Local resident Joe Watson's time in the military is decades behind him, but his memories are rushing back to him today as he tours the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Watson, 91, boarded a flight to Paris, France, on June 1 with his daughter, and the two took a bus more than 100 miles to Normandy to visit the memorial.
There, Watson has been taking in the sites and, of course, paying his respects to the fallen American soldiers who lost their lives in World War II.
“I'm a little anxious to see the battle ground and pay my respects to the fallen soldiers,” Watson said before the trip. “It'll be the trip of a lifetime, I think.”
The memorial includes the names of 1,557 Americans who lost their lives in Normandy, but could not be located and/or identified.
The memorial also features a time capsule embedded in the lawn across from the entrance to the old Visitors' Building. The capsule contains news reports of the June 6, 1944, Normandy landings and is set to be opened during the 100th celebration on June 6, 2044.
While talking to the Aiken Standard, Watson also spoke about his time in the military.
During his junior year at Clemson University, the orders came down that he had to join the Army. His first stop was Texas, then he went to Alabama for training. His next stop was to Fort Benning outside of Columbus, Georgia, and he then served in the 75th infantry division at Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky.
On June 6, 1944, Watson was in Kentucky while American soldiers set foot on French soil and entered unfamiliar territory.
“We couldn't imagine what it would've been like to get off that boat and step into war knowing that the Germans were set there on the shore,” he said. “You talk about the Alamo and all of the other acts of bravery, but I don't think any other act showed more courage than stepping into that war.”
While the division never saw any D-Day action, Watson said he was present during the Battle of the Bulge several days after the initial landing.
In retrospect, Watson said the situation was a scary one. But at the time, his division – which he affectionately called the “diaper division” because of its youth – was too young to feel the fear.
“We were more excited than anything,” he added. “We knew that it was the beginning of the end of the war because of D-Day and the successful landing in France.”
D-Day was originally scheduled for June 5, 1944, but storms forced supreme Allied Cmdr. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to postpone it a day. Roughly 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified beaches in France's Normandy region. More than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed on D-Day and more than 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed in the Battle of Normandy.
The day was code named Operation Neptune, and it played a pivotal role in the Allies liberating Western Europe from Nazi Germany's control.
Derrek Asberry is a beat reporter with the Aiken Standard.
Editor's note: This version of this story has been updated to correct the name of Joe Watson. Mr. Watson is a veteran who served in WWII and recently visited Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The Aiken Standard thanks Mr. Watson for his service and apologizes for the error.