Guy Gunter couldn't forget June 6, 1944, if he had to.
At 1 a.m. that day, he was piloting a glider carrying 15 soldiers in the Normandy invasion, which turned the tide of World War II in Europe and eventually forced Germany to surrender less than a year later.
Now 90 and the owner of an appliance company in Atlanta, Gunter's glider was towed in by airplane and released over the German lines where it came to earth inside France.
“It was the most important day for everybody who was alive that day,” Gunter said during an observance of the 64th anniversary of D-Day on Friday at the National World War II Museum. “They knew we were coming, but they didn't know when and where.”
Former service personnel, history buffs and the public gathered at the museum to remember the day in which more than 160,000 Allied troops and 30,000 vehicles landed along a 50-mile stretch of fortified French coastline and begin fighting on the beach in an attempt to regain France from Nazi control.
J.J. Witmeyer, 87, who lives in the New Orleans suburb of Harahan, was an infantry soldier who landed on Utah Beach aboard a New Orleans-built Higgins landing craft, featuring a front ramp that dropped, allowing the troops to pile out.
On this day, they were greeted by German fire.
“When the ramp went down, you were going through the gates of hell,” Witmeyer said. “You didn't know how deep the water was, where the beach was and they were firing at you.”
Witmeyer escaped injury that day, but later was wounded twice. He won a battlefield commission as a captain, served as an acting military governor in Dortmund, Germany, and as commandant of two camps for displaced war victims in Czechoslovakia.
William Moore, a 91-year-old Army veteran from Metairie, La., was an Army platoon sergeant who also got his first taste of France when landing craft ramp came down.
“That opened the gates of Europe,” said Moore, who also served in the Korean War.
All three remembered the prelude to D-Day: A lot of waiting in Great Britain. The invasion was intended for June 5, but foul weather forced a 24-hour delay.
“It was sheer boredom to excitement in about two minutes,” Gunter said of official word that the invasion was on.
Two of the vital fighting machines of World War II – the Jeep and the Sherman tank, both fully restored – were displayed outside of the museum.
With civilian vehicle production shut down by the war, 55,000 Shermans were assembled by major automakers.
The Sherman wasn't fancy compared with its precisely engineered German counterparts – but quantity turned out to be a deciding factor over quality, said Tom Czekanski, the museum's director of collections and exhibits.
“Although it wasn't the best tank made, they could be turned out quickly,” he said.
Also on display was one of more than 500,000 Jeeps produced by Willys-Overland Motor and Ford Co. during the war. The 1942 Willys-Overland version was reconstructed at the museum, down to its fire extinguisher and jerrycan – a steel spare fuel canister carried on the back of the vehicle.
Frank Ratermann, a musuem re-enactor, said he donated $18,000 to help restore the Jeep. His father was at Pearl Harbor when Japan attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, bringing the United States into the war.
“I wanted something that people could touch and little kids could get in,” he said.