Next month marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion that freed Western Europe from Nazi occupation.
And for Roanoke resident Bernard Marie, it marks another milestone in his decades-long effort to honor the U. S. servicemen and women who saved him.
Ask Bernard Marie what June 6, 1944 was like and you'll get a first-hand account of the invasion.
"Well, June 6, 1944 was a very special thing because we were under the bomb. We didn’t know what was going on," Marie remembers.
Marie was just five years old on D-Day. He and his mother left Paris the year before as food began to get scarce under the Nazi occupation. His father was in Britain, fighting with the Free French Resistance. Marie and his mother moved into a family home in Normandy.
"So we stay in the basement with no light, no drink, no nothing. My grandfather spend nearly 15 hours with his hands on my ears," Marie remembers as Allied bombs and shells hit targets across the area. "My mother, at 5pm on June 6th, they were not shooting anymore, got out and screamed, but screamed of joy. So we got out with my grandfather and I saw her hugging a soldier." Marie says he couldn't believe what he was seeing. His mother had carefully avoided any contact with German soldiers, fearing they might become suspicious of her husband's whereabouts.
Marie soon realized these weren't Nazi soldiers, however. Troops from the United States and other Allied countries were flooding into France.
"And of course my famous joke in this area was that I received my first piece of chocolate and I learned my first word in English was Hershey. And my second word was freedom," Marie says "So all the kids in the village we were running about the jeep and the GMC and screaming 'Freedom! Hershey! Freedom! Hershey!'”
Forty years later, Marie was living in the United States. "And I asked to my former father-in-law 'What do you do for the veterans?' And he said 'Nothing.' And that was the 40 year anniversary in 1984." Marie was incredulous. "And I said 'What do you mean nothing? In Belgium, in Netherlands, in Denmark, in France, the schools are closed, they change the flag, and everything.' And so I say 'Well I’m going to do something.'”
He organized a luncheon for veterans of the Normandy campaign. He wasn’t sure how many would come to that first event in Indianapolis. More than 500 showed up. "And since then, I never stopped. It’s my way to say thank you. And I pledged to do it until there is no one left."
On June 5th, Marie will hold his 35th ceremony. Time has taken its toll on the numbers. Many of the veterans still living just aren’t healthy enough to travel. Still, he expects more than 20 World War Two veterans to attend the dinner at a hotel in Roanoke.
And Marie is still finding veterans who have never been recognized. The morning we spoke he got a call from The Glebe retirement home in Botetetourt County. "A lady called me from The Glebe and there is a guy over there who is a World War Two guy who didn’t know about my dinner!" he exclaims. "So he is coming on June 5th."
Marie will soon be 80, older than most of those veterans he first honored in 1985. But he says he doesn’t have any plans to stop. "I will carry on, I think," he says wryly.
And while he gets plenty of thank you’s for his efforts, he’d rather be sure the veterans of World War Two get them.
"Thanks to them you have the freedom of today."
The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford will hold a number of events to mark the 75th anniversary. Click here for more information.