June 3, 2014

SC veterans turn tourists, remember wartime in France

In 1943, Charles “Floyd” Hailey Jr. was a 16-year-old boy living in Pageland and had never been farther away from home than Winston-Salem, N.C. But World War II was raging, and he wanted to do his part out of patriotism and a desire to see the world.

In 1943, Charles “Floyd” Hailey Jr. was a 16-year-old boy living in Pageland and had never been farther away from home than Winston-Salem, N.C. But World War II was raging, and he wanted to do his part out of patriotism and a desire to see the world.

Hailey, a Rock Hill native, enlisted in the Navy with a little white lie and letter from his mother stating that he was 18. When he arrived in Columbia to be inducted, the recruiting officer told him that at 98 pounds he didn’t weigh enough to sign up. The officer told him to come back the next day, but right before, eat as many bananas as he could and drink a quart of milk.

“I did, and when I went in, I weighed 103 pounds,” he said. “I was sweet 16. But they were taking anybody who could fight.”

Hailey, now 86, is the youngest person among 22 veterans – 18 from South Carolina, including two with Rock Hill connections and one who grew up in Chester – on a tour to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day. An estimated 5 million people are expected to attend commemorations here on Friday, including President Barack Obama; Elizabeth, Queen of England; and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The tour was arranged by the Palyok family of Columbia, who operated the Pal travel agency for nearly three decades.

The group landed in Paris on Monday and is staying in a seaside condo complex in the town of Courseulles-sur-Mer a few steps from Juno beach, which was assaulted by Canadian and Free French troops.

On Tuesday, the group toured Beyeux, home of the famous tapestry that chronicles the invasion of England in 1066 by William of Normandy, afterward called William the Conqueror. The tapestry – actually a 230-foot-long embroidered cloth rather than a tapestry, which is woven – depicts the events culminating in the Battle of Hastings.

They later visited the museum in Arromanche, the first museum to chronicle the D-Day landings. It officially opened on June 5, 1954, and was dedicated by René Coty, then president of the French Republic. The D-Day Museum overlooks the spot where one of the manmade Mulberry Harbors was constructed after the initial invasion and where its remains can still be seen today, a few hundred yards from the shore.

At the museum, the veterans were swarmed by British and French tourists who greeted them as rock stars. Many asked for autographs on everything from D-Day books, to re-enactor helmets to programs.

Mothers were explaining to their children the significance of why the invasion was important.

John Cummer of Blythewood, who was a gunner on a troop landing ship on Gold Beach, was overwhelmed by the attention.

“It was just amazing in the first place to be here and think about all of the men who died,” he said. “It was just a great experience. It makes us so thankful to Jeanne (Palyok) and her family to pull something like this off.”

On Tuesday, Hailey enjoyed the cathedrals, cobblestone streets, museums and verdant fields in this lush province of northern France. But his mind was also back on June 4, 1944, the day 70 years ago when the D-Day invasions were supposed to begin.

He was one of 20 Navy corpsmen, or medics, on an LST - Landing Ship Tank - with 700 soldiers, tanks, trucks and equipment whose mission was to storm Utah Beach just north and west of Beyeux. He was one of 200 corpsmen who trained on Parris Island with the Marines before being chosen for the D-Day invasion.

Although D-Day was supposed to be launched on June 4, the weather was awful and the invasion, planned for years, was called off.

“It was disappointing,” said Hailey, who is on the tour with his daughter, Kathy. “We were ready to go.”

Go they would, two days later, on June 6.

Although the 50th and 60th anniversaries of D-Day drew large crowds, this commemoration is considered the most poignant. All of the veterans now are in their late 80s or early 90s, and many likely will not be alive or able to attend another 10-year commemoration. Trip organizer Jeanne Palyok organized the tour as a tribute to the estimated 2,500 men who fell in the invasion and as a gift to the veterans on the tour, who are attending free of charge, thanks to donations.

The small towns along the Normandy coast, such as Courseulles-sur Mer, St. Mere Eglise, Saint-Lo and Colleville, are filling up this week with tourists, World War II re-enactors and media. About 500 reporters have been credentialed to cover the American and French ceremony, which Obama will attend. Other commemorations also are planned in British and Canadian sectors.

Most of the homes and shops in the towns along the coast are festooned with British, French, Canadian and U.S. flags. Those countries provided the bulk of the invasion troops that were deployed across five beaches stretching for 50 miles. They were code named Sword, Gold and Juno, where the Canadian and British troops landed, and Omaha and Utah, stormed by American troops.

Curtis Outen of Chesterfield was among the men who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was a rifleman in Company C, 38th Infantry Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division when the unit landed in the second wave.

Outen, 92, now of Matthews, was a farm boy, whose biggest adventure away from home before joining the Army had been a visit to his aunt in Darlington.

Leading up to the invasion, he and the rest of the men of the 2nd Division had been living on a troop transport ship for three weeks. On June 4, they were keyed up, ready to land in what they didn’t know at the time would be the largest amphibious invasion in history.

When it was called off, the young draftee said he didn’t know that the invasion had been on in the first place. He joked that supreme Allied commander Dwight D. Eisenhower never let him in on the plans.

“Ike didn’t talk to me at all,” he said.

The group is set to get their first glimpse of Omaha Beach on Wednesday. There, they will lay a wreath representing the state of South Carolina at the American Cemetery, whose rows of white tombstones sit atop the bluffs where the most intense fighting on D-Day occurred.

Outen said he is anxious to see Omaha Beach, because during the intense fighting that occurred on June 6 and the weeks that followed, he didn’t really know where he was.

“I was in combat every day and every night for five months,” he said. “We lived in foxholes. We ate K-rations. You only saw what was in front of you. God got me out of there in one piece. And now the good Lord has brought me back. I can’t wait to see where I was those 70 years ago.”

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