Today marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the largest seaborne invasion in history – and one that began the liberation of France and western Europe. Two Tahlequah residents are in France, hoping to attend a ceremony marking the Normandy landings.
Ed Brocksmith and Norma Boren have been touring Normandy and visiting Omaha Beach, which thousands of U.S. troops stormed on D-Day. The couple have been taking in the all of the sites as people from around the world converged on the region to honor veterans from the U.S., Britain, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Norway, Poland and Australia.
“This area is very crowded now,” Brocksmith said Wednesday morning. “The roads are packed with re-enactors and their World War II vehicles, and tour buses and other cars. There are WWII airplanes flying and people jumping out of planes with parachutes. The museums are just wall-to-wall people.”
Brocksmith said he’s always been a WWII buff and military collector, while Boren’s late husband, Jim, was WWII veteran. The couple have come across many people during their travels, including a WWII vet named Clair Martin, from San Diego, California. Brocksmith said Martin has been the center of attraction everywhere they go.
“People have stopped to talk to him, shake his hand, and tell him how much they appreciate what he did,” he said. “He’s actually created small traffic jams among the larger traffic jams over here. He’s just a delight, too.”
Brocksmith said the group hasn’t seen that many Americans, but people from France, Russia, Holland, and Britain have stopped to take a picture with Martin. Brocksmith said he and Boren have been impressed by the number of school children participating in the festivities.
“It just makes me think about our children in America,” he said. “I hope they know about Normandy, about the D-Day invasion, what the Allied troops did to free Europe and to preserve our way of life in America. It’s such an important part of our history.”
While the couple planned on going to the ceremony today, Thursday, Brocksmith said increased security measures might have prevented them from doing so. President Donald Trump is expected to be at the American cemetery there, so French police and the Secret Service are taking extra precautions. Although Brocksmith and his tour group has invitations to go, he said he wasn’t sure whether they'd be able to get in. However, Brocksmith said they planned to wake up four earlier, skip breakfast and possibly lunch, so they could have a chance.
Meanwhile, Jim Loftin sits at home in Tahlequah with his wife, Jewel. It was the WWII veteran’s 95th birthday on Tuesday, and Loftin shared memories from his time during the war. He was on hand for the start of the war and didn’t leave the theater until it was over. He also said he and his fellow soldiers sent to Europe were not aware of what they were sailing into. But he quickly learned.
“When I went into the Army, I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said. “Then I went through basic training and I still didn’t realize what we were up against. Then I’m on the ship going up there and I still didn’t know. When they let us off of there, I didn’t have any idea until they started shooting at us. Well, automatically you shoot back.”
Loftin pointed out that recalling stories from 75 years ago can be challenging, but a guest can tell most of his memories are intact. Loftin, who received three Purple Hearts during his time in the infantry, spoke of his experiences on the battlefield and the long days of fighting the Axis powers.
“We’d push off every morning at 4 o’clock, have a battle, and then we’d go as far as we could every day,” he said. “We’d fight all day long. We’d either get the battle over with or it would be dark again.”
Once fighting stopped for the day, he and a fellow trooper would dig a foxhole to stay in for the night. The two would trade watch duties, and he said those who were too lazy to dig a hole often did not make it through the night. He learned ways to protect himself and had several close calls.
As Loftin and the U.S. military traveled to Berlin, he said, there was a row of tanks as far as the eye could see.
“I was on the first one and I always rode on the first one, because it was the best one,” he said. “They’d let it go by and shoot the one behind it. Everybody didn’t know that. I was on one and I’d be around the barrel, then I could just jump from there into a ditch just as soon as firing started.”
When Loftin arrived at the Siegfried Line, which was a German defensive line that stretched 390 miles with more than 18,000 bunkers, he saw fields of dead bodies. He also watched as the convoys of trucks came through the with dead. After one battle, Loftin was one of just three remaining soldiers in his company of 200 men.
“It was the closest to death you’ll ever get,” he said.
Loftin recalled another time in a forest when Germans came in “hot and heavy.” He said he and two other men were in a tight situation when they decided to run back to a hole to protect themselves from the rounds flying in every direction.
“We took off running from down there and I outran them,” he said. “I hid in the hole and they came in dead right on top of me. That’s how close it was. Just a second makes a lot of difference in the right place.”
Loftin was often attached to an artillery unit, which would be firing at German artillery squads. So his squad would sit under the massive artillery shells. When the bombs started falling and the shooting started, he said he “was scared to death.” He knew many people who fought during the Battle of the Bulge, and he remembers when nearly every lieutenant he knew was killed.
“It takes you a little while to get used to that stuff, and really, a lot of them people never did get used to it,” Loftin said. “They would run off, commit suicide or something like that. It would just get terrible.”
Although he did not enjoy his experience in the war, Loftin never fled. During one battle when “things got bad, I mean bad,” Loftin did contemplate taking his own life.
“I went up there in the trees, I sat there with my rifle, and I had it off safety siting in between my legs,” he said. “I just kept hanging around there and it took me a long time to make my mind up, and I said, ‘Well, let them kill me instead of shooting myself.’ So I kicked the rifle on safety.”
German soldiers were constantly surrendering, Loftin said. He remembers having to search many German soldiers who decided to surrender, and said most of them “were just pretty good people, actually.”
Loftin said many veterans have a hard time coping when they return to the states. He said the traumatic incidents he experienced never bothered him too much. Jewel, his wife, said only in recent years has he begun to think more about his time in the service, because before, he was always working and never had time to reminisce.
“That’s how he lived,” she said. “He just stayed busy. He has more stories that you can laugh at. That’s how he adjusted, I think, because he could find the humor in enough of it that it didn’t bring him down so much.”
There were few fond memories, as he suffered multiple injuries, although never anything serious enough to keep him from fighting. However, there were some gleeful times, too. He recalled a time at the end of the war when local villagers volunteered to let him and some other soldiers stay in their home. It was an older man and woman who had “a whole bunch of chickens.”
“She fed us good – fried chicken. We ate all the chicken we could hold. Then she took us in there, showed us the bed and we stayed all night. Next morning, we got up, she fixed us some more chicken and we took off. About two or three miles down the road was our outfit, and that old lieutenant was madder than a hornet,” Loftin said, laughing.
The day he quit fighting, he remembers being in Prague, Czechoslovakia, when he, other U.S. troops, and a group of Russian soldiers gathered at a big party and “danced all night long.” The next morning, his company was leaving, so “we just got in line and got into a bunch of box cars,” and then eventually were shipped home “tired and wore out.”
Loftin said he wouldn’t do it over again, unless he was forced to.
“It’s all just a bunch of expense, a waste of peoples’ lives and a waste of a bunch of a stuff for nothing, really,” he said. “They end up with nothing and we end up with a lot of dead people.”