Robert Siegel speaks with Ralph Frias and Eugene Levine, two veterans of the D-Day landings in Normandy 70 years ago. They offer stories of their experiences and relate what it was like to take part in a day that changed the world.
"I have four brothers who came back horribly disturbed by Vietnam and Korea. I vowed that I would try not to become eaten up by the war."
-- D-Day veteran Ralph Frias
"I was changed by the fact that I survived. We even had to make out wills."
-- D-Day veteran Eugene Levine
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There was an anniversary ceremony at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. today. Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, addressed the crowd.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
SUSAN EISENHOWER: The planning, the execution and the unrelenting bravery of hundreds of thousands of men and women changed the course of history. Had the operation failed, the world would have been a very different place.
SIEGEL: And veterans laid wreaths along the memorial's Freedom Wall.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESENTATION)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Ladies and gentleman, we will now have the presentation of the wreaths. Presenting the wreaths for the United States of America is Susan Eisenhower, Elliot Toby Roosevelt the Third, and Mr. Craig Simons.
SIEGEL: Joining me in the studios are two veterans of the Normandy landing who took part in today's ceremony and in the wreathlaying. First, Ralph Frias of Haymarket, Virginia welcome.
RALPH FRIAS: Thank you.
SIEGEL: And Eugene Levine of Potomac, Maryland welcome to the program.
EUGENE LEVINE: Thank you.
SIEGEL: And I should say in both cases, you're both Ph.D.'s So I could say Dr. Frias and Dr. Levine. How old were both of you on D-Day?
FRIAS: I was 19.
LEVINE: I was 21 going on 22.
SIEGEL: Both of you had very unusual tasks to perform 70 years ago. First, Ralph Frias what was yours?
FRIAS: After Pearl Harbor, I enlisted because of my background in radio communications and languages. When we were sent overseas, I sort of became a forward observer.
SIEGEL: Forward observer?
FRIAS: Yes a forward observer for the Battalion. And this was an artillery Battalion. And because of my knowledge of German I was ordered to go forward and observe the German line and radio back. In addition to that I was to observe cannon fire from our artillery Battalion.
SIEGEL: So you went over ahead of your - ahead of your unit?
SIEGEL: You were there to gather intelligence of what was happening on the beach.
FRIAS: Yes. We were to follow the rangers in, interview, interrogate German prisoners or anyone, you know, on the line as to what was happening and then radio back to the beach.
SIEGEL: And, Dr. Levine, on D-Day, your assignment?
LEVINE: My assignment on D-Day was to take some weather observations after landing in a glider. I was trained as a weather observer. And then they made me into a combat weather observer. They decided that I would go in with a transmitter that was newly developed. A UHF transmitter. So I became the keeper of the transmitter.
SIEGEL: Were you are effectively under fire at the same time?
LEVINE: A little bit. But not, you know, not steady fire - not lots of it. People ask me that all the time and I guess it was either luck or just being in the right place at the right time.
SIEGEL: Dr. Frias, were you under fire during that time?
FRIAS: Almost continually. The Germans were consistently shelling. I had to go from smoke stack to smoke stack or from high ground to high ground trying to avoid the shelling.
SIEGEL: What - for each of you, starting with Eugene Levine, what is the most memorable moment of the landing or of D-Day for you?
LEVINE: Well, I landed with the glider that had this very precious radio in it and the plan - the original plan was that another guider would land with a Jeep and it just didn't happen because the glider with the Jeep was shot down. So there we were with this beautiful transmitter sitting in this field and in from the side of the field comes this woman with a little cart that had milk cans in it. And she was looking for her cows to milk. And I felt so bad for her because with all this shelling and noise that was going on the cows just disappeared. But I tried to explain to her in my broken French what our problem was and she said, I will take you. And I went with her cart and there was a beautiful Jeep sitting there. The Jeep belonged to an MP with the 82nd airborne and that incident just remained with me for the rest of my life.
SIEGEL: And Ralph Frias, for you, the most powerful memory of that day?
FRIAS: Well, there were several, actually. But I think the horrendous noise suddenly overpowered any fear that you had when you first went to the beach it was - you were frightened. I think everybody was. Because you saw people getting shot, you said blood on the water and that sort of thing. But suddenly the noise was so great that the noise itself overcame any fear of having to move forward.
SIEGEL: We all learn in school how the history of the world was changed on D-Day. I'm curious how you think your own lives were changed by being part of it. Ralph Frias?
FRIAS: I hope so. I think it has. My wife tells me it has. I tend to be more considerate, having seen what devastation war can cause. And the pain I suppose.
SIEGEL: Eugene Levine, for you. How has your life changed?
LEVINE: It was changed by the fact that I survived. We had been told that the chances of surviving D-Day were not great. We even had to make out wills. Did you do that?
FRIAS: Yes I did.
LEVINE: They made us make our wills and advance. And having survived it, I realize that life is so precious.
SIEGEL: We have been talking with both Ralph Frias and Eugene Levine who are veterans of the Normandy landing and took part in today's ceremonies at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Thanks to both of you, both for coming in to talk to us and thank you very much for your service all those years ago.
LEVINE: Thank you.
FRIAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.