No matter how many times he walks among those rows of marble crosses, Henry Bodden’s eyes are always drawn to the dates.
And in his head, he can’t help doing the grim math.
“So many were in their teens and 20s,” he said, adding that as he scans the markers, he notes the names, units and death dates engraved on them.
But the image of those strikingly white headstones is only part of what Bodden takes away every time he visits the Normandy American Cemetery in France.
Even more memorable are the living veterans.
Among the troops who survived D-Day, many eventually choose to go back, Bodden said.
“They all want to talk about it,” he said of the veterans he’s met at the cemetery. “They go there to relive their memories. It’s a humbling experience to be there with them.”
This Thursday, June 6, the eyes of the world will be on Normandy, as U.S. President Donald Trump and other global leaders arrive to help mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion during World War II.
And for the first time in a long time, Bodden won’t be there. The Owasso resident, an amateur historian who for a number of years led annual weeklong D-Day tours, has other obligations this year.
But it’s hard to find anyone who’s visited Normandy more times than Bodden and who can speak to its power and importance.
Walking in the footsteps of those who pulled off the largest amphibious operation in history has changed his life, he said.
“As a historian, I can’t get enough of it,” said Bodden, who talked about his experiences with the World last week.
“The stakes were extremely high if (D-Day) failed.”
The anniversary commemorates the launch on June 6, 1944, of the invasion of Normandy, an effort by the Allies to gain a foothold on the European continent, which they knew was imperative to ultimately defeating Germany.
The D-Day invasion, known as Operation Overlord, would be successful. But not without a cost. More than 4,000 Allied troops were killed that June 6.
Bodden was familiar with the basics, but it wasn’t until a film reenactment of those events that he decided he wanted to experience the sites firsthand.
“The movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ came out in 1998,” he said, “and I was so moved by the opening and closing scenes” at Omaha Beach and the cemetery there. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to go there.’ ”
By that time, Bodden already had a growing passion for history-themed travel and “then and now” photography — finding sites from old photos, taking new images, and displaying them side by side.
For Bodden, Normandy seemed like it would fit right in with those interests, which at the time were just a hobby.
His first of many trips soon followed.
From Normandy, his growing interest in WWII led him later to tour the Philippines and visit Iwo Jima. On both trips, he was among groups of veterans returning to the sites.
“Those experiences and being around those guys is what changed me from a tourist to a World War II advocate,” Bodden said. “I thought, ‘How can I do something to help keep their stories alive?’ ”
That question became the motivation for his book “In the Footsteps of Valor.”
In it, he chronicles in words and images his experiences traveling to WWII sites, along with the memories and stories of veterans he’s met along the way.
An example of a story that Bodden has kept alive through the book is that of D-Day veteran Quentin Robinson.
Bodden first became aware of the late veteran when his family contacted him with a question.
“They were going to get rid of (Robinson’s) Purple Heart and other decorations and wanted to know if I wanted them,” he said. “That’s quite common. A lot of times families are just not that interested.”
Robinson, he learned, had served on the USS Emmons, one of the Navy ships that bombarded the Normandy beaches on D-Day. The destroyer later was sunk in a kamikaze attack in the Pacific.
Robinson survived and received a Purple Heart. Now, instead of “ending up in a dumpster,” Bodden said, the medal has a place of honor in his collections.
Preserving the stories
Bodden is not a veteran himself, but a personal connection to the 3rd Infantry Division — his son previously served in it — led him to take over as editor of the unit’s magazine when he was asked a couple of years ago.
Between that job and his travels, he’s built up an impressive knowledge of military history and other subjects.
Not a bad background for a tour guide.
For Bodden, who works for Valor Tours, a military history tour operator, leading tours is another way he can keep those veterans’ stories alive, he said. As a guide, he’s able to give others a more informative and meaningful experience at WWII sites.
When leading D-Day tours, Bodden likes to throw in a few sites of his own discovery.
“Places that aren’t on the itinerary — that’s what’s most exciting to me,” he said, adding that he’s identified sites used in such films as “The Longest Day” and “Band of Brothers.”
The opportunity to lead tours first came up a few years ago, he said. Valor was in need of guides for two upcoming ones in Europe: a tour of Normandy and another of sites related to the Battle of the Bulge.
Bodden jumped at the chance. With his wife, Jane, at his side, he’s led both of the weeklong tours back-to-back every year since.
He said originally Valor’s tours were designed to cater to WWII veterans. But with their numbers having dwindled, it’s changed.
“Now it’s mostly families of World War II veterans or history buffs,” he said. “It’s still not your average tourists.”
There are innumerable sites in Normandy connected to the massive D-Day military operation, and Bodden’s tours are packed with them.
Among the ones that he loves to tell the story behind is Pegasus Bridge, where early on D-Day a British glider unit bravely took a stand and held off the Germans.
Bodden’s groups also visit the five beach areas where the Allied invaders came ashore, including the one code-named “Omaha,” where so many young Americans fell.
The cemeteries never fail to stir emotions, Bodden said.
He has taken groups to sites where British, Canadian and even German war dead are buried. However, it’s the Normandy American Cemetery near Omaha Beach, that is most stirring for Bodden.
“I never tire of it,” he said.
There are few experiences to compare with being in Normandy for the annual anniversary, Bodden said.
The streets of the towns are teeming, the hotels and restaurants full.
Everywhere you look are aging WWII veterans, he said. The British outnumber all others. For them, it’s a much shorter trip across the channel.
The British veterans are especially decked out.
“I’ve never seen so many medals,” he said, laughing.
He remembers the response at one restaurant when a 104-year-old British veteran entered, walking with a cane.
“The restaurant owner called attention to him, and everybody stood up and applauded,” he said.
Bodden is all too aware that these experiences won’t be available much longer. The number of veterans who go back to Normandy grows fewer with every passing year.
That fact, he added, makes this week’s 75th anniversary even more significant.
“This will be the last major anniversary where we still have some of them with us,” Bodden said. “For the 80th there won’t be many left.”