It has been 70 years since the fateful June 6, 1944, D-Day landings at Normandy, France and one World War II veteran recently returned to those beaches to join in the commemorative festivities marking the anniversary.
U.S. Army veteran Joseph H. Mack of Macedon, N.Y., visited the historic battlegrounds from May 30 through June 12 on a tour made possible through the Greatest Generations Foundation.
“It is important to be there and it is an honor and privilege to be chosen to do it,” said Mr. Mack.
While in France, Mr. Mack was also celebrated by the French Consulate for his military service.
“My grandfather has never been one to make a big deal out of the fact that he served his country and fought in some of the bloodiest battles in Europe,” said Mr. Mack’s grandson, Patrick Mack of Horseheads, N.Y.
“If asked, he will share. He’ll talk to other vets, but he has never tried to bring praise upon himself.”
However praise is just what Mr. Mack received June 4 in Carentan, France, where he was bestowed the Legion of Honor for participating in the liberation of France during World War II.
“It is an honor to accept the medal for all the vets who didn’t make it home. They really deserve it. They lost their lives for it,” said Mr. Mack.
The National Order of the Legion of Honor is a French order established by Napoleon Bonaparte on May 19, 1802. It is the highest decoration in France and Mr. Mack was awarded the Chevalier, or Knight class.
Mr. Mack was inducted into the U.S. Army on March 29, 1943, and was assigned to K (King) Company, Third Battalion, 112th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Division.
The Division had been trained in amphibious operations and had fully expected to participate in the initial landings on D-Day, but was instead on reserve in England.
“He actually landed on the beach and fought in the hedgerows of Normandy a month after the invasion started,” said Patrick Mack.
Mr. Mack marched through Paris with his division and was wounded in the bloody battles of the Hurtgen forest and a month later was right in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge.
“He fought in Europe basically from a month after the initial landings until the war ended,” said Patrick Mack.
He said his grandfather led men in combat as an infantry squad leader with the rank of sergeant and also served as a platoon guide.
“He fought in the last five seminal battles that won the war,” said Mr. Mack’s daughter, Catherine Wilson of Easton, Md.
“His division lost 80 percent of their troops twice. I am proud of my dad,” she said.
Mr. Mack said simply listing the battles he has been through doesn’t give those who weren’t there the complete picture of war.
“It doesn’t really tell the stories of what we went through,” he said. “I have a lot of stories. The summary is war is hell.”
Mr. Mack said the number of shootouts he was involved in during the war is unbelievable.
“Too many really,” he said. “One of us wasn’t going to walk away and I’m still here.”
When going into Normandy, Mr. Mack and the rest of his Division was told they had a 90 percent survival rate – but in the first battle 50 percent of his Division was lost.
Two more subsequent battles resulted in 75 percent losses of the Division in each fight.
“A lot of situations I was in I think I had divine intervention,” Mr. Mack said, citing in particular an M88 that landed four feet from him during Normandy that luckily turned out to be a dud.
He said the Polish women who built the bombs would often slip duds into the mix, and he said a prayer of thanks that the M88 that landed next to him was one of those duds.
For his military service during the war, Mr. Mack was awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantry Badge and a Presidential Unit Citation, among other honors.
The Bronze Star medal was actually just recently presented to him, 70 years after it was earned. Mr. Mack’s daughter, Barbara Perkins of Macedon is also working on getting the Purple Heart awarded to him for his service.
“He is an amazing man,” said Patrick Mack.
“I am very proud of my father,” said Mrs. Perkins. “Thank you to all who have served and sacrificed for our freedom.”
Following the war, Mr. Mack worked at IBM in Binghamton, N.Y., where he lived with his wife, Helen, and raised six children.
“At the time I served my country, I promised God that if I survived the war I would serve him,” Mr. Mack said.
That is why after retiring from IBM, he moved to Charlotte, N.C., with his wife and served as a Deacon for the Catholic Church for 31 years.
He has also been a member of the Knights of the Columbus since 1945.
The 70th anniversary celebration of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy was commemorated by many allied heads of state and hundreds of thousands of visitors in addition to Mr. Mack.
According to Normandy Tourism, the commemorative event included firework displays, parades, parachute drops, military camp set ups, open-air concerts with big bands and more.
As part of the Greatest Generations Foundation tour, Mr. Mack attended commemorative events, visited schools and attended banquet dinners.
“The last time he was in Normandy he was just 19, preparing to land on the beach and then trek by foot through France, Belgium and Germany,” said Mrs. Wilson.
At the time, Mr. Mack said that he did not get any closure when his fellow soldiers lost their lives while under fire.
“We didn’t have time to say goodbye. When you are on the offensive, you have to keep going,” he said.
Returning to the former battlegrounds has brought some closure and more stories to tell, he said.
“The trip was worth it. It was an honor to represent the Division that went into Normandy and the people we lost. It was an honor for me to tell their story,” he said.
In addition to Normandy, the Greatest Generations Foundation sponsored Mr. Mack to visit England and Omaha Beach while on the anniversary tour.
The Greatest Generations Foundation is a non-profit international organization dedicated to promoting recognition and respect for war veterans of past and current conflicts, while enhancing historical education for today’s youth.
“We work to ensure that the honor and sacrifice of these veterans is never forgotten, nor that the value of their deeds be allowed to disappear into the annals of history,” the foundation’s website says.
Mr. Mack was able to participate in this program with the help of his daughter, Mrs. Perkins, who helped him fill out the application and compile all the requisite paperwork the foundation desired.
Timothy Davis of Denver, a spokesperson for the Greatest Generations Foundation, said the purpose of this particular program in Normandy was to go back and honor those who battled and make sure no one forgets.
For the veterans, it is an opportunity to return to the battle sites and honor their brothers and comrades who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom today, Mr. Davis said.
“Freedom is not free,” he said.
By Katie Kazimir