In the moments following a Memorial Day ceremony Sunday afternoon at the Little-Embry-Rainey Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1559 in Heyworth, Wapella resident and World War II veteran Ernest Thorp walked over to keynote speaker David Brown and greeted him with a handshake.
“Nice to see you, young man,” Thorp said. “Happy Memorial Day weekend.”
Each man was 90 years old, but shared a memory of a day nearly 67 years ago when as World War II veterans they participated in the D-Day landing on the shores of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
Brown recalled the day in front of about 100 people Sunday, an audience that included three other World War II veterans in addition to Thorp.
“Sometimes, it’s a little sad because veterans can often be forgotten about until Memorial Day comes around,” Brown said. “This is a terrific day and there are a lot of people here who are very appreciative of veterans and that’s a great thing to see.”
Viola Funk and Hazel Smith never miss a Memorial Day ceremony in Heyworth. For the past four decades, Smith, now 95, has led the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Memorial Day festivities. Smith has accompanied her on the piano.
“I’ve always enjoyed singing the national anthem because it gives me that sense of keeping the home fires burning,” Smith said. “It really means a lot to me.”
“I don’t think people really appreciate what the veterans, such as this man, have done for us,” Funk said, speaking of Brown. “To me, the veterans are more important than anything else.”
Brown was making his fourth visit to Heyworth, having befriended Gary Simpkins, owner of the Simpkins Military History Museum in Heyworth. A Memphis native who now lives in suburban Northbrook, Brown was called to duty in January 1943, just two days after getting married. He served in the 490th Port Battalion, and his platoon was part of the invasion into France on June 6, 1944.
“I still have a lot of memories from that time,” he said. “We were on that beach from June until Thanksgiving. My speeches really don’t last all that long, because it is still really tough to talk about.”
Brown was one of the first and few African-Americans to hit the beach in Normandy. Those experiences are relived in an Emmy-award winning documentary, “A Distant Shore, African Americans of D-Day,” a documentary produced by his daughter, Sharon Rossmark. The documentary appears periodically on the History Channel, and Rossmark, an Illinois State alum, accompanied him on Sunday to Heyworth.
“David is a special friend,” Simpkins said. “We share a common bond even though we are veterans from two different eras. But his stories about landing on the beach are just amazing and Memorial Day weekend is one of those days where we can listen to a man like him speak, and thank him for his service.”