rip open boat hulls, the landing sites were deadly. Thousands of Allied troops were killed, wounded or went missing on that single day.

Remembrance

Alvarez and Van Roosen have each been back separately to visit the battle sites along Normandy's coast.

Alvarez gave one of his three sons the challenge of bringing him back a small bag of sand from Normandy. "I guess what I was trying to do was to instill in them some sort of feeling about that beach."

Sometimes the contrast between the events on the beaches of 1944 and the activities of 2004 can be startling, Alvarez said. The beaches of Normandy today are filled with swimmers, sunbathers, and soda stands converted from old German artillery posts, known as pillboxes.

For Van Roosen, who first went back 40 years after D-Day, curiosity drove him to go, especially after reading historical accounts of the day. "The more I could see of it, the more meaningful it would be for me," he said.

Yet his experiences on D-Day were not ones he shared, even with his family, until interest peaked around the time of D-Day's 50th anniversary in 1994. With numerous interview requests, Van Roosen went through the painful process of dredging up old memories.

Both Alvarez and Van Roosen think the tours they will be leading are an important way to keep the history of the day alive. "Every generation has a hard time understanding that previous generation," Alvarez observed.

Other ways to keep the history alive are memorials like the Colleville-sur-Mer cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy and the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia, as well as the newly completed National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.—which will be inaugurated officially this coming Memorial Day.

Keeping the memory of D-Day's sacrifices and the day's contribution to the ultimate victory of the Allies is imperative, Van Roosen said. "If we don't respect our heritage, we lose it."

For more World War II stories, scroll down.

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