On eve of Normandy anniversary, Colorado D-Day survivor dies

MORRISON, Colo. -- Wilson "Bill" Colwell returned to Normandy, France nearly a dozen times since D-Day.  But his presence will be missed on Tuesday, when the world marks the 73rd anniversary of the allied invasion that changed the course of World War II. Colwell, who lived in Morrison, Colo., died on Monday at age 89.

His death was first announced by The Greatest Generations Foundation, a Denver-based charity that returns war heroes to the battlefields where they once served. Colwell served as an ambassador for the foundation in recent years, traveling all over the world to educate children about the service and sacrifice of those who fought in World War II.

Colwell was just 16 years old when he parachuted into France on June 6, 1944.  He had enlisted at age 15, after lying about his age.  He was a paratrooper with the famous 101st Airborne.

Three years ago, on the 70th anniversary of the invasion, FOX31 accompanied Colwell back to Europe.  He was featured in our special report, "The Last Reunion: A Final Return to Normandy."

At a ceremony marking that anniversary, Colwell caught the attention of President Obama.

"Think of Wilson Colwell, who was told he couldn't pilot a plane without a high school degree. So he jumped out of a plane instead, and he did it here on D-Day with the 101st Airborne when he was just 16 years old," Obama said from the podium at Normandy American Cemetery.

Colwell told FOX31 back in 2014, leaping out of a plane in the middle of the night while being shot at is the kind of thing that makes you grow up fast.

"I remember that first jump, you know.  I just turned 16 years of age, and as I came up to that door, I hesitated.  A boot went in to my back - and out I went," he said.

Colwell was a fixture in Normandy on the D-Day anniversary in recent years.  He was always greeted with a handshake and a hug by French citizens.  And if his health had allowed, he would no doubt have been there for this anniversary too.

But we know he'll be there in spirit, alongside the few remaining survivors of that day that changed the world.