OMAHA BEACH, France (AP) — Now that the ever frailer D-Day veterans are leaving the Normandy beaches , 75 years after their heroics turned the course of World War II and changed Europe, the challenge to keep the memory of that momentous day alive increases ever more.
Especially for the veterans themselves.
On June 6, 1944, over 4,000 men died in a single day on five French beaches that were foreign to them, all to make the world a better place. It led to the defeat of Nazism and Adolf Hitler, and their sacrifice remains extraordinary to this day.
Some of the D-Day survivors reminisced about the biggest day of their lives over lunch at the Normandy American Cemetery Thursday and Steve Melnikoff, from Cockeysville, Maryland, felt a sense of urgency to let his story live on. At 99, it is understandable.
"We know we don't have much time left, so I tell my story so that the people know it was because of that generation, because those guys in this cemetery, all you people are having the great time you have now, the great life you have and peace and tranquility," said Melnikoff, who controlled a landing barge to take soldiers ashore.
Pete Shaw from Canton, Ohio, may be five years his junior but he felt a similar urge to let that special moment live on for new generations. "What we done is one of the greatest things in history, and you gonna learn about it and you gonna read about it," he said, adding that "if I can help in any way ..."
British veteran Donald Hitchcock , 94, a British coder on the HMS Narborough, put it succinctly.
"When we are gone that memory will die. We become historical archives," underscoring a general fear that their spirit will literally be relegated to the history books.
The value of such witnesses was there for all to see during the days leading up to D-Day itself when veterans happily mingled with wide-eyed children soaking up an experience no book could give them.
Shaw was with a group of veterans brought over from the United States by the Best Defense Foundation and met with kids from the nearby Port-en-Bessin school earlier this week.
"You saw as much emotions in the eyes of the veterans as you did in the eyes of the children," said Port-en-Bessin mayor Frederic Renaud.
That realization that the spirit needs to live on is also hitting younger generations.
"We need to focus on it in school, teaching it more, maybe, as a civics lesson, rather than purely a history lesson — about civic duty and responsibility," said Capt. Cadman Kiker, 35, who is stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. The challenge is to teach "how things got to the point where over 2,000 people had to sacrifice themselves on a single day," he said.
In all, 2,501 Americans were among the 4,414 Allied troops killed on those beaches.
Distance always fades memory, and it is a reason why the French remember the fallen soldiers more easily. From childhood, they visit the cemeteries, memorials and museums that dot the Normandy countryside.
U.S. veterans are invariably impressed by what French youngsters still know about their feats, their undying gratitude, while many are wistful that those stories resonate less and less among American youths where they live.
It's so frightening," said Mike Connor, 43, a Ford truck maker from Louisville, Kentucky, who carried a black and white photo in his shoulder pocket of his great uncle, John Connor, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge six months later in the campaign.
"If you forget history, it is doomed to repeat itself," said Richard Clapp, 44, a computer store owner from Julian, North Carolina.
Follow all of the AP's coverage of D-Day at https://apnews.com/WorldWarII