PEORIA — For more than a week, two central Illinois men have been on a sight-seeing tour like no other. And yet, when they got to the beach, it wasn't to frolic but yet to reflect.
"I think back about all the men and women that lost their lives during the war. I am hoping that they will continue to award these men and women that survived and served in World War II and honor them," said Gene Neeley, himself a veteran of that conflict.
The beach in question? Normandy, where 75 years ago, the largest amphibious landing in history took place as the Allies mounted their campaign to retake Europe from the Nazis.
"Now that I have been to Normandy, I have a better knowledge by talking to people here about what it was like for them and what they went through," said the 94-year-old Tremont man, who traveled to the site along with another World War II veteran, Dale Bonney of Galesburg.
Neither man was involved in the D-Day landings but went to France a week or so ago for what will likely be the last large gathering of World War II veterans. The occasion was the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, and world leaders were expected to toast the vets and to pay homage to those who died.
The invasion of Normandy, known officially as Operation Overlord but more commonly referred to as D-Day, was a turning point in the war. Landing on five beaches in northern France, the Allies paid a horrific price in casualties but managed to beat the Germans back from the coast. Within days, the battle moved to the meadows and hedgerows of France. Within a year, the war in Europe was over.
They have been escorted by Phyllis Piraino of East Peoria and Barb Moore of Morton. Helping veterans isn't new to either, as they are both involved with the Greater Peoria Honor Flight.
The trip, however, is not part of Honor Flight, Piraino stressed, though she and Moore are involved with that group and Neeley is “one of the hardest working volunteers.” Rather, it’s put on by the French group, Veterans back to Normandie, whose aim is to bring as many World War II veterans back to France for what will likely be the last time. Working with Honor Flight, she said, affords the opportunity to network with other groups that help veterans.
Moore said experience of seeing Neeley and Bonney welcomed by people in Normandy is "amazing."
"The small towns having the celebrations is just phenomenal. There was even a parade in Saint Germain de Varreville in honor of Dale Bonney and a few other veterans who did not serve in Europe, but stateside or in the Pacific," she said
“There really are no words to describe our time here so far. To be surrounded by these heroes is amazing in itself. Then you see the respect, admiration and genuine love the people of France and all those that came from many other countries have for the Greatest Generation, it is absolutely unbelievable. It makes me even more proud to be an American.”
Both men say going to the cemeteries has been very emotional for them. Bonney served in the U.S. Navy off the East Coast to guard against German submarines, while Neeley was in Europe but not involved with Normandy.
"It’s been a great experience for me because I have never been to France before. Everybody has been so friendly. You can’t get over all the people coming up and wanting to meet the veterans," Bonney said. "It was amazing to see all the white stone crosses at the cemetery.”
"One of my main reasons for coming here was to go to the cemetery to see how many of our veterans were buried there. I asked and was told there were 9,388 American military buried there. To walk among that cemetery and see all the military buried there ... well, maybe Mother Nature took over, and it really got to me in a big way. I guess I’m pretty soft-hearted," he said.