Ahead of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, "NBC Nightly News" sat down with four veterans who survived the invasion and the days and months following on the ground in Normandy.
Irving Locker remembers landing on Utah Beach on June 6, 1944, like it was yesterday.
“It’s terrifying and believe me when I tell you, when we were in the Higgins boat coming in, the long life that we thought we were gonna have could be shortened very, very fast because of the bullets that were coming at us,” says Locker.
Locker and the 116th AAA Gun Battalion were ordered to go in on D-Day with 90 mm guns to protect the beaches. He still has the knife he carried with him every day during the war.
Locker, 94, is among dozens of World War II veterans who returned to Normandy this week to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day.
Born in Passaic, New Jersey, Locker says he can talk about the Army but when he talks about the Holocaust, he notes, “I don’t sleep at night.”
Locker, who is Jewish, said he used to remove his dog tags because he feared if he were captured he would be killed on the spot.
When asked about their service and the legacy of the Greatest Generation, Locker says, “we did what we had to do.”
“Freedom is not free. There was a lot of people that gave their lives, millions of people gave their lives so that they — the children today — could be free.”
Tom Rice soared through the same airfields he flew in during D-Day, jumping from a C-47 plane, in the drop zone where he jumped 75 years earlier.
Now 97, flying tandem, Rice jumped Wednesday, landing in the French town of Carentan. Rice said he will be back next year, saying it was a “beautiful day. Beautiful jump. Beautiful flight. Everything was perfect.”
Let our news meet your inbox. The news and stories that matters, delivered weekday mornings.
Rice was a staff sergeant in the Army, a member of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. He was the first to jump from his C-47, in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, near Utah Beach in Normandy, France.
Rice remembers that his C-47 was going so fast, his left armpit was caught in the corner of door.
“I saw a hurricane of fire coming up from German positions below,” said Rice. “This is all microseconds that is going by my mind so fast that I'm not even wondering. I don't know I left, I left sort of the microsecond activity behind and thinking of something else.”
Rice then fought on the ground in Normandy for more than a month. “By the time we moved through 37 days of combat in Normandy and then jumped in Market Garden and then in Bastogne we, for the most part, were pretty well thinned out. I think we, out of 128 guys, we had less than 90,” said Rice.
He was injured in combat four times, later receiving a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star Medal.
Rice has jumped on many D-Day anniversaries before this.
“I jump for the good guys that were lost, never returned, that did survive but could never talk about it. Walked away from it,” Rice said.
EUGENE “DOC” DEIBLER
As a D-Day paratrooper, he was just 19. Eugene “Doc” Deibler made the jump in Normandy that morning, and now remembers every detail from that day.
“We were wanting to get out of the plane. You got anxious. You know, you could get killed up there. And two of our planes got in our echelon got shot down and lost all the men in G company. And I had been in G company when I first went in,” said Deibler, part of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
The veteran remembers he was fortunate enough to have a good landing. Deibler said that many of his brothers-in-arms drowned, or were shot after landing in trees.
“We landed in a field beside a three-story building, a chalet, or some kind of a big building. And there was a guard on the gate there, German, it was a German headquarters now. And guy shot at our colonel, and he took his 45 out and killed him. So that was my first experience with that,” said Deibler.
Now 94, Deibler is returning to Normandy for the first time.
“Maybe the 75th will be the last celebration. And that's another reason I want to go," he said. "It might be the last one. Because most of us will be gone in the next five years."
Deibler says he is not a hero. “We’re not heroes, really. The heroes are all gone. They’re the ones that got killed.”
Vincent Corsini was an ammunition carrier in Normandy, arriving on Omaha Beach on D-Day.
“You always think that you're not the one that's going to be killed. It's going to be somebody else. But that quickly changed, my attitude, when we went on the beach,” Corsini said.
Corsini was 19 at the time, serving with the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. He remembers a bullet passing his ear on Omaha Beach. “It sounded like a jet and, what do you call? Sonic boom. So I knew somebody was trying to kill,” he said.
Corsini took his first German prisoner at the top of Omaha Beach.
“He was crying. He had his hands up in the air,” said Corsini. “He thought I was going to shoot him, but I didn't. And I just waved with my thumb, waved, go back down the beach. And he put his hands up. That's the last I saw him.”
He said most of the men he landed with were wounded or killed. “I became the man with experience. If you lived two weeks in battle, you had a lot of experience.”
Corsini is one of the many veterans back in Normandy for D-Day this week.
He also says he is not a hero.
“I'm glad to have participated, because if I didn't participate this, this wouldn't happen,” Corsini said. “I wouldn't exchange the experience for a million dollars. But if you offered me a million dollars to go through that again, I would tell you something different.”