ST. CLAIR COUNTY -- While people will thank veterans across the country in honor of Veterans Day on Monday, a group of St. Clair County residents traveled across the Atlantic to learn about the sacrifices veterans have made to protect our freedoms and nation.
“It was a very special thing for us to do,” said Deanna Lawley, of Pell City, who has organized trips that have taken local residents to various destinations around the world for more than a decade.
The trips have raised thousands of dollars for local charities and the Pell City Schools Education Foundation. The traveling group recently awarded the Pell City Schools Education Foundation $10,000 and is expected to present another $12,000 next year from proceeds from its most recent trips.
But the journey to Normandy was different; it was special in many ways to so many in the traveling group.
Lawley said the trip could not help but rekindle the light of the American spirit.
“This trip redeemed your patriotism,” Lawley said. “It redeemed your faith in flag and country.”
The group traveled to Normandy, where Allied Forces confronted the Germans in the liberation of France during World War II. The group visited the battlefields, memorials and museums that told the stories of the brave young soldiers who fought, and the thousands who died, on the battlefields of Omaha, Utah and Gold beaches during World War II.
“A visit to the American Cemetery and a D-Day Commemoration was a wonderful culmination of our trip,” said Jill Abbott, of Pell City. “White crosses as far as the eye could see canvassed the beautiful grassy, tree lined, area by the ocean. It was a strong visual reminder of the enormous sacrifice spent that day and beyond to ensure freedom for so many.”
All the local travelers walked away with different stories, emotions and thoughts.
“The American Cemetery is an amazing place that all Americans should visit during their lifetime,” said Tom Verellen, of Pell City.
He said while most of those in the group attended a wreath ceremony, he wandered around on his own.
“I spent considerable time at ‘The Wall of the Lost,’” Verellen said.
Etched in the wall were 1,000-2,000 names of American soldiers presumed killed during the campaign to end Germany’s deadly grip on Europe, but their bodies were never recovered.
“It listed their names, rank and home state,” Verellen said. “I thought that the least I could do to honor their sacrifice was to read each name. As a parent, I could not imagine what the families went through not knowing where their sons, brothers, husbands ended up.”
He said the simplicity and elegance of the cemetery was “awe inspiring.”
Betty Turner remembers when her family received notice that her brother, Pvt. Joseph Howard Vines, was missing in action.
“I was old enough to remember it,” Turner said.
She said the “missing in action” letter was followed by the notification of his death. He died Feb. 2, 1945, after the U.S. invasion of France.
Turner said her brother, only months before, graduated from Pell City High School. He went off to war at the age of 19.
Turner said she could not make the trip.
“I’m too old,” she said.
The traveling group went to Normandy two separate times. One group traveled to Normandy in May and early June, while a second group recently returned from its trip in October.
The group that visited in October laid a wreath purchased in France to honor Pvt. Joseph Howard Vines, the Pell City youth who lost his life at a tender age. Vines was buried in the American Cemetery at Normandy until his body was returned to the U.S. three years later.
Lawley said Mary Eisenhower, the granddaughter of former President Dwight Eisenhower, attended the memorial with their group.
“None of us will ever forget the sound of ‘Taps’ over the rows and rows of pure white crosses,” Lawley said. “Our hearts filled with such pride and gratitude.”
After the memorial, members of their group talked about their friends and family who are now deceased but who served in the various military branches during World War II, Lawley said.
Jerry Moore, who traveled to Normandy with the first group in May, along with his wife, Sherry, said he would never forget the experience.
Moore said he did not have any connections with anyone in the battles where men laid down their lives for freedom in Normandy, but the experience was unforgettable.
“It’s hard to tell you how wonderful, emotional and educational this was to me,” said the Vietnam veteran.
He said their group attended the Memorial Day service, which was held Sunday, the day before Americans hold Memorial Day services here in the U.S.
He said the special service had bands, dignitaries, speakers and a wreath laying ceremony. The event featured two soldiers who survived the D-Day invasion, a Holocaust survivor dressed in authentic prison garb and a military flyover.
Mike Jones, who grew up in Springville but now lives in Pell City, said his father fought and survived the D-Day invasion in Normandy.
He said his father, Norman Jones, of Springville, never talked about his combat experiences during the massive military assault on Utah Beach during the D-Day invasion, June 6, 1944.
Jones said his father never returned to Normandy and never spoke of his experiences of war.
It wasn’t until his dad’s close Army pal and friend, Leo Collins, wrote a book and devoted a chapter to their experience fighting the Germans, and the D-Day invasion, that he learned of his father’s war exploits.
The words Collins wrote inspired Jones to make the 75th anniversary of D-Day Tour with his wife, Sandra, and to travel the same path his father and Collins traveled so many years before, but back then, the two Army buddies were clearing minefields as they made their way through France.
Jones said he went to French towns where his father had taken pictures of himself -- towns Allied Forces had liberated from German control -- and had pictures taken of himself at the same exact spots.
Allied casualties are documented at least 10,000, with 4,414 confirmed deaths during the June 6, 1944, Normandy landing operations, the largest seaborne invasion in history, according to historians.
This horrific battle with so many casualties, a battle that helped shaped the outcome of World War II, weighed heavily on the mind of Jones and others as they attended the Memorial Day service in Normandy.
“A grown man is not supposed to cry,” Jones said. “But it was very emotional for me.”