O’FALLON, MO (KTVI) - Thursday marks 69 years since the Allied forces landed in Normandy and began the invasion that ultimately led to Hitler’s defeat. In St. Louis, the D-Day anniversary was commemorated with a ceremony at Jefferson Barracks. In attendance was Retired Sgt. Bob Hale, who touched down in Normandy and survived, despite the odds.
It’s a sad reality that each year, the number of World War II vets, alive and able to tell their stories, continues to dwindle. Hale now lives in O’Fallon, MO, and is one of just four members of the 101st Airborne Division left in the state.
To this day, he remembers D-Day like it was yesterday. “You don’t forget any of it,” the former US Army paratrooper says.
His job on June 6, 1944: drop down into Normandy and secure bridges, to make traveling through enemy territory easier for incoming troops. “There was a lot of firing going on,” he recalls, “but I was on the ground in no time, got out of my chute and headed west.”
Among his clearest memories is General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s now-famous speech, given right before the D-Day invasion. Hale explains, “He wanted us to fight like hell for three days, then he’d get in there to get us out. I always admired him because he was an honest man, and told us the truth.”
Out of the 160,000 allied troops in Normandy, 9,000 were killed or wounded. It dawned on Hale, as he jumped from the plane, that he could have easily been among them.
“The man in front of me was our male orderly, and he was killed on the way down, he never got out of his suit. And the man that jumped behind me, he was killed too. So I feel pretty fortunate that I’m here today,” he says.
Meanwhile, the risk was all too real for Hale’s new wife, Thelma. She’d run home for the mail every day, desperate to hear from him after D-Day.
Thelma Hale recalls, “Finally got a letter, and that’s when he told me, if they say I’m missing in action, don’t believe them. And I thought, how does that work?”
Sixty-nine years later, Bob and Thelma are still going strong. They just celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.
Mementos from Hale’s time overseas are proudly displayed at home, from photographs to purple hearts. There was also a pocket-sized Bible, a gift from his wife. Its metal case was meant to protect him in battle, and judging from the blood still stained on the metal, it served its purpose.
Three months after Normandy, Hale was wounded during another mission, struck by two gun shots to his leg and lung.
Thelma recalls, “The doctors told him he would get well, that his surgery went well, but it would take 10 years off his life.” Jokingly, she adds, “And I keep asking him, what ten years is it going to take?”
At ages 90 and 91, the two are thankful for the memories, but more so that they're still here to tell, firsthand, such an incredible American story.
“I keep telling him he’s a hero,” Thelma says.