Retired Pvt. Leslie P. Cruise, 95, remembers June 6, 1944, clearly. Standing at the airplane's edge, preparing to jump onto the enemy lines of Normandy on D-Day, fear didn't occur to him.
"It was very moving and exciting," Cruise tells NPR's Noel King. "We fly over the channel; you can look out the window and see the silhouettes of the ships. We know what's going to happen now. We've talked about it, but look at all those ships down there, my gosh."
The nonagenarian, who joined the military in 1943, is one of the last surviving paratroopers from World War II. Were it not for Cruise and the success of his division, the 82nd Airborne, the course of history might have looked remarkably different.
Four years before Cruise's enlistment, Adolf Hitler began annexing land in Europe and exerting force across the continent. The D-Day operation, which took more than a year to plan and became the world's largest seaborne invasion, was an attempt to block Hitler's army and reverse the direction of influence on the battlefield.
"The paratroopers played an absolutely key role on D-Day," says Keith Huxen, senior director of research and history at the World War II Museum in New Orleans. After parachuting down, they could commandeer crucial holding spots and protect the troops coming in from the beaches.
Cruise prepared to jump on the night of June 4, but the operation was delayed because of weather. The paratrooper, dressed and ready to go, slept atop his grenades until Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower OK'd the mission the next day.
Crouching on the plane with his fellow paratroopers in the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, Cruise readied himself.
"It was a lot of noise," he remembers. "You've got hundreds of planes one after the other — vroom, vroom! Well, there they go, we're going next."
Given the greenlight to jump, he says, it was "like a slingshot out the door."
Then, he says, the parachute snapped open. "You think, 'Ah, good. That's the best feeling,' " Cruise says. "I'm not coming down at 90 miles an hour."
Cruise's friend Pvt. Richard Vargas was one of those who died on the battlefield. Cruise watched him die beside him during the mission. Cruise and his division were charged with liberating French towns from the Germans. They saw 33 days of severe fighting.
"His body was sacrificed for mine, simple as that," Cruise says. "So that was a traumatic experience among others but that was probably the most moving. So I always think of that as my physical salvation."
Following D-Day, Cruise parachuted into Holland for Operation Market Garden and was injured by shrapnel in Belgium. To this day, Cruise has almost a half-inch of shrapnel in his wrist, which ended his military career and sent him back to America, according to an interview with National Geographic.
He attended the University of Pennsylvania on the GI Bill and enjoyed a long career as an architect. He takes pride in his family, which includes 15 great-grandchildren.
Now seven decades removed from his service, the veteran wants to honor the legacy of his comrades in arms by sharing his story.
"It was them; it could have been me. But I've been blessed that way, and so you have to go and account for it one day."
The number of World War II veterans who can tell their stories is shrinking rapidly. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 348 World War II veterans die every day.
Asked how Americans can honor veterans and commemorate D-Day, Cruise underscores civic responsibility.
"I want [people] to appreciate what history has done for them and what it has done for this country," Cruise says. "Sacrifice is not just done by the World War II generation. ... Show some citizenship."
Victoria Whitley-Berry and William Jones produced and edited this story for broadcast.
In a previous summary of this story that appeared on the homepage, D-Day was incorrectly said to have occurred in 1945. It was in 1944.
NOEL KING, HOST:
Today world leaders are standing alongside military veterans in northern France. They're marking 75 years since one of the most important days of the 20th century; a day that would shift to the momentum of World War II. It was June 6, 1944, and NBC and BBC newsreaders took to the airwaves.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Ladies and gentlemen, we may be approaching a fateful hour. All night long, bulletins have been pouring in from Berlin claiming that D-Day is here.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces supported by strong air forces began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.
KING: Ships deposited more than 150,000 Allied troops on the beaches of Normandy. German forces were waiting in the cliffs above, and they unleashed. Meanwhile, paratroopers boarded planes, took to the air and dropped behind enemy lines.
LES CRUISE: Oh, it was a lot of noise - one after another.
KING: What did it sound like?
CRUISE: (Imitating plane noise) A lot of, you know, you got hundreds of planes, one right after the other. It was very moving and exciting. You know, you wonder what's going to happen. And 'course, then we fly over the channel. You can look out the window and see the silhouettes of the ships. We know it's going to happen now.
KING: That is Les Cruise. He's 95 years old, and he's one of the last surviving veterans of that D-Day mission. These days, he lives outside of Philadelphia. I went to visit him earlier this week.
I'm Noel. It's nice to meet you.
CRUISE: And your name was what?
KING: Noel, Noel King.
CRUISE: ...Oh, N O E L.
KING: Like Christmas, you got it.
CRUISE: Merry Christmas.
CRUISE: Holy cow.
KING: Inside of his house, family pictures decorate the walls and the fridge. Les has 15 great grandchildren. He grew up in an orphanage, and he couldn't wait to leave to join the military. And so in early 1944, he boarded a ship and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to go to the frontline.
CRUISE: I loved that sailing on, of course. It was so dramatic. You could see all these ships bobbing up and down on the ocean. And destroyers were weaving in and out of them to make sure they uncovered any mines or anything.
KING: When he got to England for the first time, he met other paratroopers who'd already seen combat. Les was a rookie with something to prove.
CRUISE: It was hard to make friends.
CRUISE: Well, they already lost friends, so they were cautious about, you know, who they make friends with. He's liable to be gone tomorrow. So you have to wait and try to fit in. And then, of course, the only time that it'll change that is when you get into combat. So you become one of them after Normandy.
KING: Can you tell me about the day you learned you would be shipping out?
CRUISE: Well, we knew something was going to happen. We were preparing for it, but you didn't know where. And we were all set to jump on the - would be the take-off on the flight - night of the 4th, so D-Day would have been the 5th. But it was pouring rain, so it was held off for 24 hours. But we all were laying on these cots. And the cots were right next to each other. You're talking about 500 cots in this big hangar, so it was a pretty rank place after a while.
KING: Smelled pretty bad?
CRUISE: It smelled mannish, yeah.
KING: ...I like that. Mannish is good.
CRUISE: It smelled mannish.
KING: And then a day later, General Eisenhower gave the go-ahead.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Mass squadrons of bombers and transports led the way, more than 11,000 planes spearheading the attack. Paratroopers landed in Normandy behind the coastal defenses.
CRUISE: You're standing up as we hit the coast, and you're ready to go. And finally, you wait for the green light. Green light comes, and it's like a slingshot out the door.
KING: Were you scared?
CRUISE: Never thought about...
KING: You didn't?
CRUISE: You don't have time to analyze that.
KING: And then that period when you're in the air, your chute is open...
CRUISE: Yeah, it snaps open, and you - ah, good. That's the best feeling. You know it opened.
KING: You did like a little thank God at the...
CRUISE: Yeah, I'm not coming down 90 miles an hour.
KING: Les landed safely, and then he and his division were charged with liberating French towns from the Germans. They saw 33 days of severe fighting. Before seeing combat, it had been hard for Les to make friends, but now that had changed. He still remembers their names, including Private First Class Richard Vargas.
CRUISE: We heard the shells coming, so we flopped down. And his head was right at my shoulder here, and he's body to body. And the shell landed on his side right beside him, tore his leg apart. And I tried to stop the blood - stopped it for a while. But by the time the medic came - we left him with the medic. He was in bad shape. And 'course, he didn't live the day. His body was sacrificed for mine. It's simple as that. So that was a traumatic experience among others, but that was probably the most moving. I always think of that as my physical salvation.
KING: Les was evacuated back to England. Almost half of the men in his division had been killed, injured or were missing in action. Later, on another mission where he parachuted into Holland in the dead of winter, Les was injured. He was caught in a crossfire and hit in the hand with shrapnel. That injury was the end of his service. Then he came home, and coming home took some adjusting.
CRUISE: It's a big change. You haven't seen combat. Now all of a sudden, you have. And the reality of life, you know, and all the friends that you have, the formations that you make have suddenly been destroyed in one day, in one hour or whatever. And you have to live with it. It was them - could have been me. But I've been blessed that way. And you have to - going to have to account for it one day.
KING: What do you mean by that?
CRUISE: Going to stand before the Lord, and I'm going to have to give him an account of my life.
KING: We are marking 75 years since D-Day.
KING: What's the one thing you want people to know about as we mark this day?
CRUISE: I want them to appreciate what history has done for them and what it has done for this country. And the sacrifice is not just done by the World War II generation. There was generation after generation after generation of this country's formation and on up. And I would expect them to pick up the ball and run with it. Show some citizenship.
(SOUNDBITE OF LONDON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF COPLAND'S "APPALACHIAN SPRING")
KING: That's World War II veteran paratrooper Les Cruise. He talked to me about the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.