Updated:MEMPHIS, Tenn. (FOX13) - - 70 years ago, 63,000 American young men were preparing for a date with destiny. The mission in front of them, "Operation Overlord", or the D-Day invasion as we know it, was terrifying to think about before the crossing of the English Channel. But the reality of the landing at Normandy was more horrific then even the most vivid imagination could conceive, let alone that of a 19- year-old.
The numbers are dwindling quickly. There are fewer than one million World War II veterans still alive. Only a handful of who landed on the beach in northern France on June 6, 1944. One of those is former Army PFC Vincent Rowell of Memphis. On this 70th anniversary of the longest day, he's storming the beach again, this time, with a sense of peace instead of sheer terror.
"Nobody wants to die,â said Rowell in the living room of his East Memphis home. "I wasn't a brave man when I hit that beach. I was scared. When I was going through the water, up to about here (chest high) with my riffle up over my head to keep it dry, and pushing bodies aside. The blue channel was as red as that shirt you have on."
70 years after he fired his first shot as a member of the US Armyâs 29th Infantry Division, Vincent still lives with the nightmares. He smells the gun powder. He hears the screams and sees the faces of the men - the friends he left behind. Rowell said, "I could hear men crying, young boys my age, mamma. I never ever heard one cry for daddy. It was always mamma. Come help me mamma. And I had to live with that for all of my life. It's just devastatingâ¦ war is. You lose so many of your good buddies; you've known all the time you've been in the service that you've met. That hurts. It's hard to get over with."
But part of the healing is happening right now. Vincent and 13 other D-Day veterans from around the Mid-South left Monday for Normandy for the 70th commemorative of the invasion. But instead of freeing the French from the Naziâs, this time he's freeing his heart of the pain. "My children used to ask me, dad why don't' you talk about the war? I used to tell them, I can't. I didn't want them to see me cry."
For the decades in between the war, and his first trip back in 2009, Vincent rarely spoke of the battles or any other part of his time in the Army. But something happened when he went back for the first time. Suddenly, he felt as if it was his duty to talk about it. So others could learn. And never forget. "I think going back to France has really helped me a lot. Seeing the people. The French people are so good today. They bring busloads of children from the schools. I'm talking about little bitty tots and on up. They want to hear our stories because their grandparents have told them what the Americans did for them, coming all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to do for them and save them."
Now he tells the stories to school children here. He speaks to church groups and to anyone who wants to learn. Vincent found that while talking it out didn't erase the scars, telling the stories did help him cope like never before.
"This is going to be the last invasion for the American soldiers," says Diane Hight who started the Forever Young Senior Veteran Wish program in 2006. She's raised the money to help these brave warriors visit places like Washington D.C. and battlefields in Europe and Normandy. She's seen firsthand how these trips give them closure of mental wounds carried for a life time. Hight says, "When they come home, they know that they did something fabulous. They did something that counted and was worthwhile. They gave the world freedom and they realize it. Wow! I did make a difference."
Vincent, who was only 19 when he hit the beach at Normandy, just turned 90 years old. "There won't be any more anniversaries after this one. To say that I made the last anniversaryâ¦ to go back,â Rowell said. Thanks to veterans like him who are willing to open up and tell the stories, the hope is their memory will never die. Call him a keeper of the flame. But he'd rather you not call him a hero. Even though the medals on the wall say otherwise, Vincent doesnât like to be called a hero. "I just don't feel like I am. God gave me my life. I got to come back home."