Shaking hands with D-Day comrades

Published 9:45 pm Friday, June 21, 2019

Suffolk resident Robert “Jack” Ewald, 94, said that he felt “rejuvenated” when he shook hands and commiserated with his fellow World War II veterans at the June 6 ceremony in the Normandy American Cemetery near Colleville-sur-Mer, France.

Hundreds of veterans gathered in Normandy, France, for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, the largest seaborne invasion in history and the beginning of the liberation of German-occupied France in World War II.

Approximately 160,000 Allied troops crossed the English Channel and landed on the Normandy coastline on June 6, 1944. Ewald was 19 years old when he landed on that Normandy beach.

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He flew to France for the D-Day ceremony with his family, and they navigated through dense crowds to the ceremony site. His granddaughter, Megan Forbes, pushed his wheelchair to a big room filled with all his fellow veterans.

Forbes said Ewald sprang into action as soon as they arrived. He stood up and moved to spend time with so many others that served.

“He had the energy of a 50-year-old,” Forbes said. “He just sprang up (and) had so much light in his eyes. He looked like he was on top of the world.”

He got a celebrity’s treatment, she said. The old and young met him with respect. She said that she always wanted to share her grandfather with the world, which she saw happen in real time as news reporters from around the world stopped him and other veterans for interviews.

“It was definitely one step closer to sharing him with the world,” she said.

Ewald’s return to France was a whirlwind experience, with military re-enactors and vintage World War II vehicles throughout the Normandy ceremonies that week.

“They kept them up good, somebody did,” Ewald said about the vintage vehicles and equipment that he saw during the ceremonies. “They had a lot of World War II equipment. I was surprised. They even had motorcycles.”

Ewald heard speeches delivered by President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron at the June 6 commemoration ceremony. He actually met President Macron back in April 2018, when he and other World War II veterans were invited to attend Macron’s address to Congress in Washington, D.C.

He and the other veterans invited to that address were honored with the Legion of Honor, which is awarded on behalf of the head of state to “the most deserving citizens in all fields of activity,” according to the Grand Chancellery of the Legion of Honor.

He and his family also visited Tregantle Fort in southeast Cornwall, one of several forts surrounding Plymouth. The fort held one of the bases for Allied troops leading up to D-Day back in 1944, and it was there that Ewald prepared for the invasion.

“I enjoyed seeing that fort again,” he said.

Ewald fought in the Army’s 29th Infantry Division, and he was just one of three men from his division at the ceremony, he said. The best part of his trip by far was getting to spend time with other men that had stormed that French coastline, and still live to remember it.

“I got rejuvenated, I tell ya,” he said. “It was just a thrill to see all of those guys. I’m just sorry there weren’t more. I don’t know how many hands I shook.”

It’s hard for Ewald to believe that the 19-year-old boy he once was is now receiving all of these accolades, he said. He’s one of the few, extraordinary men from that day still alive to tell the story.

“I know some guys that did extraordinary things, and I probably did some myself. But they never got a medal,” he said.

He said that all of those guys had been through the same thing he did. Some had it worse, some had it better, but no one was glory-hunting. Everyone that he fought alongside 75 years ago was looking out for the man next to him.

“You didn’t want your let your buddies down, no matter what,” he said.