A group of 30 World War II veterans is flying back to the beaches of Normandy, France, in celebration of the 78th anniversary of D-Day, the United States-led operation on June 6, 1944, that turned the tide against Nazi Germany.

The veterans departed from Atlanta, Georgia, on June 1 and landed in Deauville, France. They are to participate in a week-long program that will include the official D-Day Commemoration. Their trip is sponsored by the Best Defense Foundation and its corporate sponsors.

“The mission of the Best Defense Foundation is ‘taking care of those who took care of us.’ Through this amazing partnership with Delta Air Lines, we are able to accomplish this mission and provide these heroes with the opportunity to reconnect with their brothers, honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice and celebrate the liberation of an ally.” Founder of the Best Defense Foundation Donnie Edwards said. This is because the program was done in partnership with Delta Airlines, which chartered the esteemed guests in a Boeing-767.

“We are indebted to these heroes of yesterday, today, and tomorrow for the sacrifices they’ve made on behalf of our country and the world. It is our privilege to participate in this charter that celebrates and honors these veterans.” Delta’s Managing Director of Community Engagement Tad Hutcheson said.

WWII veterans arriving in Deauville, France (Michael Malone/Facebook)

He noted that around 10% of current Delta employees were former servicepeople, and many continue to serve in the Reserves or Guard.

“We have a great, great, great schedule planned,” Edwards said, adding that the event features several highlights such as parades, a commemorative parachute jump, and the official D-Day Commemoration. Twelve of the veterans in the group are also expected to receive the French Legion of Honor.

The American Dream

Edwards, now 49 years old, was a former professional linebacker in the National Football League. His legendary thirteen-year career saw him play for the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Diego Chargers.

“You can achieve anything in America if you work hard,” Edwards said, who was a San Diego native.

After his retirement, Edwards founded the Best Defense Foundation in 2018 to honor and celebrate veterans who risked their lives in previous conflicts. Edwards said that he draws his inspiration from his great-grandfather, Maximino Razo, a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Best Defense is run by volunteers who are deeply passionate about expressing their gratitude to our beloved veterans and their families. The Foundation has successfully brought back over 100 WWII veterans through the Battlefield Return program to give them a chance to look back and remember their fallen comrades. Since its inception, the program has provided trips to Belgium, Iwo Jima, Guam, Saipan, Tinian, the Netherlands, Pearl Harbor, and Germany.

“I’m living the American dream at the end of the day,” said Edwards. “I want to make sure that I pay it back to those who gave me this opportunity in America.”

Fading Memories

For a time after the Second World War, if someone wanted to hear the firsthand accounts of what happened during the war and D-Day, all they had to do was ask a close relative or even their neighbor who was called to serve during the war.

However, as the decades passed, the generation who fought Hitler’s Nazis is slowly fading away and their stories with them. All surviving veterans are now in their 90s, and those are the lucky ones to have lived this long. A US Department of Veteran Affairs statistic reveals that of the 16 million American men and women who won against fascism, only 240,329 remain as of 2021.

Second World War: Europe; "Into the Jaws of Death — U.S. Troops wading through water and Nazi gunfire”, circa 1944-06-06 (Wikimedia Commons). Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Into_the_Jaws_of_Death_23-0455M_edit.jpg
Second World War: Europe; “Into the Jaws of Death — U.S. Troops wading through water and Nazi gunfire,” circa 1944-06-06 (National Archives and Records Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the veterans in the Best Defense group was 101-year-old Omaha beach survivor C.P. Martin. “It was a mess. The weather was atrocious,” he said. More than 4,000 Allied forces lost their lives in the D-Day invasion, with several more thousands that were injured or missing.

“You went through hell and back, and we are so honored to be taking you back,” Edwards’ wife, Kathryn, replied.

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A female veteran, Betty Huffman-Rosevear, shared that she joined the Army Corps as a nurse after her husband died in action in Denmark. “Thirty-one days on a ship, and I was in the Philippines not long after that,” she said.

“The first thing to go is the plan. When you got the order, you moved. We had a duty to perform, and we did it,” 96-year-old Andre Chappaz said, who fought in the Pacific theater.

All the vets with the Foundation remember the war as if it happened yesterday, not eight decades ago. Now more than ever, it is vital to hear and preserve the stories of our veterans to make sure they are not forgotten.

“This is a flag that has been all around the world. This represents all of those who are no longer here,” Edwards said while holding an American flag.