Jack Hamlin remembers the water.
One of many World War II veterans who spent the 68th anniversary of D-Day on Wednesday at the National World War II Memorial, Mr. Hamlin thought back to June 6, 1944, when his rescue flotilla for the U.S. Coast Guard floated miles off the Normandy shore in the early dawn.
“It was about 45 degrees,” the 91-year-old said. “You couldn’t stay in it long.”
Having sped south from England the night before, Mr. Hamlin said, he and his fellow crewmen had one order: Pick wounded troops out of the water.
By the end of the day, Mr. Hamlin would be a witness to the Allies’ invasion of German-occupied France, a turning point in World War II, and an experience that’s stayed with him decades later.
“I didn’t think it’d be bad,” Mr. Hamlin said, turning to show the back of his navy blue windbreaker, a silhouette of a ship under the heading “June 6, 1944, Omaha Beach.”
“We were told to pick people up and bring more people back, and stay out of the way. I was scared to death.”
Mr. Hamlin and about 75 fellow veterans visited the memorial courtesy of the Ford Motor Co., which flew the World War II soldiers in from Kentucky and Michigan, states where it has production plants.
For some of the veterans, the trip was their first time seeing the memorial, an in-ground arena of columns, fountains and granite etchings.
John Lawler said the memorial reminded him of “what a great country we have,” adding that it was well-placed at the eastern end of the Mall’s Reflecting Pool.
Mr. Lawler, 86, said he didn’t remember every emotion he felt when he heard the news about D-Day, but from his naval air station in Norfolk, Va., he cheered for the men fighting on the other side of the Atlantic.
“I said, ‘Let’s go!’ Let’s get this damn thing over with,” said Mr. Lawler, who had joined the U.S. Navy months earlier and worked as a weatherman aboard the USS Midway during the war.
“We knew there was a war in Europe. We knew when they made the landing,” Mr. Lawler said. “I don’t remember it all, but I do remember getting out of the service. That was a big day.”
Pausing for a moment near one of the memorial’s fountains, Ray Kiefer considered the granite etching around the pool that read “Remagen.”
The site of a bridge across the Rhine River that was used by German troops, it was also the target of B-26 bombing runs by Mr. Kiefer, then a 1st lieutenant.