D-Day heroes remembered with tribute; veterans honored
Sixty-five years after he waded through the chest-deep Atlantic Ocean to reach a Normandy beach, Paul Klimovich of Greenfield still remembers that his company wasn't even supposed to land in France on the first day of the Allied invasion of Europe. His outfit replaced a group whose landing craft sank during training.
For Klimovich, 87, the events of D-Day marked the first of many close calls. He was one of 150,000 soldiers who stormed the French coast to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany. About 9,000 soldiers were wounded or killed.
"I just had a lot of close calls," Klimovich, an Army scout, said recently. "I was always right on top of the Germans."
Today, President Obama and other world leaders will mark the day with a tribute at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, the final resting place of 9,300 soldiers. The clifftop cemetery is located in Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, overlooking Omaha Beach.
In New Orleans, the National World War II Museum has invited veterans from every state for a weekend of events commemorating the landing. The museum had a hard enough time finding living World War II veterans who were able to attend, let alone D-Day survivors.
"It's just driven the point home for us how few of them are left," museum spokeswoman Kacey Hill said.
Fewer and fewer of the veterans like Klimovich remain. Veterans Affairs and Defense officials say there is no way to know for certain how many D-Day veterans live in the United States, but the number shrinks daily.
The Census Bureau estimates there are about 2.3 million American World War II veterans left; about 850 die each day. The Census estimates almost 19,000 veterans of the war live in Pennsylvania.
The troops who stormed the Normandy beaches represented Americans from every state and all walks of life, said Thomas Czekanski, director of collections and exhibits at the National World War II Museum. Though many were quite young, the average soldier in Normandy was 25, he said, because the Army sent many of its best-trained fighters in the first waves.
"The average age was older than what's generally regarded at Vietnam," he said.
Klimovich remembers he only looked at one thing as he ran across Utah Beach: the base of the German-built seawall, where troops were protected for a moment from falling artillery shells. For the next month, he said he kept his head down as German snipers shot at his company from atop the notorious Hill 112.
Klimovich keeps a worn, leather-bound history of the 90th Army Division's route through Europe. That way, he remembers where he was. From Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge, the troops in his division just knew what was in front of them, he said.
June 6, 1944, was only the beginning of months of sleepless nights and bloodshed. Staff Sgt. Ted Dombroski, 90, of Baldwin spent the next month with the 6th Engineers' Special Brigade hauling supplies from the beaches to the front lines nonstop as German fighter planes strafed the convoys at dark.
Dombroski said he remembers waiting with his company in the English Channel for hours after D-Day as machine gunners mowed down Allied troops and artillery shells fell around him.
The devastation that both sides brought to French towns with artillery fire stuck with him long after the conflict, Dombroski said.
"The buildings up on the hill, they destroyed them all because they could hide machine gunners. Leveled. All those buildings. I just looked at them and shook my head and asked, 'Why did they have to do that?' But that's war."
Dombroski said he grew close to the men in his unit, who represented "a great mixture of the American population."
"You had mountaineers and city slickers ... but we all accepted one another," he said. "You formed a lot of good friends and I had a lot of good friends. ... Not a lot of them around anymore."
Dombroski is too old to push his lawnmower, let alone fight a war. He said he is thankful to be alive.
"Don't ask me why I lived so long, I couldn't tell you," he said.
His wife, Grace, offered a theory.
"That's because of me," she said.