Their Pinellas apartments double as shrines to the generation that defeated the Nazis.
Wartime photos and paintings hang on the walls, books about World War II line the shelves.
But Harley Reynolds and Gerald “Bud” Berry don’t need any props to help them tell their stories of D-Day, 75 years ago today.
They were there. And they recall in minute detail how that historic battle unfolded.
Berry co-piloted a plane that dropped 17 paratroopers near the French village of Sainte-Mère-Église just after midnight. Seven hours later, Reynolds landed with a troop-carrying vessel at Omaha Beach.
Still, for all the vivid images they carry as survivors of that bloody day, they remain haunted by what they never learned.
For Berry, 98, that’s the names and the fates of the paratroopers.
For Reynolds, 95, it’s the name of the man next to him who died as soon as he blew the first hole through the barbed-wire barricade, enabling some of the troops to escape the slaughter from Nazi gunfire above and push toward victory.
“No one knows who the man was. He was never identified,” Reynolds said.
As each day passes, the two men see the chances of finding their answers slip away.
They are among the half million or so Americans still alive among the 16 million who served in World War II, according to 2018 figures from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Reynolds and Berry have never met. They live in assisted living centers, Reynolds in St. Petersburg and Berry in Largo. Reynolds is a widower married three times. Berry lives with his wife.
On June 6, 1944, nearly five years after World War II began, American paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions helped launch the D-Day invasion by dropping inland to keep more German soldiers from advancing to the beaches of Normandy, France. In all, more than 13,000 American paratroopers saw action that day.
Assigned to the 91st Squadron of the 439th Troop Carrier Group, Berry flew a C-47 Skytrain and joined a group of nine planes traveling in a V-formation. There were so many of these V’s, Berry said, they stretched clear from England to France.
“Airplanes were dropping troopers in France and airplanes were still taking off in England,” said Berry, who was a first lieutenant with the Army Air Corps.
Except for thick clouds blurring his vision, Berry said, he had a smooth flight and the paratroopers he carried made it to the ground. But that’s all he knows about them. He never learned their names or their mission.
“Everything was kept secret. I’d like to know what happened to them.”
On the ground, so many troops died that the beach was dubbed Bloody Omaha. Some 43,250 men landed there the first day and suffered 3,000 casualties, making it the deadliest of the five Normandy beaches targeted, the National D-Day Memorial Foundation said.
All told, more than 150,000 Allied troops landed at Normandy on D-Day. Just over 4,400 Allied soldiers lost their lives that day.
It was the third invasion of the war for Reynolds, part of the 16th Infantry Regiment, First Infantry Division — known as the Big Red One. The others were Italy and Africa.
Some of the soldiers on Omaha Beach had no combat experience, Reynolds said. But a battle resume meant little here.
“Gods or whatever, the powers that be, they didn’t discriminate,” said Reynolds, a 19-year-old staff sergeant at the time, in command of a 13-man machine-gun section. “I saw many men pray. There is nothing wrong with that. I saw many men cry. There is nothing wrong with that.”
Pinned down on the beach for more than an hour, Reynolds recalled reaching out in his mind to his father back home.
“I said, ‘Dad, where are you now when I need you the most?’ And just like that, my mind just settled down and I started thinking and I started looking.”
The barbed wire stood more than 5 feet high, just 20 yards from the water’s edge. Near one portion of barbed wire was a bed of rocks high enough to provide cover.
Reynolds made a dash for it. Others did, too, including his unknown hero.
The man carried a Bangalore torpedo, an explosive made for clearing obstacles. Exposing himself to gunfire, he slipped the device under the barbed wire.
But when he pulled the fuse, nothing happened.
So he replaced the fuse, again exposing himself to gunfire.
This time, the torpedo blew a 12-foot wide hole in the wire. And the hero was hit.
“He just closed his eyes,” a somber Reynolds said. “He was dead on the spot.”
The first man through the new breach, Reynolds would march halfway through Germany before he was sent back to England that fall. He never saw another day of action.
Overall, he had spent 461 days on the front lines.
After D-Day, aviator Berry flew supplies to the troops and picked up the wounded and prisoners. He would later take part in the invasion of Southern France and the failed invasion of the Netherlands known as Operation Market Garden.
Today, whenever he meets a D-Day paratrooper, he seeks answers to his lingering question: Did you fly on my plane?
So far, no one has said yes.
The answer to Reynolds’ D-Day question eludes him, too. But not his resolve.
He believes, even if no one else does, that one man above all “deserves recognition for that entire invasion being a success.”
The torpedo carrier, Reynolds laments, got nothing.
“I guess that is war for you.”
LEARN MORE ABOUT D-DAY
Victory ship: In honor of D-Day survivors, the SS American Victory Ship and Museum, 705 Channelside Dr., Tampa, offers free admission Thursday to active-duty military and veterans. For other adults, admission is $10. Veterans of World War II will be aboard to share stories with visitors and other special events are planned. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. More information at (813) 228-8766.
Tampa exhibit: A special D-Day exhibit has been set up at the Hillsborough Veterans Memorial Park and Museum, 3602 U.S. 301 N in Tampa. Hours are 10 to 3, park open until 5.
D-Day on screen: Turner Classic Movies is airing 24 hours of World War II films every Thursday in June. Titles on D-Day include 1962’s The Longest Day and 1975’s Overlord.
History presentation: Masterful Deceptions of D-Day, a presentation by Dave Dockery on confusing the Nazis about invasion plans, is scheduled 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at East Lake Community Library, 4125 East Lake Roa
Veterans’ stories: Veterans History Project will hold Story Days 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. June 21 at Curlew Hills Memory Gardens, 1750 Curlew Road, Palm Harbor. The project’s mission is to collect war veterans’ personal accounts for future generations. More information is at Empath Health (727) 467-7423.