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A younger Ralph Painter can be seen in the top right of a photo of his outfit that he pulled out during an interview Monday, October 15, 2018 at his home in East Brainerd, Tennessee. Painter fought in the Battle of the Bulge as well as D-Day.

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D-Day anniversary

In the last year, Ralph Painter has had a heart valve replaced. Celebrated another birthday. Undergone dialysis.

On Saturday, the 97-year-old was in his East Brainerd home preparing to attend the 79th reunion of his Polk County High School graduating class in Benton, Tennessee.

He is among the few surviving veterans of World War II left as the world commemorates the 75th anniversary of D-Day on Thursday. Of the 16 million who served, fewer than 550,000 are still alive.

Since October, 10 members of his Army unit have died, now there are only 20 left.

That he's still here is not lost on him.

"I wasn't sure I was going to make it to June 6 again," Painter said. "But I'm glad I did."

Painter, a Bronze Star recipient, was a mechanic on the first tank that rolled onto Utah Beach during the Allied invasion.

Later in 1944, he would take part in the Battle of the Bulge.

He recalled his thoughts as his landing craft crossed the English Channel and the shoreline of France grew bigger.

"The seas were pushing us all over the place and we were about 200 yards out when the motors stopped," Painter said. "I took my stick out and put it in water and told the captain there was no way we'd make it because the water was too deep. The captain told the driver to get closer and he refused.

"The captain put his gun up against the man's head and said to get going. We went another hundred yards, and I told the captain we could make it. We almost didn't, but we did.

"I still remember how scared I was. When we got to the beach, I just saw bodies."

 

Honoring a promise

In April, 64-year-old Anthony Hodges stood with his wife, Jill, in Normandy. They laid a wreath at the memorial to the 79th Infantry Division in La Haye-du-Puits — the fulfillment of a promise he made 25 years earlier.

His father, Carl Hodges, had been a veteran. And while he wasn't at Normandy on D-Day with the 79th Infantry Division, he encouraged his son to journey across the globe with him to honor those who were there for the 50th anniversary in 1994.

Hodges was born in 1954 and grew up hearing stories of D-Day and World War II.

"Everybody's daddy was a veteran when I was growing up," Hodges recalled. "It was no big deal. You just didn't think anything about it."

But Hodges said the 1994 trip changed his life.

For two weeks, they spent time with more than 200 members of the U.S. Army's 79th Infantry Division.

There were formal banquets in London and the official 50th anniversary D-Day ceremony with heads of state from around the globe. He walked the beaches of Normandy with his father and members of his unit. He stayed in the home of a family in La Haye-du-Puits, a town just west of Utah Beach.

And then there were the people in the villages.

"For the first time, it made me realize how important what went on there was. And I knew I would never look at a World War II vet the same way ever again," he said. "It was incredibly emotional to see the people come and out and start cheering for these soldiers."

Reflecting on his father's legacy, he said: "There is no place I can go where someone will say I was the man who liberated them from tyranny."

In the years after his trip, Hodges' life changed.

He altered his dental practice and began to look at the ages of his patients and engage those who were the right age to have served in World War II. At one point, he had 400-500 WWII veterans in his practice, including Medal of Honor recipient Charles H. Coolidge.

When he retired in 2013, only five were left.

He also began attending annual reunions of the 79th Infantry Division and did so until his father died in 2007. He stayed in touch with members of the unit. He even built a small shrine to the veterans in his dental office.

Eventually, veterans started sending him their memorabilia as they neared death.

"One day, a bunch of boxes show up with German flags and all kinds of things from the war," Hodges said. "It came from an FBI agent who was on the 1994 trip that I had stayed in touch with. He said his children didn't want it but he knew that I would."

On the way back to the airport in 1994, Alan Reid, a sergeant from Massachusetts, had asked the younger Hodges to come to the back of the bus.

"I was the youngest person on the bus," Hodges said. "He called me back and said, 'We are making you an honorary member of the unit, but it comes with a price. If you are physically able, we expect you to return for the 75th anniversary and place a wreath at our monument because no one on the bus will be alive.'

"He was right."

Twenty five years later, he returned to France. He said he had realized how lucky his generation was to be raised by that one.

He laid a wreath in their honor.

"When I get to the pearly gates I can say, 'Fellas, I didn't let you down,'" Hodges said. Now he's charged his three adult children with returning to Normandy for the centennial in 2044.

 

'Some will never return'

"ALLIES IN FRANCE" was the banner headline on the June 6, 1944, edition of the Chattanooga Daily Times.

The lead story carried an announcement from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower broadcast to all citizens of the Allied force. It said:

"People of western Europe: A landing was made this morning on the coast of France by troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force Although the initial assault may not have been made in your own country, the hour of your liberation is approaching."

The next day, the Chattanooga News-Free Press carried President Franklin Roosevelt's entire 13-paragraph, 523-word prayer on its front page.

"They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest-until the victory is won," Roosevelt prayed for the soldiers on the ground at Normandy. "The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men's souls will be shaken with the violences of war.

"For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.

"Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom."

 

'I just did my duty'

Of the approximately 12 million who served during World War II, 473 received the Medal of Honor. Two were from Chattanooga, including Charles H. Coolidge and Desmond Doss.

Keith Hardison knows all their stories.

He has spent his entire adult life putting America's military conflicts into their proper context, studying the character of the men who fight in wars.

Born a year after the war ended, Hardison believes D-Day is perhaps the most important day in American military history.

"If it were not for them in that conflict going through literally hell on earth, and that is what that landing was, the world we know today and the opportunities we enjoy literally would not exist," said Hardison, director of the Charles H. Coolidge National Medal of Honor Heritage Center.

"Even if you tend to go to superlatives like I do, you cannot overestimate the importance of D-Day and you cannot overestimate the importance of what has come to be called the Greatest Generation."

Hardison worries that with every passing year Americans' knowledge of the importance of the D-Day invasion will fade.

"I was introduced to a very elderly man who served in the 1st Marine Division on D-Day after a speech in Cleveland [Tennessee]," Hardison said. "My heartfelt response to him was to thank him for saving the world. He looked at me and said, 'I didn't save the world. I just did my duty.'"

Contact Davis Lundy at davislundy@aol.com.

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