American Legion National Commander Fang A.Wong was expecting to meet D-Day veterans, active-duty troops and French citizens who remain grateful for the Allies who liberated western Europe from the grip of Hitler during World War II. What he did not expect was to meet a young Air Force Academy cadet who credits American Legion Boys State for crystallizing his dreams of service in the U.S. Armed Forces.
That is exactly what the commander found when Jeremiah King of Bellefountain, Ohio, stepped up Sunday, June 3, and shook Wong's hand near LaFiere Bridge, where one of World War II's most pivotal and deadly battles played out on June 6,1944.
"When I was 16 years old, I could not imagine doing what these guys did at 16," said King, a 21-year-old U.S. Air Force Academy cadet who was paired with D-Day sailor Joseph Navarra, who helped deliver American soldiers to the northern coast of France during the Allied invasion. King was participating in a program funded by The Greatest Generation Foundation, which connects active-duty military personnel with veterans of past combat experiences. "It promotes the link between the generations," King said. "It's quite an honor."
King said his experience as a participant in American Legion Boys State "solidified my desires" to serve in uniform. A 2008 Buckeye Boys State participant, he is now a senior at the U.S. Air Force Academy and looking into a career in military intelligence.
He and several other Air Force cadets helped Commander Wong honor those who fought in the Normandy invasion on the 68th anniversary of the mission. The commander also met with Secretary of the Army John McHugh and Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, commanding general of some 42,000 U.S. Army soldiers serving in Europe.
McHugh said that to meet with veterans of the D-Day invasion "takes my breath away.The last three or so years, I have traveled the world and met with soldiers everywhere, and nothing compares with this."
Gen. Hertling said his troops learn from the Normandy invasion history. "Not a lot changes from generation to generation," he explained before a dinner sponsored by Friends of American Veterans, an organization in Ste. Mere-Eglise, the first French town liberated in the Allied march to victory in Europe during World War II. "It's important to link the generations."
The general, who spoke of ongoing generation-to-generation honor among Europeans who were liberated by the Allies, noticed that the veterans in Normandy for the anniversary this year seem to have a special spring in their step. "They have so much energy and vitality. Just coming here, they seem to have regained 20 years of their lives. These guys are seeing the Europe that isn't publicized in our media."
Commander Wong and American Legion Auxiliary President Kris Nelson of Minnesota are in Normandy this week to honor the memories of those who fought and died for freedom in the D-Day invasion. They laid wreaths at a monument near LaFiere Bridge Sunday, where one of the war's bloodiest battles was fought over a three-day period in 1944.
For Boys State alum Jeremiah King of Ohio, the experience was unforgettable. "I can't put it into words right now," he said."For them (the veterans), it's nostalgic. For us, it's amazing."