[NoHo Arts District, CA] – Active World Journeys travel blog: It’s D-Day on the shores of Lake Erie
Each August, on the shores of Lake Erie in Conneaut, Ohio, one of the largest D-Day reenactments in the world takes place. Forty thousand spectators come out over the weekend to watch 4,000 re-enactors perform as British, American and German troops clash as if it were June 1944 on the beaches of Normandy, France. (Spoiler alert: the Allies win every year.)
The guests of honor who come to the event are genuine World War II veterans, but over the years since the event’s inception in 1999, the number of these veterans of this larger generation who leave come out is getting smaller and smaller. I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with a few of them who attended the D-Day Conneaut 2022. They are living history and a real link between the fight for freedom against fascism in the past and the lifestyle we enjoy today through their bravery and sacrifice.
My first interview was with 95-year-old George Coler. He was only 16 when he enlisted to fight in World War II, and his parents had to sign up. He entered the Navy and served on the USS Provo Victory, which carried 8,500 rounds of ammunition that were sunk and reassembled at Pearl Harbor. He told a funny story of how his captain always looked down on him for having a camera he always took pictures with (it would have been state of the art at the time), but one day the captain shyly asked him to borrow the camera. for a personal engagement he was attending. George also told me that, in his mind, the real war heroes were the homecoming women who supplied the troops serving in the war.
Then I had the chance to sit down with Ernie Laslow. He is 100 years old. He was a gunner of a .50 caliber machine gun turret on a Deuce-and-a-Half truck and shot down a German ME109 aircraft. He participated in several major battles of the war, including in Normandy, northern France, the Ardennes (Belgium), central Europe and the Rhineland. Once in Marseille, France, he and some of the guys in his unit were in an abandoned castle and some German soldiers tried to make a surprise attack, so he and his buddies jumped down a slide and escaped. while sledding in the mountains of the Alps. Ernie was one of five brothers who joined the service, all of whom made it home safely. He said he had fond memories of the war, especially the French civilians who were very friendly to the Americans and sometimes brought bottles of wine to the soldiers. Even most German civilians were friendly, especially the children, he told me. Just weeks after Ernie returned from the war, his neighbor’s house caught fire. He could hear a little baby crying on the second floor, so he grabbed his ladder and ran and rescued the baby from the burning house. Ernie’s daughter told me that the baby (who is now obviously an adult) will be reunited with Ernie within the next few months. Ernie wants everyone to know that the secret to longevity is to keep moving and walking.
And it was an honor and a pleasure to meet 97-year-old Ila Cole. Towards the end of the war, she joined WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). She was shipped off to New York for two months of boot camp. When training camp ended, his unit rode the subway to Yankee Stadium and played one of the ball games. She eventually became a Specialist Flight Attendant (V’s) (similar to flight attendants) for the Navy. She worked primarily on RFD 4-prop aircraft, which flew military personnel from Moffett Field in California to John Rogers Naval Air Station in Honolulu for R&R. The trip took about 12 hours. Some planes she worked on even carried wounded servicemen.
I had the thrill of a lifetime in D-Day Conneaut when I was able to fly in a WWII C-47 aircraft called “Whiskey 7” or “W-7” for short. He was taking viewers on short walks along the Lake Erie coast above Conneaut all weekend. She was the real lead plane of the second wave that dropped paratroopers over Normandy, France on D-Day in June 1944. It was so exhilarating and awesome to fly with her; in fact, the year 1944 seemed to come to life as I imagined the brave young soldiers preparing to leap into the unknown of WWII from its comforting fuselage. I got a little emotional on this ride of a lifetime.
After the weekend’s D-Day Conneaut event ended, I had a chance to hit the beach and meet some of the tank operators/re-enactors. They operated a 1942 MCAI Stuart tank. They run about four events a year and are privately funded. It takes a crew of 4 men to operate the Stuart tank and it was the type of tank that Patton had used in Tunisia during WWII. These guys were a special breed and had a lot of fun doing what they were doing, you could tell.
One day soon, the news of the day will be that the last living veteran of World War II has passed away. Of the 16 million US service members who fought in World War II, the US Department of Veterans Affairs expects less than 170,000 to be alive here in 2022. I think the stories of this generation are important for America to build on for our future. Let’s be sure to do all we can to show the WWII veterans who are still with us our appreciation and gratitude for a job well done. The annual D-Day Conneaut offers volunteer and sponsorship opportunities here: https://www.ddayohio.us/support.html
Jack Witt, MS, CPT
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