OMAHA BEACH, France (AP) — Exactly 75 years — almost to the minute — after his dad battled his way through the carnage that was Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944, Randall Atanay kicked off his shoes and waded into the chill waters, so cleansing and still, that had run red when his father, an army medic, tended the dying and injured.
The 57-year-old firefighter from Lahabra, California, sobbed, overcome by the enormity of what his father and his comrades endured on those sands and the emotion of walking in his footsteps.
“Everything we talked about and everything he did: I flash-backed through life with him, all the way until he died. I flashed through that. My brothers, my mom, came to mind. I just imagined what he was coming into. Unbelievable. I broke down. I couldn’t hold it in,” he said Thursday.
In his mind, spooling like a movie, he replayed memories like the story his mom told him of how his parents reunited when his father miraculously survived the D-Day bloodshed and came home.
Still on crutches from the mortar blast that blew away his kneecap, Manuel Atanay had tracked down the love of his life, Dahlia, who’d refused to marry him before he shipped off to war in Europe, when no one could be sure if any of the young men would return.
“‘Hey beautiful, where have you been all my life?'” Manuel Atanay had asked her.
“Waiting for you,” replied the soon-to-be Mrs. Atanay.
Awed and humbled, their son gave thanks to all those who landed on the beaches of Normandy that fateful day and helped turn the tide of World War II.
“I can’t explain the gratitude I have, how lucky I am to have him as a father, what he did for us, his sacrifice, everybody’s sacrifice, everybody who was on this beach that day,” Randall said. “The ‘greatest generation’ is true.”
Manuel Atanay never returned to France before his death at age 83. They’d had plans, as a family, to do so. But life got in the way. Randall lost both parents and one brother, and his other brother has cancer. So Randall made the pilgrimage to Normandy with friends.
Silhouetted in a line against the fiery sun rising above the mercury-blue waters, the four of them waded together into the waves and pictured the hell that met the troops 75 years ago.
“They were kids. Running into gunfire. Just fighting for their country. It’s amazing. A common cause. Not realizing what they were getting into. Especially here,” Randall said.
Manuel Atanay was 20 when he hit the beach with the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Infantry Division, in the first 30 minutes of the landings. Omaha was the bloodiest of the five code-named D-Day beaches, with steep bluffs from which German defenders raked the Americans with fire. On the sand, Randall counted his steps, trying to work out how long it might have taken his father to cross the flat expanse at low tide with no cover.
His father didn’t speak much about what he saw that day.
“He said it was a big blur,” Randall said. “It came back into his head about 50 years later, when he saw the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan.'”
“That was the first time I saw any emotion out of him. We talked about the war,” Randall recalled. “He was pretty shook up.”
Having survived D-Day, Manuel Atanay was injured as his unit fought inland into the dense Normandy hedgerows.
“A mortar hit this tree above him, killed his partner and blew his kneecap apart,” Randall said. Evacuated back to England, doctors “took out the muscle that had gangrene in it, and he saved his leg.”
After the war, Manuel Atanay worked as a dental technician, with Dahlia by his side.
“Amazing couple,” Randall said. “They spent their whole life together.”
“If I can only be half the man he was, I’d be doing good,” he said.
Follow all of the AP’s coverage of D-Day at https://apnews.com/WorldWarII