As their time runs short, D-Day veterans try to keep their memories alive for others

D-Day veteran and Ambassador for the British Normandy Memorial Ken Hay, 98, who served with the 4th Dorset Regiment, speaks to children during a visit to Rush Green Primary School in Dagenham, England, on Monday, May 20, 2024, ahead of the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

Gareth Fuller/AP

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Gareth Fuller/AP

LONDON — Ken Hay’s part in the invasion of Normandy lasted just a few weeks, but he wants to make sure the experiences of those who fought and died to end the Nazi grip on Europe live forever.

The British Army veteran was captured a few weeks after the D-Day landings in northern France when his patrol was surrounded by German troops during the two-month battle for strategic high ground outside the city of Caen known simply as Hill 112. Nine members of his platoon were killed that night. Hay spent the next 10 months as a prisoner of war.

Now 98, Hay visits schools whenever he can to tell his story, so the battle to liberate France and defeat Nazi Germany doesn’t become a dusty relic of history like the Greek and Roman wars he read about as a child.

“While we are around, we vets — and we’re a diminishing crew, of course — we are a tangible interpretation of what they read in the books, what they’ve heard from their parents, what their parents remember their grandparents saying,” Hay said recently.

He said his outreach isn’t to glorify war but to leave the message that “there must be a way, other than war, to resolve difficulties.”

One hears that over and over from the veterans who are gathering in Normandy this week to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day. With even the youngest of those men and women nearing their 100th birthdays and their ranks dwindling rapidly, they feel a special imperative to tell their stories.

They know this is likely to be the last major event to commemorate the sacrifices of those who fought and died to liberate France.

World leaders have recognized the significance of the event. U.S. President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose countries supplied most of the D-Day forces, will travel to Normandy for the ceremonies, hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron. King Charles III, whose mother and father served during World War II, will attend an event at the British Normandy Memorial.

Breaking through the Nazis’ ‘Atlantic Wall’

D-Day began in the early hours of June 6, 1944, when almost 160,000 Allied troops landed on the Normandy beaches or parachuted behind enemy lines to open the long-awaited second front in the war against Nazi Germany. At least 4,414 troops were killed and another 5,900 were listed as missing or wounded as Allied forces broke through the Nazis’ heavily fortified “Atlantic Wall” to secure a foothold in Northern Europe.

By the end of August, more than 2 million forces from 12 Allied nations had crossed the English Channel, starting the march to Berlin that ended with Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945.

No one knows exactly how many of the men and women who saw those events firsthand are still living.

Less than 1% of the 16.4 million Americans who served in the armed forces during World War II were still alive at the end of last year, and 131 are dying every day, according to estimates from the U.S. Veterans Administration.

“The actuarial tables tell us that pretty soon there won’t be a generation,” said Rob Citino, a senior historian at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans. “And I think this 80th is the last round year in which we will actually be able to celebrate in the presence, and with the wisdom of, the veteran generation that actually fought the war.”

What’s being lost are the men and women who witnessed Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, the fall of France and the persecution of Jews now known as the Holocaust, then fought their way across Europe to defeat the Nazis.

In the U.K., the passing of the World War II generation was highlighted by the death in 2022 of Queen Elizabeth II, who trained as a military mechanic and truck driver during the final months of the war.

A moment of high drama

D-Day was the biggest operation of the war and a moment of high drama because everyone knew the Allies would invade Europe, they just didn’t know when or where, said Ian Johnson, a professor of war, diplomacy and technology at the University of Notre Dame.

But 80 years later, many people’s vision of D-Day is being shaped by Hollywood productions such as “Saving Private Ryan,” not the experiences of the veterans who were there.

“You know, most of my students were not alive when that movie was made,” Johnson said. “They’ve almost all seen it. This is something that, when they think of the Second World War, this is what they picture, I think.”

The success of D-Day wasn’t guaranteed.

Allied commanders employed trickery, including a dummy army, to fool the Germans about where the invasion would take place and struggled to find a day with the right combination of weather, moon and tides to increase the chances of success.

They knew that failure would prolong the war, meaning more death and misery across Europe.

“It’s hundreds of thousands of military casualties, and we can only guess how many more civilian casualties of Hitler’s racial policies, his murderous racial policy,” Citino said. “So you want to end this war and you want to end it quickly, and the path to do that is a successful landing in Western Europe.”

Even with the success of D-Day, Jews continued to die in Nazi concentration camps.

Anne Frank, who spent more than two years hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, listened to BBC reports of the D-Day landings and wrote in her famous diary that the news filled her with “fresh courage.” Her family was arrested in August 1944 and she died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen in February 1945.

Firsthand account of Nazi cruelty

Last month at a school in east London, Hay recounted his firsthand account of Nazi cruelty.

After he and four other members of his platoon were captured, they were shipped to Poland by train and put to work in a coal mine. As Russian forces closed in from the east in January 1945, the prisoners were marched back across the continent with little food or protection from the weather until they were freed by U.S. tank troops on April 22.

The two American soldiers who liberated him are the most important people in his life, Hay said, except of course for his late wife, Doris. They were married for 62 years.

The man the kids named “Grandad Ken” talked about hunger and cold and pain. He held back on some details, though, afraid to tell the “kiddies” all the horrors he had seen.

But he was ready when Joey Howlett, 11, asked how to end war.

“Love,” Hay said.

“If you love yourself, if you love your family, if you love your friends, if you love the people you met yesterday, and the people you meet today and the people you’re going to meet tomorrow. If we could all do that, there would be no wars.”