PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY GEOFFREY C. ETNIRE
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First Lt. Robert C. Etnire, one of nearly 160,000 Allied troops who landed on Normandy beaches on D-Day.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY GEOFFREY C. ETNIRE
MagazineFrom the Editor

Why it’s important to hear stories from WWII’s last living survivors

To mark the 75th anniversary of the war’s end, people who lived through it—a dwindling population—recount their experiences and memories.

As a journalist for 40 years, I have had the unfortunate duty from time to time to own up to a mistake I made and to write a correction about a fact I got wrong—a wrong date, a misspelled name, a number not quite right. All of these errors made me feel bad; this one has saddened me as well.

As our June issue went to print, we learned that after all those years of keeping his memories at bay, my father-in-law, Robert C. Etnire, apparently remembered the timing of his arrival on Omaha Beach incorrectly. On D-Day, his unit, the 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized), was among many in the English Channel, enduring heavy bombardment while waiting to be ordered ashore. But Bob's boat did not actually reach Omaha Beach until June 8, two days after D-Day began. According to a history of the 102nd Cavalry, written by Maj. David M. Russen, “The route to the beach was strewn with still burning ships that had run upon sunken concrete pilings or mines… The beach proper was littered with demolished vehicles and American and German soldiers unrecognizably intermingled in death.” It must have been a searing experience; it is no wonder he never spoke of it until he was 85 years old.

My father-in-law told me he had been there, and indeed he was. But I got the date wrong, and it is our policy, and my determination, to always be transparent with our readers. To that end, we are putting this correction on top of my original letter to you, so you can see for yourself the difference. I apologize for this error.

In 2005, my husband, Geoffrey Etnire, and I went with his parents to visit Normandy, France. We knew that Geoff’s father, Bob, had been involved in some way in D-Day, but like many men of his generation, he never spoke of it.

When asked for details about what happened, Bob would only say that he went over “later.” No one pushed the point, and the family came to assume that “later” meant days or even weeks after the first D-Day landings on June 6, 1944.

Standing on Omaha Beach, we found out how wrong we were.

I knew I wasn’t supposed to press Bob about his experiences in World War II. But on that windswept beach, amid what remains of German bunkers and with the steep cliffs towering behind us, my reporter’s curiosity got the best of me.

“Bob, you went over ‘later,’ but when was that exactly?” I asked.

“Oh, about 11 o’clock in the morning,” he replied.

“On D-Day itself?”

“Yes.”

And that is how we found out—incredibly, when he was 85 years old—where Robert C. Etnire was on that fateful day. A first lieutenant in the 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized), he was among nearly 160,000 American, British, and Canadian troops who took part in the largest seaborne invasion in history. He landed on Omaha Beach.

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Bob and Joan Etnire in 2012. In London during World War II, Bob attended a dance sponsored by the U.S. Army and met a charming British woman, Joan Walmsley. After they married in 1944, Bob brought his war bride back to the United States.

Thinking about it now, I can understand why this modest American patriot didn’t want to talk about D-Day. By the time he arrived at 11 a.m., he must have stepped over the bodies of any number of the hundreds of American soldiers killed in the earlier waves of the Omaha assault. Perhaps he thought that, by comparison, he didn’t have much to add.

Despite his silence, he never stopped thinking about that day.

After Bob died in 2015, at the age of 96, we found a yellowed piece of paper in plain sight in the top drawer of his desk. No one in the family could recall seeing it before. It was an official, typewritten list, dated May 31, 1945, of the officers and enlisted men in his squadron who “participated in the assault which secured the initial Normandy Beachhead, and are awarded the Bronze Service Arrowhead.”

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The May 1945 list of Bob’s squadron members at Normandy Beach, which he annotated and kept until the end of his life.

On the list of officers, Bob had drawn a circle around the names of the men who were killed that day; he put an X by the names of those who were wounded. Of the 29 officers listed, 12 were killed, according to Bob’s circles. Six were wounded. His own name is highlighted in pink. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of his casualty count, but it is abundantly clear that the war never left him.

So it is for the men and women we talked to for “The Last Voices of World War II,” this issue’s cover story commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of the war. The participants who survived that conflict are now mostly in their 90s, and it’s important to hear from them—a first-person telling that soon will pass to the ages. (One of the men we photographed for this story died before we went to press.)

There is great poignancy that this anniversary is occurring while we are in the midst of a global pandemic. COVID-19 already has changed the day-to-day lives of people all over the world; its repercussions will be felt for many years to come. The men and women we talked to for this issue—whether American, Russian, German, British, or Japanese—all had something important to say about getting through, and sometimes, rising above, difficult times that never quite leave them.

A Russian man vividly remembers the day “my kindergarten became my first orphanage.” A captured British paratrooper was awaiting the firing squad in a Dresden prison when Allied planes firebombed the city and he escaped.

A Japanese veteran recalls how he and other young men “were sent to die for the emperor and imperial nation.” But at the moment of death, he says, “I never heard anyone calling the emperor”—only the names of loved ones.

A German woman we interviewed described her shame at her Nazi father’s role in the war. Today she visits schools in Hamburg to warn of a peril she sees rising again. “People haven’t learned,” she says. “It’s horrifying that neo-Nazis are back, and not just in Germany.”

Firsthand accounts of people who lived through World War II matter, now more than ever. After three-quarters of a century, at a time when some would deny that certain wartime events even took place, these survivors have important lessons to teach us—about the past, yes, but also about how to survive our present-day scourge.

Sharing these stories gives all of us one more chance to thank the men and women of the Greatest Generation for their service and sacrifice. And it gives us another chance to be inspired by their resilience.

Thank you for reading National Geographic.

This story appears in the June 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.