Remembering the gallant efforts of hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers 75 years ago, the U.S., France, Britain and other European nations gathered in Normandy, France, to mark the anniversary of the D-Day invasion in World War II.
There to help celebrate, and more importantly help a project document the stories of seven veterans, were Tim Knutson and John Gorse, both originally from Chetek. Both were helping World War II and D-Day veteran George Ciampa produce a documentary film about seven veterans’ experiences.
Ciampa served with the 607th Graves Registration Company, where it was his job to bury the fallen soldiers in the D-Day invasion. Years later, he created the nonprofit Let Freedom Ring for All, to produce films about World War II history and the people who lived it.
Ciampa has produced five films, with the latest project, “D-Day Veterans Return to Normany; 75 Years Later,” his sixth and final project.
Featured in the documentary, will be Private-First Class, U.S. Army, Ciampa, of Inglewood, Calif.; Petty Officer-First Class, U.S. Navy, Carl Felton, of Portland, Maine; First Lieutenant, U.S. Army, Dennis E. Thompson, of Staples, Minn.; Corpsman-First Class, U.S. Navy, Jack Gutman, of New York City, N.Y.; Second Lieutenant, U.S. Army Air Corps, James Frolking, of Cleveland, Ohio; Private-First Class, U.S. Army, Warren Goss, of Glenshaw, Penn.; and Private-First Class, U.S. Army, William Galbraith, of Long Beach, Calif. Gary Sinise will narrate the film’s introduction.
Return to Normandy
Ciampa’s project has been in the works for more than a year, and both Gorse and Knutson have been working on it, helping arrange funding and organizing the trip. Knutson said they acted as executive assistants on the trip, making sure everything ran smoothly.
Michelle Price Coupey, an ex-pat living in France, helped organize the tour’s itinerary, setting up their stops and visits with people, Knutson said.
In total, around 21 people—seven veterans, nine caretakers, a videographer and production assistant, photographer, Knutson and Gorse—flew from Dallas, Texas, to France. The trip lasted eleven days, from June 1 to June 11.
On June 1, the group met together for the first time in Dallas, Texas, with a kick-off celebration on June 2.
The tour departed Dallas in the evening and arrived in France on the morning of June 3. Meeting up with a Belgian couple, Nico Droeven and Ariane Grandchamps, who would be their translators and the bus and bus driver. They settled into their hotel in Cherbourg, France, located on the western tip of the Normandy coast.
On the morning of June 4, they met the mayor of Sainte-Mére-Église. Knutson said the town was one of the first places to be liberated by paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division. The mayor presented the veterans with medals. It was one of the first of many acts of gratitude shown to the veterans.
“First insight to how gracious the French people are for returning their freedom and liberating them,” Knutson recalled.
The day included a luncheon at Chateau de Bernaville, a former German army division headquarters. At the luncheon was the granddaughter of D-Day commander Gen. Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, Susan Eisenhower, and former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw. Also, the tour visited a middle school in Valognes, France.
“The reception by kids and teachers was so gracious and exuberant,” Knutson said.
The veterans also had a chance to meet and talk with current 82nd Airborne troops at Airborne Museum in Normandy.
The following day, June 5, they went to the American Cemetery in Colleville-Sur-Mer, France, and Omaha Beach for wreath laying ceremonies. They also attended a ceremony at Pointe du Hoc, where Army Rangers scaled steep cliff faces during D-Day and attacked German gun positions that divided Utah and Omaha beaches. Current Army Rangers recreated the assault, climbing the cliffs on the anniversary.
Knutson noted there are still many war ruins there, at Pointe du Hoc. U.S. Secretary of Defence, Patrick Shanahan, attended a ceremony there that included a flyover of C-17 and C-130 warplanes.
For the anniversary of D-Day itself, June 6, a ceremony was held at the cemetery in Colleville, with President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and other world leaders speaking and thanking veterans.
“Presidents Trump and Macron had incredible things to say,” Knutson noted.
Around 10,000 to 12,000 people attended, with the veterans honored on stage with the presidents. Flyovers with modern fighter jets, military transports and vintage C-47 transports were incredible, Knutson said.
Due to security, visitors had to arrive early and leave late, which gave him lots of time to explore the cemetery and reflect. The cemetery was meticulously maintained, he said.
On June 7, they visited a cemetery that was in honor of the temporary war cemeteries, a memorial for civilian casualties and visited a memorial at Utah Beach. Goss recounted taking German bunkers as he and his fellow soldiers took Utah Beach the morning of June 6, 1944.
“It was a good fight,” Goss told Knutson.
Goss also recounted a story to Knutson of how one of his buddies got separated and captured by four German soldiers. Many German soldiers in the Cherbourg area were actually Polish or Italian and didn’t have much of a fight in them, Knutson said. The U.S. soldier knew Polish and told them if they surrendered to him, they’d get three meals a day and survive the war. If they took him prisoner, they might survive today, but he couldn’t guarantee they’d live beyond that.
“They gave him his gun back and the four surrendered to the one soldier,” Knutson said. Many in the German army realized they weren’t fighting for the good cause, he said.
That evening, the veterans’ tour was treated to a dinner hosted by local families at a French farmhouse, where they met French war reenactors. Even with the language barrier, the locals, reenactors and veterans were able to share many thanks with each other and there was much camaraderie, Knutson said. He and Gorse got a photo with the reenactors with a vintage military motorcycle.
The townspeople welcomed the veterans, he said. “It was another example of a town that just couldn’t do enough,” Knutson said.
On June 8, they visited Carentan, France, which was having a festival and parade with reenactors, including singers singing songs from the era, which the veterans loved. A parade through the town reenacted the arrival of the Germans and the fleeing of residents, then the joyous liberation of the town as the 101st Airborne Division marched in.
It was a festive atmosphere, recreating what it was like when it was first liberated and a victory dance was held at a gymnasium. It was a chance for all parts of France to thank the veterans for what they did, Knutson said. “The vets were like rock stars—always surrounded by fans,” he said.
On June 9, the tour visited the causeway at La Fiére, where 82nd Airborne troops parachuted in to secure the strategic bridge. There, they watched reenactors parachute into the drop zone. C-130s dropped hundreds of paratroopers, Knutson said.
After, the veterans were paraded through Sainte-Mére-Église in vintage military vehicles.
On June 10, they returned to Omaha Beach to do more interviews with several of the veterans. Part of the group split off and went to Arromanches, France, where the British had constructed the Mulberry artificial harbor docks to speed up the off-loading of supplies.
That evening, a going away party was held, with the tour returning to Paris for the departure flight to the U.S. on June 11.
The project was not cheap, Knutson noted and he thanked its major sponsors, American Airlines, the Allied Pilots Association and Nine Line Apparel.
Airfare was donated for the veterans, which was a major cost, and the Allied Pilots Association donated $25,000 to the film. Around $50,000 was donated by Nine Line Apparel, a veteran-owned and -operated clothing company. They made limited-run T-shirts in honor of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and donated proceeds from the clothing to Ciampa’s project. The Air Power Foundation paid for the sendoff party in Dallas, Texas.
Numerous local individuals also donated, and Knutson sold $100 challenge coins that commemorated the 75th anniversary and the project.
“None of this would be possible without the vets,” he added. Not every vet wants to go back or feel the need to tell their stories.
Ciampas’ documentary should be released later this year, and likely will be available on streaming services. More information will be released at that time.
Fighting for freedom
Knutson recommended anyone with an interest in history or a love of freedom to visit Normandy.
“I highly recommend a trip there,” he said.
He realized it might be hard for Americans to appreciate what the French people do and celebrate. For citizens in the U.S., no one has had their home invaded by a foreign power.
“We can’t appreciate fighting and dying for that, because it has been on foreign soil. Conversely, no one thinks that we should go do that anymore,” Knutson said. “Many parts of France and Europe appreciate that 75 years ago, a bunch of guys went over there and did that.”
Knutson noted, some veterans didn’t like how celebratory some of the festivities were and some preferred a more somber affair. But Knutson understood the French perspective; it was a chance to celebrate and honor the veterans that they could.
The biggest thing he noticed was, “Just the true graciousness, thankfulness and appreciation from the people of France,” Knutson said. Respect for America, President Trump, the American flag was unrivaled, he noted.
The trip was busy and stressful for Knutson and Gorse, but it was worth it, Knutson said. “On a personal level, it was a lot of work and stress, but on the macro level, it’s an honor and a privilege.”
And it was an emotional trip, too, Knutson said, knowing the gravity of the veterans’ stories. “You just can’t fathom coming into this and facing the circumstances. It took a lot of luck and fortitude.”
He is immensely proud and humbled to have been a part of the project and seeing the celebrations.
“It’s a reminder of why I’m patriotic,” Knutson explained. “Freedom isn’t free.”