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Dying Generation Of D-Day Veterans Feel An Urgency To Pass On History


The dignitaries and crowds have left the beaches of Normandy after this week's ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The Allied invasion liberated Europe from the Nazis during World War II. The veterans of that war are now in their 90s, and many feel an urgency to pass on the history they lived. This week, as Jake Cigainero reports, they found a way to do that.

JAKE CIGAINERO, BYLINE: Hundreds of students gathered on a cliff above Utah Beach and gave World War II veterans a standing ovation.


CIGAINERO: The vets were not much older than these kids when they faced the carnage of the war. Eighteen-year-old Tristan Breath from Norman, Okla., said before she heard these veterans' stories, she was never particularly interested in history.

TRISTAN BREATH: But after this, it's like completely changed my perspective on everything. Like, I want to go home and, like, you know, read more up on all this stuff. It's been, like, mind-blowing because, you know, you read about it. But then, being here really, like, brings it all to life.

CIGAINERO: Students wanted to know more about the veterans, not just as soldiers but as people. Sixteen-year-old Daniel Dolman was fascinated to hear how much the world has changed for veteran Charles Levesque, who served in the Pacific.

DANIEL DOLMAN: ...How he didn't grow up with any electricity. And it's just amazing to - like, to think about how, like, people have been through so many different generations of America.

CIGAINERO: And Levesque couldn't wrap his head around what kids can do with smartphones today.

CHARLES LEVESQUE: What gets me is all these cellphones and that, you know, you get pictures all over the...


LEVESQUE: That is a shocker (laughter). Me? The radio was the big thing.

CIGAINERO: Levesque is one of 20 veterans who joined several thousand students visiting World War II sites on a trip organized by EF Educational Tours.

LEVESQUE: This is my picture. I was 19 there.

CIGAINERO: For some veterans, like 95-year-old Harold Stevens from Ocala, Fla., it's their first time back to France since the war. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

What did you feel stepping into the cemeteries, being back for the first time?

HAROLD STEVENS: I got to crying. It's soft-hearted. I think about all the boys we left here.

CIGAINERO: Stevens is happy to see the students interested in what his generation did.

STEVENS: That's our future. And they need to be educated on what happened and not forget it.

CIGAINERO: The trip has also been a revelation for teachers who brought their students.

MARY HARRIS: Well, sir, it's an honor to meet you. I teach U.S. history in Idaho.

STEVENS: Oh, do you?

HARRIS: I do. And...

CIGAINERO: Mary Harris said visiting the landing beaches and meeting veterans has made her proud to be American and will change how she tells her students about the war.

HARRIS: And when you see and you touch history, to be able to take the sand back to my students in Idaho - they may never leave the States. To let them touch that sand is going to change their lives. And it's going to let them see through a different lens.

CIGAINERO: Some of the veterans came to Utah Beach wearing their uniforms and heavily decorated with medals. The local mayor pinned another medal to their chests, a badge of freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED MAYOR: Thank you for our freedom, and thank you so much for being here for this event, the 75th anniversary. So thank you, thank you, thank you.

CIGAINERO: Veteran Walter Hurd appreciates the recognition. He says his memories of the war come and go. But there's one thing he's been sure of all these years that he would like to pass on.

WALTER HURD: You never want to be in a war.

MARTIN: For NPR News, I'm Jake Cigainero at Utah Beach, Normandy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.