The Final Crossing – The 79th WWII D-Day Commemoration, 26 May – 10 June 2023

By Grady T. Birdsong, Vietnam Veteran ~

I remember those stories as a child. My mind would jump to rigid attention when tales of yesteryear and war became a subject of conversation. Listening to Veterans of Foreign Wars in my mind meant learning about my future. Those men who fought the nation’s past wars represented manhood, even above the many movie personalities appearing in Saturday afternoon matinees. After all, those old guys were up there in age, they must have been in their thirties at the time. I placed veterans on the highest of pedestals.

I felt a special privilege to eavesdrop on their sometimes startling conversations. I could listen to them all day long. I felt extremely proud that some of them were related and thankful they would allow me, a little guy to hear what they had experienced. Serving my country as they had in the faraway future is what I dreamed of in the 1950s. 

Born in 1945, with America’s prestige and influence at its zenith in the 1970s-80s my family counted its many blessings thanks to these heroes of the Greatest Generation. America had fought and won a World War on two continents surrounded by two major oceans. We eventually reduced our enemies to rubble setting the stage for creating massive prosperity for almost half a century. And then we engaged in rebuilding our enemies, spreading foreign aid throughout the globe, building skyscrapers, and putting a man on the moon. It was the right thing to do. 

Rewind to 7 December 1941, as German armies toiled in the snow moving eastward with designs on Russia, Japan suddenly thrust America into the world conflict. Four days later Hitler declared war on the United States. America was stunned.

Looking back, I am astonished by one of the largest citizen Armies in history ever to assemble. That history became the remarkable story of how our nation built an Army from scratch. The U.S. Army before WWII in the 1930s comprised fewer than 200,000 partially trained and equipped troops with officers. 

Fast-forward to the end of 1941, the country’s newly refurbished military had over a million and a half soldiers in uniform led by a newly refurbished officer corps. And amazingly, among the most important lessons learned by military leadership early on was how to move and supply a large body of soldiers. And we learned even more as time progressed. 

It happened that President Franklin D. Roosevelt through General George C. Marshall Jr and his Generals, orchestrated with our Allies one of the largest sea and airborne invasions of a landmass yet known to civilization in 1944 – known as Operation Overlord beginning with “D-Day.” 

Allied units participated in what would eventually become an overwhelming success. The obstacles were gargantuan, for both Allied Forces and the German armies. The German Army, a disciplined and experienced force had finally been stretched to its limit. Allied boots on the ground moved forward supplied by logistics second to none, finally pushing the Germans into the interior of France and Belgium. The stories told in history books, thousands of them, are mostly about pure grit, courage, determination, and luck. My heroes of yesteryear performed the impossible and freed the European and Asian peoples from the ravages of pure evil but not without challenge. Their stories will live for eternity. 

Fast forward to May-June of 2023. The British shipping and cruise line Cunard® based in Southampton, England teamed with Denver based, The Greatest Generation’s Foundation (TGGF), and Sea of Goodwill (SOG) (and popular demand) to provide in two ways, “Eyewitness History” for passengers, and the “The Final Crossing” for some of those heroes of WWII. This cruise became a memorable voyage for both QM2 passengers and TGGF’s Veteran Community. 

As a last testament, of the eleven deceased WWII veterans associated with TGGF and “The Final Crossing” some requested that their remains and others a small portion of their gravesite soil be returned to Normandy, France, in an Urn and secured on TGGF property close to Utah and Omaha beaches to honor their memories and fulfill TGGF’s pledge, “Never Will They Be Forgotten.”

Photo courtesy of John Riedy & TGGF aboard the Queen May 2 – The Final Crossing

Photo courtesy of John Riedy & TGGF aboard the Queen May 2 – The Final Crossing

With five participating WWII Veterans, eight Vietnam Veterans, a support staff, and TGGF Moderator, Jeremy Hubbard (Fox 31, Denver), the Greatest Generations Foundation engaged Cunard’s cruise audience with “The Final Crossing” theme in the Royal Court Theatre of the Queen Mary 2 daily while sharing with them eyewitness history talks. This cruise from New York City to Southampton, UK honored these deceased TGGF WWII Veterans’ sacrifice in the Urn daily at each Eyewitness to History session.

The deceased men and woman honored on this final crossing: Harold Angle, U.S. Army – Northern France; Dennis Trudeau, Canadian 6th Airborne – POW; Floyd Wigfield – Normandy; Eugene C. Deibler, U.S. Army – 101st Airborne; Jack Holder, U.S. Navy – Pearl Harbor; Clarence McCartney, U.S. Army – Normandy; Bernice Haydu, U.S. Women Airforce Pilot; Loyd Falk, U.S. Army – Supreme Allied Command; Malbert Middlesworth, U.S. Navy – Pearl Harbor; J. C. Alston, U.S. Navy – Pearl Harbor; Clayton Nattier, U.S. Army Air Corps – POW. 

TGGF President/CEO Timothy Davis and his staff have over time crafted a series of these combat veteran programs (a different theme on each cruise) in exclusive partnership with Cunard on certain scheduled sailings. Timothy is also engaged in other combat veteran tours of battlefields and commemoration ceremonies all over the world.

The Participating Veterans and Staff

Eyewitness to History: Stories of Service and Remembrance – Moderator Jeremy Hubbard; Photographer Extraordinaire, John Riedy; Veteran’s Liaison, Pamela Jill Hackett; and TGGF CEO/President Tim Davis:

27 May: America’s Great Depression, James Blane (Age 98) and Harold Radish (Age 98) spoke to the hard times they endured growing up in the Depression and of their entry into the military segueing to their time in combat. Jim fought on Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima with the 4th Marine Division. Harold went ashore on Normandy with the 90th Infantry Division and later became a POW in Stalag 12A in Limburg, Germany.

28 May: D-Day – Normandy, “The Longest Day,” Steven Melnikoff, U.S. Army (Age 103) and Donald Cobb, U.S. Navy (Age 98) survived the war in Europe and the Mediterranean to tell of their time in harm’s way. Steven served with the 175th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division landing on Omaha Beach in the first waves. Donald served as a Radioman aboard a destroyer in the Africa & Italy campaigns and then his ship provided direct Naval fire support preparatory for the troops going ashore on Omaha and Utah beaches on D-Day. 

29 May: WWII Memorial Day Remembrance, Mabel-Rose Jaworski, U.S. Army (Age 98) served in the US Army Supreme HQs with Commanding General “Ike” Eisenhower as a switchboard operator in Versailles. Elaine Niggemann, U.S. Army, and Grace Moore, U.S. Army (both Age 75) served in the Army Nurse Corps among the ten thousand women who served in intensive care and orthopedic-amputation units during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. These women were considered to be “angels” by all Vietnam Combat Veterans. 

29 May:  Afternoon Activity: Battle of the Atlantic: 80th Anniversary Commemoration aboard RMS Queen Mary 2 on 29 May 2023 @ 1700 hours Position 47 degrees 25N, 040 degrees 05W (Mid-Atlantic). The QM2 Captain Aseem A. Hashmi MNM provided opening remarks and spoke about the long-lasting Battle of the Atlantic (1939-1945) and its many sacrifices. James Hackett, Vietnam Veteran of TGGF staff read/dedicated a poem by Eleanor Neal (wife of a US Merchant Marine Officer 1942) “Men of the Merchant Marine.” Our flag flown in concert with the UK’s Union Jack during the wreath drop commemorated the brave Merchant Marine Men for their service during WWII. 

The Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous military campaign in WWII lasted from 1939 to the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945. German submarine and surface forces hunted U. S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy, and Allied Merchant convoys during this timeline. The overall cost of victory was sobering: an estimated 3,500 Allied merchant ships (14.5 million gross tons) and 175 Allied warships were sunk, and 72,200 plus Allied naval and merchant seamen lost their lives.

Photo courtesy John Riedy & TGGF – the captured moment of Commemoration for the “Battle of the Atlantic” Wreath Drop @ Lat/Long: 47° 25N, 040° 05W

Photo courtesy John Riedy & TGGF – the captured moment of Commemoration for the
“Battle of the Atlantic” Wreath Drop @ Lat/Long: 47° 25N, 040° 05W

30 May: Battle of Ia Drang/Seal Team One in Vietnam: LZ Albany, James Lawrence, U.S. Army (Age 81) and Max Morgan, U.S. Navy Seal/later a U.S. Marine Corps Officer (Age 75) described their tumultuous times on the ground in the Republic of Vietnam in the 1960s. Jim served as a Platoon Commander and later XO of Delta Company in the 2nd of the 7th Cavalry during the Battle of the Ia Drang (the first major battle of the Vietnam War). Max Morgan began his career as a member of Navy Seal Team One engaged in special warfare, demolition, and clandestine ops during his first tour in Vietnam. Max later transitioned to become a United States Marine Corps officer.

31 May: Battle of Hue City: Fire in the Streets: Bill Purcell, USMC 1st Bn, 1st Marines, Alpha Company (Age 75) walked into a heavily reinforced NVA “Buzz Saw” in the southern part of Hue City on February 1, 1968. As an M-60 Machine Gunner, he lasted 13 days in house-to-house, room-to-room fighting before being grievously wounded and evacuated. Grady Birdsong, USMC 1st Bn, 27th Marines (Age 78) first engaged an entrenched NVA enemy in the rice-rich canal area east of Hue City in the cleanup phase of the Hue City battle. Throughout his six-month tour and numerous combat engagements with 1/27, 112 Marines were KIA and the awarding of nearly seven hundred Purple Hearts resulted before he transferred to the 2nd Bn, 9th Marines. He later transferred to the 3rd MarDiv HQ Battalion, Communications Company on the DMZ for the remainder of his continuous 21 months in-country. 

1 June: Grand Finale: Eyewitness to History: All veterans gathered on stage for a Q&A session with the QM2 audience followed by a moving tribute led by James Lawrence commemorating the anniversary of the Normandy D-Day and the honoring of the eleven WWII Veteran “Final Crossing.” 

 2 June: QM2 arrives in Southampton, UK on the southern shore of England to de-embark. Southampton is now a major port for cruise ships. It happened to be the departure port for the RMS Titanic in 1912. The Mayflower also departed from this same port in 1620 destined for the new world and was forced by an Atlantic winter storm to return to Plymouth, England for reprovisioning before venturing across the Atlantic, finally arriving near the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. 

Some of the TGGF WWII and Vietnam Veterans spent the night in Portsmouth (20 miles east of Southampton) after visiting the D-Day Museum in the afternoon. This unique museum holds an astonishing and varied collection of objects, from a tiny button compass to an original LCVP landing craft. Others of the TGGF team flew back to the United States from Heathrow Airport. “The Final Crossing” destination for remaining TGGF Ambassadors, Normandy. 

Note: TGGF Ambassador, Elaine Niggemann, U.S. Army Nurse, Vietnam, and now a retired MD provided the following eyewitness accounting of TGGF’s mission during the 79th WWII, D-Day Commemoration in Normandy, France. 

TGGF Veterans @ Chateau de Bernaville with the Generals - courtesy of Timothy Davis

TGGF Veterans @ Chateau de Bernaville with the Generals – courtesy of Timothy Davis

3 June: The group rose for an 0500 departure from the Portsmouth hotel to the Brittany Ferries and across the English Channel to Cherbourg, France. The next stop was for lunch at German General Erwin Rommel’s Headquarters in 1944 at Chateau de Bernaville now slated to become the nonprofit Normandy Institute (campus conference and education center & retreat). 

The group was met by General Michael E. Langley, Commander of U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM), and General Andrew P. Poppas, Commanding General, of U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM), and their staff. They were there to participate in the 79th Anniversary Celebration of D-Day 6 June 2023. After lunch, the TGGF group traveled to Sainte-Marie-du-Mont to TGGF property, the “House of Liberation.”

4 June: In the morning, the group took in Brecourt Manor Memorial honoring the men of the 101st Airborne Division 506th PIR, “Easy Company,” located outside the small village of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont (population 707). The mini-series, Band of Brothers made this area famous. Next was traveling to Utah Beach. There was much to see with all the observation bunkers and gun emplacements along the beach high ground which made up the German’s defense called the  “Atlantic Wall” stretching from the Spain-France border to Norway. 

5 June: The entire TGGF team participated in a memorial parade through the main thoroughfare of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont the first community to be liberated on D-Day. A restored U.S. Army jeep and bagpiper led the parade, followed by town civic leaders, Willie Senoville, Jeremy Dubois, and the village Mayor, Charles de Vallavieille, along with WWII and Vietnam Veterans representing TGGF. The townspeople applauded and saluted as the procession moved through the village to a memorial site where WWII veterans, Steve Melnikoff and Donald Cobb placed a floral wreath. Jeremy Dubois provided a moving commentary before the placement of the wreath. After the ceremony photo sessions and kind words were exchanged between TGGF veterans and the townspeople – an emotional morning with tears, many handshakes, hugs, and feelings of gratitude. After 79 years the people of France remain grateful to the Allies for being liberated in WWII. Bringing the day to a perfect end, at dinner that evening at a lovely local restaurant, the TGGF Vets while being asked for their autographs received a handwritten note on a paper tablecloth from a diner, with the following, “Freedom is the greatest gift one man can bestow on another. God Bless our Veterans & American Friends from America.” ~ David. 

6 June: The group drove to Omaha Beach. Narratives by the WWII Vets, Melnikoff, Radish, Cobb, and historian/CEO of TGGF, Timothy Davis gave everyone a good idea of the topography, tactics, and history employed in taking that hallowed ground/beach of over 10 km (six miles). Its quarter-moon curve with bluffs and draws made it the German’s most defensible beach on D-Day and least expected to assault. 

A visit to the Omaha Beach memorial and Normandy American Cemetery in the beach area was next on the day’s agenda. The area overlooking the ocean still displays many trenches, foxholes, and concrete bunkers used by the Germans. The cemetery with 9,386 American Soldiers buried there remains as a monument to the sacrifice, and commitment of the United States in WWII and is still the most visited American Battle Monuments Commission Cemetery, receiving close to one million visitors each year. Visiting the Cemetery became very personal when reading the names, dates of birth and death, home state, and units of those that gave their lives for liberty. It was another emotional moment when The Star Spangled Banner was played. The TGGF veterans stopped in place saluting our flag during the anthem all thinking of our freedoms and the sacrifices of our soldiers and their loved ones.

7 June: A walking tour through a dense hedgerow “tunnel” to one of Steven Melnikoff’s battle areas and visiting the exact spot where he explained what happened and how he took a German round to his neck made it all very understandable and mentally visible. Steven is 103 years old and still quite capable of hiking and visiting these areas of his youth with Company C, 175th Regiment, 29th Infantry Division. 

The group then visited the Marigny German War Cemetery later in the day which contains more than 11,000 German military personnel and is maintained by the German War Graves Commission. Many of these war-dead belonged to the Panzer-Lehr Division (aka the 130th Panzer Division), the only Wehrmacht Panzer Division to be fully equipped with tanks and half-tracks for transporting its accompanying infantry. 

The remaining time was spent relaxing and preparing for the trip home to the United States. 

Thus, this time of reflection and commemoration of “The Final Crossing” ended. As The Greatest Generations Foundation proclaims of our WWII heroes, “Never Will They be Forgotten.” 

“You are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you… I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in Battle.” ~ General Dwight D. Eisenhower

“I shall never forget those stories I heard as a small boy or them…” ~  G. Birdsong

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