The memories Norm Riggsby carries of storming Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, are indelible for him. But for the world, those and the ones carried by his brothers in arms are rapidly being lost.
Age and time are doing to veterans what the violence of war could not, and as the veterans die, so too do their recollections.
Mr. Riggsby is doing his part this year to keep the memory alive and flickering by traveling back to England and France to stand on the famous battlefield on the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe in World War II.
But this could be the last D-Day visit for Mr. Riggsby, 94, underscoring the reality that these precious historical resources — the veterans who experienced it all — are departing.
Consequently, organizations devoted to giving World War II veterans a chance to see the appreciation and respect the country has for them are scrambling to send as many as possible to the World War II Memorial, Arlington National Cemetery and other monuments in the nation’s capital and to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
Mr. Riggsby will carry more than memories when he crosses the English Channel this time.
“I’ve got some pretty good scars on my arms,” he said of the Purple Heart he earned on D-Day. “I guess I was trying to protect my face.”
A U.S. Army rifleman with the 29th Infantry Division, he spent two days convalescing in a makeshift infirmary set up in a concrete German pillbox — “one of the big guns” he and his comrades captured above the Normandy beach.
On June 9, around the time he “got back in the lines,” Mr. Riggsby turned 19 years old.
“Probably firing my M-1,” he said when asked how he spent that birthday.
But his return to combat was short.
“That August, I tangled with a Tiger tank and it ripped half my stomach off,” Mr. Riggsby said, speaking of the engagements that were fought as the Allies pushed across France and the German army retreated toward Paris.
“When I finally woke up, I was in England. I’d been in a coma for three weeks, and they’d kept a body bag at the foot of my bed,” he said.
Soaring Valor, the operation that took Mr. Riggsby and other veterans to the museum in New Orleans, is a branch of the Gary Sinise Foundation. The Honor Flight Network, which takes veterans to Washington, is a separate organization.
With its original client base dwindling, Honor Flight is trying to send as many World War II veterans as it can find on a trip to the nation’s capital while transitioning into offering the same types of trips to veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars, said Dave Nichols, the network’s president and chairman.
The mission is simple.
“We’re trying to capture their stories,” said Keith Huxen, a historian at the museum. “It’s demographic reality we’re fighting now, and the day is rapidly approaching when we will lose.”
About 497,000 World War II veterans were still alive in November 2018, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimated, and the number is predicted to drop to 389,292 by September. Only 1,000 are expected to be alive in 2034.
Honor Flights operates out of 130 hubs, including Alaska, Mr. Nichols said. Since 2005, it has taken some 230,000 veterans to see Washington’s monuments.
The system operates through independently managed hubs, a network that increased by three this year as the group scrambles to nail down every member of the far-flung group.
The market, so to speak, for veterans of other wars is considerably more robust, with 1.317 million Korean War and 6.46 million Vietnam War veterans, according to the VA. Those figures include all people attached to the armed forces during those conflicts, not necessarily all who served in combat.
All of the veterans comprise an extraordinary living library with a limited number of volumes, historians say.
“They’re the only ones who can explain it, really,” Mr. Nichols said. “There’s a nostalgia, I think, about World War II. It was such a big part of U.S. history.”
Soaring Valor began in Los Angeles, the home of Mr. Sinise, an actor and longtime veterans advocate. Its goal is to pinpoint as many veterans as possible in an area and then organize a trip to the National WWII Museum, formerly known as the National D-Day Museum. Since 2017, the veterans have been paired with a local high school student to provide history lessons firsthand, said Hannah Luppino, the Gary Sinise Foundation director of planning and events.
“We want to be in the schools as much as possible now, to make it a kind of living history,” Ms. Luppino said. “Every single trip is a bucket list thing for someone.”
In addition to the New Orleans ventures, Soaring Valor also takes Pacific Theater veterans who can make it back to Iwo Jima, where the Marine Corps maintains a post.
“We used to do that once or twice a year, but now we’ve amped that up to five a year because Gary [Sinise] feels a need to do that with time running out,” Ms. Luppino said.
Organizing the trips, funded through donations, is one way of preserving the veterans’ hard-earned, rare knowledge. Another way is through oral histories, and Honor Flight and Soaring Valor are involved in that, too.
The WWII Museum possesses an archive of nearly 10,000 such pieces, Mr. Huxen said. That includes thousands of diaries, about 2,500 audiotapes and 5,000 videotapes.
“Seemed like they grilled me pretty good down there,” Mr. Riggsby said of his visit. “You’d be surprised how many interviews there were.”
His story didn’t end in an English hospital ward. Mr. Riggsby was sent back to France, where he was assigned to a military police detail.
They gave him a new Harley-Davidson, shipped from America and assembled in France, on which he roared around on assignments that included security for Gen. George S. Patton when his 3rd Army raced to relieve encircled forces at the Battle of the Bulge.
Mr. Riggsby eventually wound up in Berlin and then as a guard at the Nuremberg Trials of high-ranking Nazi officials.
“If you see pictures, that guy in the white helmet standing near Goering in the box? That’s me,” he said.