PIEDMONT — Roland Cronan said it was hard to grab the rocks on the beaches of Normandy because they were covered in blood. He’s just thankful it wasn’t his own.

It’s been 70 years since the Piedmont native and World War II veteran participated in one of the largest operations in U.S. military history. On June 6, 1944, Cronan and hundreds of thousands of other Allied troops landed in Normandy, France, where they pushed into German-occupied territory. Cronan, just 21 at the time, said he knows he could have ended up like many of the young men who died in France. He even shared a conversation about it with a fellow soldier on the beach that day.

“He said, ‘Alabama, you can kiss seeing the States again goodbye,’” Cronan said. “We didn’t think we were going to come back home.”

Cronan did return home to Piedmont, and will live to see D-Day’s 70th anniversary Friday. At 91, Cronan is part of a small population of World War II veterans still able to share their stories. It’s a population that naturally is getting smaller every year.

“When I’m around the World War II guys, I feel like I’m around royalty,” said Ken Rollins, a Vietnam veteran from Oxford, who as member of the Alabama Board of Veterans has been able to meet and talk with many Alabamians who served in the military. “Their service is admirable.”

If it was up to Cronan, he wouldn’t have been a veteran. At 19, the Piedmont man who said he had never traveled farther than Jacksonville or Gadsden found himself drafted and off to Camp Hood, Texas, for basic training.

“I remember coming home and my mother had the letter, and I asked, ‘What’s that?’” Cronan recalled. “I knew because she was crying, it was serious.”

Two years later, he was in France, and part of history as an infantryman on the front lines in Normandy.

Cronan smiles when asked about his military service, and admits he gets nervous talking about it. Although he insists there were a lot of great memories from his military duty, what happened 70 years ago Friday is hard to put into words, even though he thinks about it every night.

“It’s hard to forget,” Cronan said. “But it’s hard to explain.”

After the war, Cronan returned to Piedmont and to his wife, Frances, whom he had married two years before being drafted. He’s been there ever since, having worked in the cotton mills before retiring. It’s exactly the life he would have lived had he not gone to war, he said. Cronan said he would have liked to have gone back to France to see the memorial to fallen soldiers, but has never had the opportunity to do so.

Now, Cronan said, he’s happy to have stuck to his hometown all his life, a community he says he loves and cherishes. In fact, even more than old war stories, Cronan likes to tell what happened to him shortly after going to the Dugger Mountain Assisted Living home in Piedmont last year. Around Christmas time, a group of high school students came to sing carols to the residents, and they were especially excited when they learned of Cronan’s military history.

“They all came in and hugged him around the neck,” said Daniel Pointer, a close friend of Cronan’s who visits him often. “And they all said, ‘Thank you for your service.’”

When Pointer recounts the story, Cronan smiles and a tear falls down his cheek.

“I’m just so blessed,” Cronan said. “That meant the world to me.”

Staff Writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.