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WW II vet’s return to Normandy one of reflection, reverence

By Hugh C. McBride, Task Force Normandy 60 Public Affairs

NORMANDY AMERICAN CEMETERY, COLLEVILLE SUR MER, France – James Eudy hasn’t seen Saving Private Ryan, nor does he plan to. “I don’t need to see someone else’s interpretation of combat,” said the 85-year-old World War II veteran. “I’ve seen enough of that.”

Eudy has returned to Normandy four times in the six decades since he crossed the English Channel and entered France on Christmas Eve, 1944. Time and familiarity, though, appear to have done little to lessen the emotional impact of standing where so many of his fellow soldiers died during the D-day invasion and the early months of Operation Overlord.

“I have never talked to my family – or anybody – about what it was like,” said Eudy, who served with the 264th Regiment of the 66th Infantry Division during the war. “It’s too emotional – some awful times.”

Yet despite the pain that has endured for nearly 60 years, Eudy returned to the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach for Memorial Day and the anniversary of D-day – not only to honor those who fell for the liberation of France, but also to remind younger generations of the price of freedom and to thank today’s servicemembers for their dedication and sacrifice.

Accompanied by his wife of eight months, Jean (“We’re newlyweds,” she said with a smile), and his son, David, Eudy attended the May 30 Memorial Day ceremony in Normandy American Cemetery attired in the same uniform he wore as a private first class during World War II.

He was not an official participant in the ceremony, but after the 21-gun salute signaled the event’s end he found himself surrounded by servicemembers and civilians. Some asked for autographs, some thanked him for his service, and some simply stood silently on the periphery, listening to his reminiscences and weeping along with him as the enormity of the war’s losses once again overcame him.

Though Eudy did not arrive in France until more than six months after D-day, there was no doubt that he was entering a nation that was still embroiled in war. En route from England to Normandy, Eudy’s ship was hit by a German torpedo, killing 803 men. “There was death everywhere,”

Eudy recalled. “That devastated our division.”

Devastation, though, did not equal defeat. Eudy and the other survivors made it across the channel, and from there were sent to St. Laurent-sur-Mer, France, to prevent German forces there from advancing.

He was decorated for his service in completing that mission, but to this day even his son doesn’t know exactly what Eudy did to earn that medal. “The only thing he ever said is that he was trying to save some people’s lives,” David Eudy said. “That’s all he’s ever been able to get out.”

Eudy’s modesty is not limited to just that one aspect of his time in uniform, nor is it unique to him, his son said. “Growing up, [I and my friends] were all interested in the war,” David Eudy said, “but none of our folks wanted to talk about it.”

Speaking about the war now – though still deflecting most of the attention from their own individual actions – is something that David Eudy sees as one more gift from the members of the World War II generation. “The older generation is really concerned that the younger soldiers get the word, and they understand how important what they are doing is,” he said.

From the reaction of the service members in Normandy, it appears that that mission is being completed. More than an hour after the Memorial Day ceremony had ended, service members were still circled around Eudy, asking him questions and listening to his memories.

Spc. Shondre Johnson of the Hanau, Germany-based 5th Battalion, 7th Air Defense Artillery, said he was “very grateful and very thankful” both for Eudy’s service to the nation and for his willingness to meet with today’s servicemembers.

“If it weren’t for soldiers like him who did what they did, I wouldn’t be able to stand here in uniform and do what I do,” Johnson said. “I salute this fine soldier and all the other veterans who are here with us this week.”

With every glance he took toward the 9,387 ivory crosses and Stars of David that stand in silent formation throughout Normandy American Cemetery, Eudy’s face betrayed the difficulty he experiences when returning there. Yet being there – and especially experiencing the reaction he received from the young servicemembers after the Memorial Day ceremony – seemed to also bring some sense of peace to this member of America’s “greatest generation.”

“It is wonderful, sad and touching,” he said. “I’ve never been so honored as I have today.”

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