Conflict & Justice

D-Day veterans make what may be their last trip to Normandy

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Credit: Jake Cigainero

British veteran Leslie Dobinson (left) and American veteran James Kunkle in La Cambe share their memories of the 1944 Normandy landings and the days that followed.

A crowd of school children waving French and American flags welcomed a procession of World War II veterans escorted by soldiers.

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This town, La Cambe, is just 10 miles inland from Omaha Beach, one of the June 6, 1944, D-Day landing sites. As part of the commemorative events, locals unveiled a new plaque honoring veterans, one of many events slated this week to commemorate the 70th anniversary of mostly American, British and Canadian Allies invading Normandy to liberate France from Nazi Germany. The operation turned the tide of the war, but at the cost of thousands of lives.

Throughout the region, there are posters of young people saying, "We are all 70."

The entire coastal region has been preparing for months for the arrival of world leaders, veterans, tourists and war buffs. They're coming to pay tribute to the soldiers who fought and gave their lives. Seven decades after the Allies landed, this is likely the last major commemoration for many who lived D-Day, now that the youngest survivors are entering their 90s.

"The years have gone by. Some of us are luckier than others," said 89-year-old British veteran Les Dobinson, who came to honor his fallen comrades.

No one else from Dobinson's flight-training group survived. "I'm the last one," he said.

He was taken out of his flying squad before the invasion due to a vision defect. The roommate who took his place in the operation was killed. Dobinson plans to say a final goodbye to his friend, who is buried here.

"We'll share a Jack Daniels, because the last time I saw him when I was in sick bay, he brought me a drink," Dobinson said. "So I'm going back there for the last time just to pour a bit on his grave, and I'll have the rest."

American veteran James Kunkle flew planes, but he says the true heroes of D-day were the ground troops. For Kunkle, this week is more than just a remembrance; it's a reunion. He's staying with the family of the Frenchman who, despite a language barrier, he befriended during his service 70 years ago.

"I didn't speak French and he didn't speak English, so I just called him Monsieur Papa," Kunkle recalled.

After losing touch for more than 60 years, Kunkle found the family again in 2009 with the help of a photograph he took before leaving France.

"The reception I've had from the French people has just been magnificent," Kunkle said. "They've shown tremendous appreciation for what we did, so we owe them something too."

Kunkle's friend is no longer alive, but his great-grandson Dominique Legrand recalls growing up hearing tales about Kunkle from his grandmother, who met Kunkle when she was just 14 years old.

Legrand says he is proud of Kunkle, and that he is part of the family, like a grandfather. Legrand's 12-year-old son Paul now learns first-hand about the legacy of the men and women of D-Day.

"It's great with the veterans," Paul said. "And knowing the history is moving."

On Friday, the official anniversary, the landing beaches will host President Obama, Queen Elizabeth II and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will memorialize the soldiers who fought and died during the battle of Normandy.

"America was in its finest hour, in my opinion," Kunkle said.

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    Credit: Jake Cigainero

    Veterans entered a D-Day ceremony in a procession in the Normandy town of La Cambe.

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    Credit: Jake Cigainero

    Active duty soldiers, locals and tourists gathered in La Combe to salute D-Day veterans at a ceremony.

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    Credit: Jake Cigainero

    Men in period military fatigues walk around the streets of Port-en-Bessin during 70th Anniversary D-Day events.

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    Credit: Jake Cigainero

    Children cheered and waved US and French flags to welcome veterans in the town of La Cambe.

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    Credit: Jake Cigainero

    Locals and tourists gathered in the town of La Cambe in Normandy for the unveiling of a commemorative plaque honoring D-Day veterans.

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