Seven decades after the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, World War II veteran Charlie Maupin of Columbus said he's humbled by soldiers' sacrifices to restore freedom to millions of people.
"It is an experience I wouldn't take anything for," Maupin said during an interview at the Covenant Woods retirement community. "It was an honor. It was a necessary war."
Today marks the 70th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, invasion that sent 156,000 Allied troops into battle along a 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified coastline to fight Adolf Hitler's troops on the Normandy beaches of Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah and Sword. After a day of fighting, Allied forces gained a foothold in Normandy, and their efforts paved the way for 100,000 soldiers to march across Europe to defeat Hitler's Germany.
Described as "The Longest Day" and one of the biggest amphibious landings in military history, the invasion left 7,000 American casualties, including 2,500 dead.
Maupin, 94, was part of the invasion on June 7, 1944, serving with the 175th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. Today, he and other veterans will be presented a certificate at the National Infantry Museum & Soldier Center from retired Lt. Gen. Carmen Cavezza for their service as World War II veterans.
"We give them a certificate that basically says this great American served in World War II," Cavezza said.
The veterans also will get free admission to "D-Day 3D: Normandy 1944," a 44-minute movie about the fateful landing on the beaches of Normandy.
"This is one small way we can say thank you to the veterans who survived that historic assault," said National Infantry Foundation President Ben Williams. "We want them to know that our country's appreciation of them is as strong today as it was seven decades ago."
Maupin still recalls his ride aboard a troop ship June 5, 1944, to cross the English Channel.
"I was on the deck of the ship that morning when dawn began to break," he said. "I saw these thousands of ships, all kinds of shapes and sizes. They covered the channel and all carrying 150,000 to 160,000 troops. We didn't know what our fate would be once we got to France. Thousands of planes started flying over and the war ships in the channel started firing their big guns toward the coast."
Maupin's ship was anchored about four miles from the northern coast. The 29th Infantry Division was scheduled to invade the beach on June 6 but was delayed because of some confusion with so many soldiers and equipment already on Omaha Beach, the most heavily defended of all the beaches.
"Because of the confusion and not being able to get the beach cleared enough, we couldn't go in until the next day," Maupin said.
Troops from his ship climbed over the side on rope ladders to enter the naval landing craft to reach the beach. He heard screams from the Naval personnel for the boat operator to stay in the lane, avoiding obstacles placed by the enemy. Some landing crafts sank after striking an obstacle. Loaded with heavy equipment, many soldiers in water over their heads drowned.
"We got in pretty close to the beach," Maupin said. "The guys that went in first, it's just amazing what they did with the courage and determination they showed in holding on to the beach in spite of the defense the Germans had and the fire power."
At Omaha Beach, Maupin said the scene was surreal, with rows and rows of soldiers killed during the initial assault.
"I remember all the dead bodies. American heroes lying there that made it possible for us to get on the beach in the first place," he said. "It was unreal. It's something you couldn't prepare for. It was such a huge scale that you could only take in the little bits that involved you personally. You can see stuff going on but you are concerned about your self-preservation. There is never a little war for a soldier. One bullet can end your life."
With the beach secure, Maupin said his unit went inland through the Vierville Draw, the only exit from the beach.
Maupin said he served as a radio operator for the battalion commander, but that didn't mean he was out of danger.
"We went upon the front line and had some close calls," he said.
He still remembers a close call with death at a French farm yard. Maupin said he had just dug a slip trench beneath an apple tree to escape from fire when an artillery shell exploded nearby. The blast shredded tree limbs and covered Maupin in dirt.
"If I had been laying there, I would not be here talking to you now," he said.
Maupin, who served 34 months and 17 days in the Army, still thinks about the millions of people freed by the Allied efforts against Hitler's Germany, Benito Mussolini of Italy and Emperor Hirohito of Japan.
"Freedom is the most precious thing in life," he said. "Sadly, many people in this country don't value it or think about it they way they should. If you don't think about freedom, you are apt to lose it. Once you lose it, it's gone."