SAINTE MERE EGLISE, France — Though sun and waves came together June 1 to create a serene picture of Sainte Mere Eglise, France, it is hard to believe it was once the site of one of the bloodiest battles in history.
On June 6, 1944 – D-Day – French, U.S. and other Allied forces stood together to fight the German occupiers of France. During the battle for the beaches of Normandy, paratroopers from American, British and Canadian forces landed along a 50-mile stretch of the Normandy coast. It was the largest single-day amphibious invasion in history, with 160,000 troops landing that day.
Each year since the liberation of Normandy, Allied forces have come to Normandy to honor those who fought that day.
Today, many of the survivors of the invasion have died or become too ill to make the long journey to join in on the week’s events, but their legacy lives on through the lives of active-duty servicemembers. One of those servicemembers, Ohio native Sgt. 1st Class Steve Selvage, said he has waited 22 years to see the Normandy beaches and participate in commemoration ceremonies.
“I have wanted to get here since my first year here in Germany. I just never had the chance,” said the 3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment Soldier. “It is a great honor.”
Although Sergeant Selvage’s role escorting distinguished visitors to the ceremony was a busy one, he had a bit of time before the ceremony to take in some of the sights and sounds of the historic area.
Almost as if it happened according to plan, when Sergeant Selvage packed his gear and Class A uniform for the week, he made room to pack a very special item: a book by Stephen Ambrose he’s had for more than 10 years.
“I brought the book, ‘D-Day,’ which I have read at least three times,” he said. “I brought it strictly for reference when seeing some of the sights.”
On one trip into Sainte Mere Eglise, Sergeant Selvage, a father of three – including one son serving in Iraq – spotted an older gentleman in a leather bomber jacket passing by and overheard a couple British Soldiers say, “There goes Ralph Manley.” He immediately set out to meet the 91-year-old D-Day veteran.
“Before we knew what was going on, he was screaming about his book and a pen,” said Sgt. 1st Class Patrick Martin, Sergeant Selvage’s friend.
Without knowing what to say, he approached Mr. Manley, book in hand, just hoping to hear the first-hand tale of a surviving D-Day veteran.
“These guys are legends. They accomplished something I could never imagine,” Sergeant Selvage said. “I think it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Sergeant Selvage could not have been more right. Many of the survivors are now in their 80s or older, and Sergeant Selvage is retiring from the Army in the next couple months.
Of the more than 154,000 Allied forces that landed on Normandy, an estimated 10,000 were killed, wounded, missing or captured, and as the years have passed, more and more of those who survived the invasion have died or are now too old to make the trip.
While telling his story, Mr. Manley noticed the D-Day book in Sergeant Selvage’s hand. He reached for the book, opened its cover and signed a small memo inside.
“It was really enough that he would just sit and share his experiences with us,” Sergeant Selvage said. “He really didn’t have to sign it for the experience to mean any more to me.”
Although Mr. Manley is not mentioned in the book by name, it didn’t lessen the experience for those who listened to his story, Sergeant Martin said.
Later, in his tent before lights-out, as Sergeant Selvage took time to rest and reflect, he looked back through the book, pointing the autograph out to other Soldiers and friends.
“You know, my household goods are being picked up for my retirement next week and my wife was a little upset about the timing of me coming here, but she didn’t say anything,” Sergeant Selvage said. “She knows how important this has been to me.
“You really just could not imagine what it was like until you stand on that beach or talk to one of the original veterans of that day in person,” he said. “These guys always will be heroes in my book.”