Summertime is reunion season, whether it’s a wedding, a class reunion or a big family get-together. July and August seem to be the favorite months for a big soiree.
This is coming into focus for me, as I plan to reconnect with high school chums later this summer.
But there are other reunions that touch many generations and recall important events in our country’s history. The Best Defense Foundation hosted a reunion of World War II vets to commemorate the 79th anniversary of the D-Day invasion at Normandy on June 6, 1944.
Moshe Lenske was 19 years old when he shipped out of Boston on a troop carrier bound for Europe. It was 1944 and Lenske had just completed training on radio operations and Morse code.
“Our ship had to run a gantlet past many German submarines,” said Lenske. “Plus there were lots of seasick solders on board.”
Lenske, 98, is one of 43 World War II veterans selected by the Best Defense Foundation to attend this unique reunion.
“I wasn’t in Europe until September 1944,” said Lenske. “But I believe I was invited because of my wartime experience.”
Lenske missed “Operation Overlord,” as the D-Day battle was named. But after joining the 9th Armored Division in Luxembourg, he was just in time for the Battle of the Bulge.
“We were always on the move. We held off a German division in Bastogne,” he said. “We kept going all the way across Germany to Czechoslovakia.”
To accommodate 43 veterans in their 90s and 100s, the Best Defense Foundation took steps to make the journey seamless. Each veteran was provided an escort from start to finish. Lenske’s escort, Ed Quigley, is a senior executive with Michelin, one of the trip’s sponsors.
The Best Defense Foundation was founded by former NFL linebacker Donnie Edwards. A big part of the organization’s effort is devoted to returning veterans to battlefields. The entire cost of the trip is underwritten by private donations, so veterans do not have to pay any of the cost.
For Lenske, who lives in Portland, Oregon, the trip began with a Delta Air Lines flight to Atlanta on May 30. The first big event of the trip was a special dinner at the Delta Flight Museum in Atlanta.
The following day, the veterans, their escorts and support crew boarded a chartered Delta flight nonstop to Deauville, France.
The Best Defense Foundation had a robust schedule for the vets, including school visits, cemetery visits, parades — even a paratroopers jump.
“I couldn’t do it all,” confessed Lenske. “We visited seven cemeteries, including a German one. There were lots of formal dinners and lots of speeches in French.”
The overriding impression for Lenske was the unending outpouring of affection and respect from the French people.
“The French people love us without end as liberators,” he said. “Not just for the French, either. But for all of Europe. They knew what was at stake.”
Lenske has been a friend of our family for years. Whenever he talks about his experience in World War II, it reminds me of my family’s connection with the D-Day invasion.
My grandfather, Thor Smith, was a press aide on General Eisenhower’s staff during the invasion. He stayed with Ike all the way to Berlin, before returning to his job at the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, a Hearst paper.
His brother, my great-uncle Dale Smith, was commander of the 384th Bomb Group, flying out of Grafton Underwood in England. Most of his 31 combat missions in the B-17s were over Germany. However, on June 6, 1944, he led a mission over Caen, France, in support of the invasion. Smith served in many leadership roles in the Army Air Corps and later retired as a major general in the U.S. Air Force.
Dale Smith returned to England for a reunion of the 384th Bomb Group and said they were treated “like royalty” by the English. This group still is hosting reunions, by the way. The next one is Sept. 13-19.
The Best Defense Foundation orchestrates battlefield returns to many locations, including locations in Korea, Vietnam, Iwo Jima, Guam, Saipan and Tinian. The foundation’s founder, Donnie Edwards, was inspired by stories from his grandfather — a Pearl Harbor survivor — to help veterans return to battlefields where they served.
The foundation also created a program to assist special forces veterans when they re-enter civilian life. It’s called the “Stronghold Transition Program.” Additionally, the foundation has a video archive of more than 2,000 hours of interviews with World War II veterans to provide first-person accounts of their experiences.
All reunions are different. But these special efforts to have aging vets return to ground zero of the D-Day invasion offers them a chance to be praised and recognized as part of a force that liberated Europe 79 years ago.