WBIR-TV followed two East Tennessee D-Day veterans as they made a return trip to Normandy 70 years after the historic invasion.
In addition to highlighting the journey of both glider corps soldier Clinton Riddle and Omaha Beach veteran Lawrence Brannan, our coverage also explains how that hallowed ground in France inspired a one-of-a-kind memorial in Knoxville.
We also explore a range of statistics offering a deeper perspective of the service and sacrifice of the World War II generation.
Before Lawrence Brannan was a family man, farmer, and manager of an auto parts and service shop in Morristown, he was a soldier. And that soldier from East Tennessee was among the thousands of Allied troops on June 6, 1944, who stormed ashore in a hail of bombs and bullets on D-Day.
"I think about it, not a day goes by that I don't think about something that happened there," said Mr. Brannan, who was part of the "third wave" on Omaha Beach in France.
Several hours into the bloody battle that, at the end of the day, saw more than 6,000 US troops dead or wounded, the pouch of explosives on Brannan's hip caught fire. He does not know how it caught fire; perhaps a round from an enemy gun ignited the TNT and set off the four grenades. The explosion shredded his clothes and sent shrapnel coursing into his chest. The blast also stripped off part of Mr. Brannan's left hand.
"I should be dead, by all means I should be dead," recalled Mr. Brannan, shaking his head. He managed to crawl his way to safety and eventually make it to a casualty pool and then aboard a ship back to England for treatment.
At age 94, he says he still has some unfinished business both on the beach and at the American Cemetery in Normandy.
"I just want to see the place again," he said.
A World War II veteran from East Tennessee glided into the French countryside 70 years ago on D-Day.
"I'm lucky I came home alive," said Clinton Riddle, the 93-year-old native of Sweetwater who will return to Normandy with his daughter as his escort.
The former radioman was a member of a glider unit that coasted over the English Channel and crash-landed almost 14 miles behind enemy lines on the morning of the Allied invasion in 1944. Within minutes of landing, Mr. Riddle says his unit was under fire.
"We fought for 33 days and nights without relief; it was on the go all the time," recalled Mr. Riddle.
The self-described "farm boy" from East Tennessee celebrated the 50th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy. On that trip he says he found the remnants of a foxhole where he dug in to avoid incoming fire and he snapped a photo of the clump of trees his glider crashed into when he first touched down on the first day of the fight.
"As far as I know, I am the only one from my company returning," said Mr. Riddle.
On the eve of his return trip for the 70th anniversary ceremonies, Riddle says he hopes to connect with friends and family, including any relatives of the French farmer who offered him a canteen full of warm milk once the shooting died down after his rough landing.
"I had warm milk for breakfast. It wasn't strained but I had milk for breakfast (D-Day)."
Returning to the beach in France he stormed 70 years ago as part of what he knew as a suicide squad, Mr. Brannan says the English Channel looks empty.
"I was expecting to see a lot of ships there," he said.
At the landing map above Omaha Beach, the now 94-year-old D-Day veteran has to walk around front to see the American point of view in order to point out the spot where he came ashore.
The self-described farm boy from East Tennessee first put boot to sand around 7:20 in the morning as part of the third wave on a beach now known simply as "Bloody Omaha."
"We're going to hit that beach, and we're going to take it, and as far as we're concerned, you're 100% expendable," he recalled.
The American death toll on D-Day was staggering. If you compare it to America's longest war in Afghanistan, which has lasted more than 12 years and cost more than 2,200 American lives, almost that many troops died on Omaha Beach in one day.
Hours into the fight, Brannan saw the pouch of explosives on his hip smoking. Just as he reached to toss the grenades and TNT, the pack exploded.
"I just said, 'So long Brannan,'" he recalled. "I had to be dead."
The blast did shred part of his hand, but he managed to help himself and another soldier he found blinded on the beach to a casualty pool.
Seventy years later, Mr. Brannan says he has some unfinished business at Omaha. The sacred cemetery above the beach holds the remains of more than 9,000 American troops. Seventy years ago, the hillside held a German machine gun that alone killed close to 1,000 American G.I.s at Omaha.
"It's like going back and meeting a friend," Mr. Brannan said of visiting the cemetery. "Finding an old friend and seeing them again."
It's the place Lawrence Brannan needed to see once more.
The motto of Clinton Riddle's D-Day unit was, "Let's go." And at 93, the East Tennessee native jumped back on the same French soil he first saw 70 years ago.
At age 23, Riddle was part of the little-known Glider Unit. The canvas troop carriers crash-landed with 30 aboard, ready to fight together behind enemy lines.
A stroll along the cobblestones of Ste. Mere Eglise stirred memories of his first steps in the town, wearing combat boots.
"The first dead German I saw was laying in one of the alleys here," he said.
What the celebrated veteran wanted most on this trip was to see the farm field outside town where he first joined the fight.
Against Army regulations, Mr. Riddle kept a journal throughout his months at war. One of his first notations after that crash landing in his glider was receiving some fresh milk from a French farmer.
When he visited the farm, Mr. Riddle took a moment to soak in the view, comparing it to a snapshot he took moments after landing. Then, he pulled out his New Testament.
"It's my Testament that I carried all during the war," he recalled. "I promised the Lord if he would allow me to come back, I'd do whatever he wanted me to do. And so I'm still trying to carry that vow, and that little Testament went all through the war. If it could talk, it'd tell you so many things."
The book stayed in his breast pocket during six major campaigns, 30 months overseas, and a unit credited with more than 400 days under fire.
"Frankly, I think it's a miracle. God just put a hedge around me. He had work for me to do when I got back, and I'm still carrying that out, trying to. Trying to help people," he said.
World War II veteran Clinton Riddle started his morning on the 70th anniversary of the invasion at Normandy by reading a poem he wrote about an old pair of jump boots to a busload of fellow tourists in France.
"If these old boots could talk and share their stories, they could tell you of many events," said Clinton Riddle.
VIDEO: A look back at Normandy trip
Throughout his visit to Normandy, the 93-year-old East Tennessee native was mobbed by crowds of Europeans wanting pictures, hand shakes, and wanting to say 'thank you.'
When asked what was running through his mind as he walked in Northern France, he replied, "Well, many, many memories. Seeing the losses, so many buddies and everything. It makes me sad in a way, but in another way, I rejoice that I survived and was able to do something to liberate these people."
The New York Times featured Clinton Riddle's writing on the 70th anniversary.
"I'm proud that the editor called me and gave me the opportunity to write that. Perhaps it might help some of our youngsters that have not heard about the invasion, and I think they need to know what took place."
The veteran, who can still fit into his old uniform, including those old jump boots, just hopes his writings, memories and poetry can help preserve the history made seven decades ago on French soil.
The pilgrimages hundreds of World War II veterans have made back to the beaches and farmlands in France where they first saw combat have come in part through the help of a Scotsman with deep military ties.
"We used to have bus loads, take two or three bus loads just of the (WWII) veterans and over the years we saw the bus loads getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller-- where today we maybe have one or two on a tour and that's it," said Dennis Ross standing feet from where American troops stormed ashore 70 years ago on Omaha Beach in France.
SERVICE & SACRIFICE: A guide for a pilgrimage to the fields of combat
Mr. Ross grew up with a father who served with the British Army in World War II. His dad saw combat during five years of service on the front lines. Mr. Ross later followed his father's lead, and both men suffered injuries at war.
Dennis still wears the shrapnel scars from a roadside bomb and his dad was strafed by the blast from a machine-gun. It is that family history and the military ties that help Dennis identify with men from America who return to foreign battlefields looking for some closure.
"I went through three combat tours myself, so I know exactly what they went through," said Mr. Ross.
And that is in part why he ensures throughout the bus tours he leads across France and other parts of Europe that his group pauses and pays respect to the men riding with them who put service above self.
"That is what I appreciate, they gave their life for the cause of others to live free," said Ross.
Often considered the turning point of World War II, the attack on Hitler's 'Fortress Europe' by Allied forces was code-named Operation Overlord.
Now colloquially referred to as D-Day, on June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. The full-on assault included 5,000 ships and 11,000 airplanes from several nations that began attacking in waves in the dead of night. It was the largest seaborne attack in history.
The invasion was originally scheduled for the morning of June 5, but the weather forecast was bad enough for Gen. Eisenhower's chief meteorologist, Group Capt. James Martin Stagg to advise Ike to postpone it by one day. While far from perfect, the weather on the morning of June 6 was good enough for the invasion to proceed successfully.
German military forces would never fully recover from the psychological and physical damage that had been inflicted. The following month, Allied forces were strong enough to launch Operation Cobra, which would begin the liberation of France.
The beaches of Northern France are a place that fills visitors with emotions, and one veteran's trip just a few years ago sparked the idea for a tribute to veterans in our area.
The spot in France above the Normandy beaches is not only sacred ground, it's U.S. soil. The graves of more than 9,000 troops who gave their lives in duty to their country lay in the cemetery above the beach.
Their selfless sacrifice inspired a Knoxville man to create a one-of-a-kind memorial.
"Standing over there on the blood-stained beach, it'll quiet you down," said Bill Felton.
Back in 1999, following his visit to Normandy, the late Felton made it his mission in Knoxville to build a memorial to honor all the fallen troops from East Tennessee who died in military service since World War I.
VIDEO: Memorial inspiration
Less than a decade later, construction was underway. Government money on the local, state and federal level, along with private donations helped fund the $1 million plus project, dedicated in 2008.
Today the stone pillars hold the names of more than 6,200 fallen troops from 35 East Tennessee counties.
Volunteer researchers have taken those names and filled in their back stories. At the newly-updated memorial website, visitors can find short biographies of those veterans and photos of their burial sites, both at home and overseas.
SERVICE & SACRIFICE: Dutch connection to an East TN memorial
It is in France where the roots of honor to that East Tennessee tribute to service and sacrifice was born, from the seemingly endless rows of crosses.