CARENTAN, France — Few 92-year-old, white-haired men are classified as celebrities. But this week in Normandy, James Stafford of Grand Junction has been treated like an all-out rock star. So has Wilson Colwell, 86, of Morrison, Alfonso Villa, 92, of Frederick, and Elmer “Lucky” McGinty of Westminster.
The four Colorado men are D-Day veterans. Survivors of the invasion on June 6, 1944, that claimed 10,000 allied dead and wounded in one day.
To mark the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landing, the men traveled to France this week with the help of a Denver-based charity called The Greatest Generations Foundation. The nonprofit picked up the tab for 28 D-Day veterans to return to the battlefield, so they can share their stories of heroism.
FOX31 Denver was invited along on the trip, and we’ve been filing stories from Northern France all week. We’ve also produced a half-hour news special, “The Last Reunion: A Final Return to Normandy,” airing Friday, June 6 at 9:30, and again Sunday, June 8 at 9:30.
All week, the men have been greeted as heroes and liberators, just as they were 70 years ago.
Colwell was just 16 years old when he jumped into Normandy in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944. He joined the army at 15, after lying about his age. He was part of the famous 101st Airborne Division, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment.
Villa was 22 on D-Day. He was a member of the 237th Combat Engineers Batallion, 554th Combat Engineers. He was part of the first wave of soldiers to hit Omaha Beach on D-Day.
Stafford of Grand Junction was part of the 101st Airborne Division, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. On Wednesday at a ceremony in Cerentan, France, he was awarded the French Legion of Honor for his heroism during the war. It’s the highest honor the French government can bestow on a non-citizen.
McGinty was part of the 95th Bomb Group, 339th Bomb Squadron. He’s from Denver and flew 29 missions during World War II.
During their visit to France, the group plans to spread the ashes of Malvin Walker from Estes Park and Arthur Meyers from Denver, two D-Day veterans who died just within the last year.
The Greatest Generations Foundation has been bringing D-Day survivors back to Normandy every year for the last decade, but founder Timothy Davis has dubbed this trip “The Last Reunion,” because the men are all in their late 80s or 90s, and fewer and fewer survivors are able to make the trip. Davis says this will be his foundation’s last journey back to France to commemorate D-Day.
But The Greatest Generations Foundation still takes World War II veterans all around the world, from Pearl Harbor to Tarawa and several European battlefields.
To learn more about the work of The Greatest Generations Foundation, visit their website at www.tggf.org.