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At D-Day, remembering the veteran who won’t come back

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While covering the D-Day commemorations and celebrations in Normandy over the past few weeks, I found myself overcome with emotion.

I keep thinking about Jim Bennett.

Jim is my husband’s grandfather. In the family, he was known as a Renaissance man—an investment advisor who enjoyed building boats, baking donuts on a wood stove, and growing giant zucchini. He was also a veteran of the Canadian artillery during World War II, landing on June 6, 1944, at what would later be known as Juno Beach.

He was in charge of about 100 soldiers and operated tanks, whose tracks left marks on the pavement of Courcelles-sur-Mer and can still be seen in some places today.

He fought in Caen for weeks after the Normandy landings – the city was bombed so hard that buildings dripped molten lead. He didn’t like to talk about the war. One of the few stories he told was about VE Day. He found himself at the barn, riding along the beach on horseback, reminding himself that life was still there.

He never returned to Normandy. He said his 1944 visit had been hell and he didn’t want to go through it again.

I hope he does. I think he might find it healing. He would certainly be touched by the reception that awaits him.

As a Paris correspondent for The New York Times, I spent about a week in Normandy, covering the 80th anniversary of June 6, 1944, when 156,000 Allied troops landed on Nazi-occupied beaches and the surrounding countryside and marched inland. It proved to be a critical turning point in the war.

One of the places I stopped was the tarmac at Deauville’s tiny airport, where Delta was scheduled to land to bring back 58 American veterans. On June 3, it felt a bit like a fairground: There was an honor guard, a military band playing 1930s swing music, and a local re-enactment group in authentic World War II uniforms. While I waited, I wandered the crowds, conducting interviews. Every French person I spoke to was in tears—partly because the moment evoked their own family stories about the war, but also out of sheer gratitude.

Crystal Marie, a teacher at a nearby elementary school, came with her students and cried as she told me about her experience growing up near Juno Beach. She said she often saw elderly men pacing the shoreline, looking for the exact spot where they came ashore and witnessed their comrades die.

The magnitude of their pain and loss is deep in her heart. “It’s so important to remember this responsibility,” she said, crying. “It’s an honor to be here.”

She is 47 years old and was born in the decades after the war.

I wondered what Jim would have made of her words. Would it have eased his pain a little?

In all the small towns and villages, there is a frenzy of adoration for the 200 or so returning World War II veterans, who are like aging rock stars, at a concert.

I just finished writing story I was talking about the town of Sainte-Mère-Église and its relationship to the American paratroopers when I saw a full-on veterans parade. I drove back to see it and found a parking spot in the distant farmland. From a distance, the small central square looked like a crowded ant’s nest. Thousands of people were packed shoulder to shoulder.

When I later asked Jim O’Brien, 99, what it was like to be in the crowd, he responded, “It was mind-blowing. I wish it was like this every day.”

But Henri Kolinek II, 98, told me it was too hard for him. “I’m a shy guy,” said Mr. Kolinek, who goes by HJ and flew 37 missions over France, Belgium and Germany as a tail gunner on bombers. This was his first time back in Normandy since the war.

I thought of Jim again. I wondered how he would respond to all this love and gratitude. At Thanksgiving dinner one day, I asked him about the war, and his wife asked why we were so tacitly gathered to discuss it. “Katherine just asked me about sex,” he replied, causing everyone to laugh.

I don’t think he would have received so much attention for what he did during the war, which he has tried so hard to forget, but perhaps the experience could have brought him some comfort.

Jim died in 2009 at the age of 90.

On June 6, I arrived at the American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer for a ceremony to hear President Biden’s remarks. The sun was shining, the sky was full of stars. The graves of 9,388 soldiers were scattered in rows on the grass around us. One veteran said that when he looked at the graves, he saw his former comrades waving at him.

Veterans were, of course, the centerpieces of the event. Many wore thick knitted scarves around their necks and blankets over their shoulders. It was clear that for many this would be their last time in Normandy. Their average age was 100.

French President Emmanuel Macron presented France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor, to 11 attendees.

Each struggled to his feet. Macron pinned a large medal and a large red ribbon on each veteran’s chest, then grasped their shoulders and leaned over to give them “la bise” — two kisses, one on each cheek.

I wasn’t the only one crying in the news section.

Everyone in the crowd wanted to kiss them.

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