VERMILION — The grateful great-grandchildren — or even great-great grandchildren — of the French who were liberated by the Allied forces were among those who thanked veteran John Grasse on the sands of Omaha Beach last month.
“Each of us held the hand of a little child as we walked to the beach,” said Grasse, who flew 30 missions in a B-17 bomber and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross.
“They gave us green scarves with their names on them and a decorated stone from the beach,” said Grass, 86. Charmed by the gesture, he gave the boy a $10 bill.
Grasse said the ceremony with the French children probably was one of the most touching moments of an all-expense-paid trip called “In the Footsteps of Heroes — the Greatest Generation Foundation Tour.”
Grasse and his buddy Robert Miles were among the World War II veterans who went on the trip, which will be the focus of a documentary to be shown later on The Discovery Channel, said Timothy Davis, founder of the Greatest Generation Foundation of Denver.
Davis said the French townspeople in Caravelle-Bayeax “jumped at the chance” to thank the 19 U.S. and two Canadian veterans.
“It was very powerful — not only for the veterans but for the kids to see the veterans who liberated their country,” Davis said.
By the time D-Day rolled around, Grasse’s flight duty was concluded, but he flew some of the most dangerous missions leading up to the historic landing.
As news broke during the war, Grasse followed it with the rest of the world, wondering what would happen next.
The Greatest Generation trip focused on the difficult months to follow, including the deadly Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of concentration camps.
The vets visited Dachau on the 62rd anniversary of its liberation, and it took an emotional toll as they walked with survivors and thought about what had happened there.
“It almost turned your stomach,” Grasse said. “They sat our group in the very front row and you could see the ovens where they burned the bodies.”
In addition to seeing the historic sites, Grasse got a kick out of experiencing modern Europe.
Gas prices in England ran around $8 a gallon and Germany and France appeared incredibly prosperous, he said.
“You don’t see anything out of place,” he said. “They are so ahead of us.”
As the tour drew to a close, the vets got a look at Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest hideout, which was built in beautiful mountains.
He had no problem meeting former German soldiers during the stop, but being in Hitler’s hideout brought back memories of his own loathing for the dictator responsible for the deaths of millions.
“I felt like I wanted to kill him,” he said.
Sadly, the world is still a dangerous place, populated by its share of despots and dictators, he said.
“We’ve got a lot of them in the world right now and any of them could turn on us,”
Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Grasse fought with the 8th Air Force. The photo at top shows some of his memorabilia, including a picture of the B-17 crash he survived.