A 'skinny kid' returns to Normandy, year after year

COLLEVILLE-SUR-MER, France — A singular thought ran through Jack Port’s mind as he choked back tears at the American war cemetery located above Omaha Beach: that it could have been him buried there instead of the four close friends he fought alongside in World War II and whose graves he’d come to visit.

“I come with pride this year,” he said, pointing behind him, back to the neat rows of white, marble Latin crosses and Stars of David, the simple headstones of the fallen soldiers. “And probably as I sit here, I think I could be out there.”

Port, of Oceanside, Calif., was to receive an honor from the French government in addition to attending commemoration events for the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landing in Normandy. He has attended ceremonies in France for the last eight or nine years consecutively, in addition to several banner observances at regular intervals before that, he said. But this year is different.

In World War II, the U.S. military was segregated, but “today, our Commander-in-Chief is African-American,” Port said.

A personalized invitation card with fancy lettering from the “The Honorable Barack Obama” and “His Excellency Nicolas Sarkozy” was among the strictly required passes needed to get through the complicated web of security checkpoints anticipated for the Franco-American affair June 6.

The event was expected to draw more than 8,000 people, according to James Woolsey, a director at the commission that runs the cemetery. Concerts, picnics, reenactments and fireworks were also planned around the region and those local events were expected to draw thousands more. The combination of crowds and presidential security present a logistical challenge cemetery staff has experienced before.

“Five years ago, people thought we were making a big deal out of this,” said Bruce Anderson, a spokesman for the United States Army Europe, whose office is helping to coordinate the official events, referring to the 2004 60th anniversary. Britain's Queen Elizabeth attended along with then-President George W. Bush.

An oversight that left the Queen off the invitation list this year threatened to cast an embarrassing shadow over the ceremony, but after some behind the scenes smoothing over Prince Charles agreed to be among the dignitaries in attendance.

Striking the right balance in honoring veterans and the fallen was key, Anderson said, especially given the current economic crisis and the two wars going on. “Anything we can do to further the knowledge about their dedication, sacrifice and courage is something we ought to do,” he said.

For Port, already the recipient of a Bronze Star, the accolades will begin June 5, when he receives the Legion of Honor award at a private ceremony in Paris. Now 87, Port was a 22-year-old member of the 4th Infantry Division, 12th Infantry Regiment, Company E, when he landed on Utah Beach on June 6, 1944 as part of Operation Overlord, the code name for the surprise D-Day attack by Allied troops against the Germans.

“I was scared from the time I landed until the war was over,” he said, downplaying any notion that he was some kind of hero. He was a just a “skinny kid” out of high school whom the army turned into a soldier, he said. “I was a rifleman, the lowest thing you can be in the army.”

Port is among the shrinking number of remaining links to that historic day. About 200 American veterans and 50 from other Allied nations are expected at the ceremony, Woolsey said.

“Add 65 years, they’re not getting any younger,” said Roel Klinkhamer, who sold his McDonald’s franchise in Holland 11 years ago and moved to Normandy to turn his war enthusiast hobby into a successful tour operation business. He said seven or eight years ago he could count 30 or so veterans per year on his tours — last year, there were six.

In the car ride to a house Port rents when he travels to Normandy, he and Jeff Lowdermilk, himself a history buff and World War I expert, pointed out landmarks and discussed history, like how the impenetrable hedgerows along the roads proved a real impediment to the troops. Port told of how the soldiers used code words to identify one another in the dark. For the password “Mickey Mouse,” the correct response was “Donald Duck.” For “Brooklyn,” the response was “Dodgers.”

“It would be a very different world if the allies were pushed back on D-Day,” said Lowdermilk, of New Mexico, whom Port met at an event two years ago when his daughter needed to borrow someone’s cell phone; the two became fast friends.

At the house, Port and his daughter, Deborah, who usually accompanies her father on these trips, started devising a strategy for the schedule of their two ceremonies. They would need to map out how to receive the award in Paris and make it back to Normandy the next morning in time for the ceremony. The thought of past logistical challenges at these high-security events required them to plan scrupulously in advance.

“There’s just something about coming back here,” said Port, his thoughts trailing off, words seeming to fail him.

For GlobalPost coverage on Obama's trip to Europe, including his speech to the Muslim world from Cairo Friday, read Obama? Not on Iran's airwaves; the ground truth from Cairo, the view from Dubai and Notebooks from elsewhere in the world.]