D-Day veterans return to Normandy 70 years later

Curtis Outen, 92, remembers standing on a ship in the dead of night on D-Day – June 6, 1944 – and hearing Gen. Dwight Eisenhower deliver a somber recorded message.

“He told us we were well trained but that we had a hard test in front of us,” Outen said Sunday. “He said some of us would make it, and some of us wouldn’t.”

Outen’s unit landed on the French coast and “within five minutes,” a German artillery burst sent shrapnel flying through the air, tearing off Outen’s pants and the ration of food in his pocket. Soon he was climbing over barbed wire, trying to reach the enemy. He still has a scar on his right forearm from that.

“We were scared but we just kept on going. We had a job to do,” the Matthews resident said.

Outen and 21 other World War II veterans from the Carolinas left Charlotte, headed back to Normandy, on Sunday. They’ll arrive in time for the 70th anniversary, on Friday, of the Allied invasion. For at least half the group, it will be their first time back since the war.

The trip is the third organized by Jeanne Palyok of Columbia, the widow of a World War II veteran, who also organized a 40th and 50th anniversary trip for veterans.

Palyok said the 70th anniversary is particularly important because this will likely be the last decadal anniversary that many of the veterans will see.

“These guys are going to be over 100 years old” by the 80th anniversary, Palyok said. “I thought it was important to do this now.”

Tears still well in Floyd Hailey Jr.’s eyes when he thinks about his first trip to Normandy in 1944.

At the time, the Rock Hill resident was just 16 years old but in the Navy. Hailey’s mother signed the papers so he could serve early.

Assigned to a tank-landing ship, Hailey made six trips between France and England to ferry supplies to France and wounded men back to England. On that first day, he said, he helped send 200 injured soldiers back to England for treatment.

“I think the fighting man is the real hero, because he’s the one who took the brunt of the war,” Hailey said.

Michael Taylor, Outen’s second cousin who is making the trip as his guardian, said he’s grateful for the opportunity that Palyok has given to the veterans.

“The last time they were there, they were under heavy attack by the Germans,” Taylor said. “To be able to walk that beach without fire and to see it for the first time again, it’s going to be an incredible experience.”

Public and private donations, including a $50,000 donation from utility company SCE&G, paid for the veterans’ trips, which cost about $5,000 each.

The trip will include walking on Omaha Beach, an excursion to Paris, and dinner with the mayor of Sainte-Mère-Église, one of the first towns liberated in the invasion. The veterans will also visit the South Carolina portion of the American cemetery at Normandy to lay a wreath there. They’ll return home on June 10.

“I speak English today thanks to these guys,” Taylor said. “Otherwise I’d probably be speaking German. They made a tremendous sacrifice for us and for our freedom, and all at the age of 20 or 21.”