Preserving History

Local World War II veterans return to Normandy nearly 70 years later.

CBS 11 anchor, Doug Dunbar, interviews Robert Bearden.
Robert Blatnik (left) and Robert Bearden salute the American flag at the Normandy Cemetery on D-Day 69 years after they first landed to fight the German forces.
Doug Dunbar and his team filming Mr. Blatnik's reaction to returning to his landing zone at Omaha Beach.
Joseph Turecky was 20 years old when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps.

Eight North Texas D-Day veterans, who had not returned to Normandy or met until this trip, reached back into their dark past grasping for answers. Why did I live? Why did he die? What is my purpose? Did I do a good job with the life that was saved? Most found the answers they were looking for, thanks to the nonprofit Daughters of WWII who raised $75,000 to send them to Normandy to say thank you, we have not forgotten you.

CBS 11 news anchor Doug Dunbar recorded these captivating stories to ensure they aren’t forgotten by future generations. These men allowed him into their past because his compassion was sincere, and what he found were emotions hidden deep inside of them for nearly 70 years.

For a link to Doug's Series on his trip to Normandy CLICK HERE.

Sgt. Major Robert Blatnik had the chance to kneel on the exact patch of sand where he landed on Omaha beach, 6:30 a.m., June 6, 1944. He recalled the sound of small firearms constantly going off, “Da da da da, da da da da, da da.” Ormand Knowles was one of more than half-a-million African Americans who fought to liberate France. He pointed to a rock to show Dunbar where he lost a “buddy.” Robert Bearden returned to the farmhouse where he engaged Germans in battle. Melbert Hillert of the Army Signal Corps brought his grandson to share his memories. Joseph Turecky climbed back into a C-47 similar to the one he flew on D-Day, dropping paratroopers over the Normandy fields. He remembers airplanes going down and flames all around. He told Dunbar’s team that bullets came so close he could hear them whizzing by his plane, “kanak kanak kanak.”

And then there was Peggy Harris, a WWII-veteran widow who tagged along. Peggy and Billie Harris started writing each other at Billie’s father’s request before they even met. Peggy worked with Billie’s father in the Air Force. She initially declined, saying good girls don’t write men they don’t know. Soon she received letters from Billie from overseas. They met, fell in love and married. He would go to war. He was shot down and did not return, but her love never dimmed. 
“We had enough love for a lifetime,” Peggy said.

Peggy got three letters from the government with different tales of where her husband might be. For more than 60 years, she didn’t know what happened until someone finally made the connection that Billie was her deceased husband. She learned the small village in France where his plane crashed commemorated him annually and even named a street after him. She flew to France one summer to attend the festival. She also met the now 94-year-old French resistance soldier, Guy Surlot, who found Billie Harris just after his plane crashed. She has been back every year since. Peggy has never remarried.

“He was married to me all his life, and I shall have been married to him all of my life,” Peggy said. “And it is a very willing choice.”

“This was the trip of a lifetime, the highlight of my career. It was cathartic [and] emotional. They put to rest 69 years of some horrible memories,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar’s father died in the Vietnam War when Dunbar was 5 years old, so military sacrifice hit close to home. Dunbar barely knew his father but always wished he had more time with him. His father’s service and death inspires him every day.

“Even though my dad fought and died in the Vietnam War, these WWII heroes shared some of what I believe could have easily been my dad’s stories. The stories this son never got to hear. The stories I would give anything to hear from my dad himself. Through them, I heard my father’s voice,” Dunbar said.

Dunbar and everyone on this trip hoped this weeklong CBS series inspired family members of veterans to ask questions and preserve their stories. “Sooner than later it will all come only from books. This trip really emphasized the fact that there is no greater story than the story that comes from the mouth and from the heart of someone who was there,” Dunbar said.

Daughters of WWII co-founder and president Laura Leppert, wife of former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, started the Wings of Freedom program to freeze these stories and educate younger generations. She contacted Dunbar hoping that broadcasting these moments might remind people that freedom isn’t free.

“I wanted a group that honored the WWII veterans. We didn’t talk about the war when they got out. They came home and went about their life. But they were true heroes on the battlefield,” Leppert said. “If we lost that war, our lives would be totally different.”

As Dunbar said on air, these men helped change the course of the world. While on the trip, the group found the French had a deep appreciation for history and the war heroes that saved their lives. When the men arrived, they became celebrities. After all, these were the heroes French people, young and old, have read about. Here they were standing in front of them. Often French citizens had tears in their eyes telling the men they saved their lives, Dunbar said.

“These men are living history. They were there in the battle that changed the course of our world. I don’t know that there will ever be a generation again who can say that,” Dunbar said.

Janie Simon, DWWII liaison, also attended the Normandy trip and would agree. She said their preparation for saving the world started with the Great Depression. This is why she thinks there will never be another generation like them.

“They already knew hardship, sacrifice and endurance long before they were called to serve in the armed forces,” she said. “They were the best generation to do what needed to be done [and] ensure freedom for generations to come…they are the shoulders we all stand on.”

Chaperones and medical staff tagged along to make sure these men, some well into their 90s, were well looked after. John Hiser, the coordinator of the respiratory care program at Tarrant County College’s Trinity River campus in downtown Fort Worth, jumped at the chance to help when he found out about Wings of Freedom.
“We are taking them back to their battlefields…going back to that spot was an emotional thing for them,” Hiser said. “It helped them face their feelings.”

Hiser’s father and uncles all fought in WWII. He is a Vietnam veteran but has not returned to Vietnam. However, he never ceases to help veterans get the proper gratitude they deserve.

“All of my trips with veterans have changed me. There is a reason I keep doing it. It is important to me to help and honor them. We are free today because of what they did. They saved the world,” Hiser said.

The most memorable moment on the trip for Hiser, Dunbar and Simon was when 93-year-old Blatnik pushed his walker full speed across the rocky beaches of Normandy to the gritty spot where he and more than 900 of his men landed on Omaha Beach. He fell to his knees and went into what Simon called a trance-like state, saying the names of men who died on that beach right next to him. Tears were streaming down Blatnik’s face and then Dunbar’s.

“He was asking God why he was saved and why thousands of guys on that same day died. He was seeking answers and wondering if at 93 he has done a good job with his life…I had the honor to listen to his story of survival and his raw pain of losing so many of his friends and fellow fighters. I’ll never forget his hands shaking as he described the sound of the gunfire or his apology to the men he lost on that very stretch of sand,” Dunbar said.

Dunbar was the man for the job. He has a lengthy history and penchant for war stories. Working tirelessly in his east Fort Worth office, he is a vessel for heroic tales of courage and selflessness.

“So many of them feel like no one cares. Sometimes even their own family members, and that breaks my heart. I think that is part of what drives my passion for sharing their stories. They are important pieces to our history. And each of them has a story to tell; we just have to listen,” Dunbar said.