June 8, 2019 9:59:54 PM
Amanda Lien - [email protected]
At the 75th anniversary celebration of the D-Day landings in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, the world watched as 170 World War II veterans were honored by world leaders at a ceremony on the edge of Omaha Beach.
The world watched on television and online as President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron gave speeches of thanks and recognition to the men who invaded the beaches 75 years before. And though the world may not have known it, they were also watching the last living Mississippian of the 101st Airborne Division's legendary Band of Brothers, who was sitting onstage just behind where Trump and Macron spoke -- Private First Class Bradford Freeman of Caledonia, who served in the Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
D-Day, June 6, 1944, was the day Allied forces invaded a 50-mile stretch of German-fortified beaches in Normandy, the largest ever amphibious and airborne invasion and a critical turning point in World War II that gave the Allies a foothold in Europe.
Freeman, 95, and 16 other veterans who landed on Omaha Beach that day, traveled to France for the invasion's anniversary through the Best Defense Foundation's Battlefield Return program, which arranged a special set of events, tours and ceremonies to recognize those who fought on D-Day. Columbus attorney Steve Wallace, Freeman's traveling companion, has been documenting the 11-day trip on Facebook, sharing photographs of Freeman touring landmarks and churches in Paris, interviewing with members of the British and French media and sharing meals with other veterans.
"It's a lot of memories here," said Freeman, speaking to The Dispatch on Thursday, right after the ceremony at Omaha Beach. "I'm feeling pretty good. It's good to be here."
Freeman, never one for the spotlight and a man of few words, has nevertheless been recognized a handful of times on his trip by young servicemen, some of whom are descended from Easy Company veterans, and 39th Chief of Staff for the U.S. Army Mark Milley.
For Wallace this is a humbling experience -- one that is not likely to be repeated, he said.
"This is the fourth time Mr. B. and I have traveled (to France) for something like this, but it's special this time because it's a memorable anniversary," he said. "Some people are not likely going to be around for the 100th anniversary, so it's very special."
On past D-Day anniversaries, Freeman has traveled to both Pennsylvania and London, England, to accept citations, awards and medals in recognition of his service. Freeman previously told The Dispatch he particularly enjoyed having the chance to visit present-day London so he could see it in the light. In 1944, the first time he saw England, it was with streetlights extinguished and every window covered by thick black curtains so that Nazi forces couldn't easily identify towns and cities to bomb.
The blackout was one of many details Freeman remembered from almost three years of fighting in Europe.
From parachuting behind enemy lines on D-Day to participating in Operation Market Garden and defending Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, Easy Company was involved in some of the most dangerous battles of the war. Freeman, who was hit by shrapnel in January 1945 as the Battle of the Bulge was winding down, rejoined his outfit after four months of recovery and was at Adolf Hitler's famed retreat, known as The Eagle's Nest, when Germany surrendered in May of that year.
Despite all that, he previously told The Dispatch he doesn't remember being afraid.
"We were told from the start that we were going places where we could be killed," he said. "After a while, you just accepted that. It was true, too. I saw a lot of our people get killed. Some really bothered me. Some still do."
Wallace has found his own way to commemorate some of those deaths. Each time he visits the Normandy American Cemetery, which contains the graves of more than 9,380 U.S. soldiers, most of whom lost their lives in the D-Day landings and ensuing operations, he makes a point of finding a Mississippian soldier's grave and decorating it with flowers.
"This is a sacred place," Wallace told The Dispatch from Colleville-sur-Mer. "Every time I come here, I find one of those graves and put flowers on it. ... I found someone's name that was from Meridian once and was able to go and find their family. That was special. ... All of them -- the veterans or their families -- have stories. It's really amazing."
Dispatch news editor Isabelle Altman contributed to this report.
Editor's note: This story has been edited to remove an error concerning Wallace's military service. The error was first made by The Dispatch in 2009 and was repeated in this story.