Veterans receive DFW farewell en route to Normandy

Veterans receive DFW farewell en route to Normandy

More than 60 World War II veterans embark on a “Return to Normandy” journey organized by American Airlines to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the crucial 1944 D-Day invasion on June 6.

The Fort Worth-based airline welcomed the veterans Friday at the company’s headquarters before sending them on a trip to France in what American Chief Operating Officer David Seymour said could be one of the last opportunities as this one to celebrate the milestones of the war.

Of the more than 16 million Americans who served in World War II, only about 100,000 are still alive. At the “Return to Normandy” event, the youngest attendee was 96 years old and the oldest was 107, airline representatives said.

Remembering D-Day: a hard-fought turning point during World War II

Under a turbine-shaped dome, dozens of employees and volunteers waved American flags. Others watched the spectacle from balconies, watching as World War II veterans were wheeled to the foot of a small podium.

Seymour, who is also a U.S. Army veteran, addressed the crowd.

“Today we fly around this world because of what you did 80 years ago,” he told the former soldiers, the youngest of whom was 96 and the oldest, 107, according to an airline representative.

The D-Day operation is credited with being one of the turning points of the war, which turned the tide in favor of the triumph of the Allied forces over the fascist Axis powers in 1945. The mission required the greatest use of airborne troops at that time. According to the US Army site: 73,000 American soldiers were among more than 160,000 members of the Allied forces.

On June 6, 1944, those troops stormed the beaches of Normandy in France, which at the time was occupied by members of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. More than 9,000 Allied soldiers died on the first day of the invasion, according to the US Department of Defense.

The American Airlines event marks the first time that several of the veterans in attendance will return to their wartime roots, according to airline representatives. They will spend two days in Paris before taking a bus to Normandy, along with a handful of students from various American service academies such as West Point and the Naval Academy.

Participants will visit key historical sites and attend special concerts and ceremonies while in France, depending on the event site. The trip is free of charge for veterans.

After remarks from American Airlines leadership and actor Gary Sinise, whose foundation, among others, partnered with the airline to host the event, the veterans ate at a special luncheon held at the airline’s headquarters in Fort Worth.

World War II veteran Bob Hartline stands and listens to a speaker before boarding a plane with other veterans at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport in Dallas, Friday, May 31, 2024. A group of World War II veterans World War II are being flown from Texas to France, where they will participate in the ceremonies that will mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day. (AP Photo/LM Otero)(LM Otero / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Sinise said it is important to him that younger generations not take the cost of freedom for granted.

“And unfortunately, sometimes we take that for granted,” he told reporters at American Airlines’ Skyview 8 building. “But 80 years ago we were against the wall and we only had two options: win or lose. Thank God they won.”

Later that day, the veterans were greeted by a parade at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport before their charter flight to Charles-de-Gaulle from Paris. Family members and American Airlines employees shouted loudly from the barrier at the veterans’ entrance before taking a moment of silence to pray for the veterans’ well-being and their sacrifice.

John Gleeson, one of the veterans honored at the event, flew bombing missions during the war. He remembered his youth as he waited to board the flight.

“I spent a couple of years not doing much,” said Gleeson, who flew a B-24. “Then I volunteered after learning about D-Day and all the young people who were killed.”

Also waiting to board was Connie Palacioz, a B-29 riveter at a Boeing facility in Wichita, Kansas. At the time, the company was hiring women because “all the boys” were fighting, she said.

A group of World War II veterans wait to board a plane at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport in Dallas, Texas, Friday, May 31, 2024. The veterans will be flown from Texas to France, where they will participate in ceremonies commemorating the 80th anniversary. of D-Day. (AP Photo/LM Otero)(LM Otero / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Palacioz worked for four years until the war ended and she was fired, she recalled, like many of the women symbolized by the iconic “Rosie the Riveter.”

Harold Gary, 103, said he had been a flight engineer on a Martin PBM Mariner hunting enemy submarines off the Atlantic coast.

“Before joining the squadron, I graduated at the top of my class from air gunner school,” he said. “That was quite an honor.”

Gary’s younger brother, who also served during World War II, died, he said.

American Airlines has commemorated important World War II milestones in the past. In 2021, American hosted a week-long trip to Hawaii to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. This year’s D-Day event required more than a year of planning, an airline spokesperson said.