BEDFORD — Woodrow Casey Jr. was among the first wave of soldiers to land on Utah Beach during the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion.
When asked what he remembers of that morning 75 years ago, the 96-year-old resident of Grifton, N.C., summarized his wartime recollections in one word.
“I can remember everything. There are some things you can’t forget, even at my age.”
Casey was one of more than 100 World War II veterans — about 35 of whom took part in the D-Day invasion — on hand for Thursday’s observance of the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford.
Thursday’s ceremony, which drew 11,000 to 12,000 people to Bedford, marked the largest crowd at the memorial since its dedication in 2001, which was attended by President George W. Bush.
Jean Fontenelle of Lion-sur-Mer, France, was amazed at Thursday’s crowd because it was about six times larger than the population of his hometown, which was the first to be liberated by Allied forces after the D-Day invasion.
“All of these people here to celebrate freedom,” Fontenelle said. “My freedom is what these men fought for that day.”
Vice President Mike Pence was the keynote speaker during Thursday’s event in Bedford while President Donald Trump attended D-Day ceremonies in Normandy on Thursday.
Pence told the crowd in Bedford that each soldier who stepped onto the beaches of Normandy during the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, had “an invitation to hell.”
“It is my great honor to be here today in the presence of men that fought on D-Day 75 years ago,” Pence said. “It was not just a continent you took back from tyranny; you delivered a world into freedom.”
Pence honored the World War II veterans in attendance during Thursday’s ceremony and thanked them for their service.
“I tell you today that we see you not just as you are but as you were,” he said. “We marvel at the courage that you showed as young men.
Pence also paid tribute to the “Bedford Boys” — the 20 men from Bedford who were killed during the first few minutes of the invasion of Omaha Beach.
“Bedford — like every town in our nation — gave its finest,” Pence said. “However, Bedford paid a terrible price. That such a small town would make such a sacrifice is almost beyond belief, and that sacrifice is why this memorial is here in Bedford today.”
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., agreed.
“These men stepped up when their country needed them the most,” Warner said. “It’s the spirit of that sacrifice that we celebrate today and will continue to celebrate so history will never forget what happened on D-Day.”
Warner also honored the WWII veterans in attendance.
“Gentlemen, this country is in your debt,” Warner said. “And as I look out onto the crowd here today, I say your legacy is in good hands and you will be remembered long after all of us here are gone.”
“What these men did changed history,” said Liberty University student Aaron Jones. “I’m trying to get as many autographs as I can because there are fewer of them each year. I’m honored to come out here today and meet as many of these great men as I can.”