D-Day remembered, as veterans of fateful event dwindle

Nicholas Lemme has forgotten a lot since he landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy 71 years ago, but what he remembers floods his eyes with tears.

He was drafted into the Army at 18 during World War II and spent three years in the service, mostly in Europe. When he got home, he was told to forget everything he saw.

But he couldn’t block it all out. He remembers his injuries and going to the hospital, and the men who died beside him. He fought in the Battle of Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Rhineland.

On Friday, at age 91, the Stuart resident was one of 10 veterans honored in Boynton Beach by the French with their highest medal, the Legion of Honor.

His family let out loud cheers when his name was called.

Awarding the medals was part of a ceremony held by the Boynton Veterans Council to commemorate the 71st anniversary of D-Day. The ceremony was held at Veterans Memorial Park on Federal Highway and was attended by more than 100 men, women and children. The group sang the U.S. and French national anthems, and both flags waved throughout the ceremony.

One of the speakers, veteran Stuart Preston of Boynton Beach, said he appreciated the public attending the event. Preston said he turned 19 when “Uncle Sam” came calling. He landed on Utah Beach on D-Day and said he spent about six years in the service, many of which were in combat zones.

“Through all of that I survived and I’m happy to say I’m here today,” he said.

Many who attended the event were the veterans’ family members, who showed their support by clapping, cheering, and taking photos and videos. The Consul General of France, Philippe Létrilliart, pinned the medals on the 10 veterans and thanked them for their service.

“I am from Normandy. I know what it means for my people there and for the French people, what you have done for us,” Létrilliart said. “In France, everyone remembers what you have done. Everyone. Not only in my dear Normandy. Everywhere in our country. And we will not forget your action, your sacrifice.”

When each veteran was called to receive the medal, Létrilliart said to them in French: “On behalf of the president of the French Republic, I present you with the medal of the Legion of Honor.”

After Army veteran Ralph Sweitzer received his, the 95-year-old signaled to Létrilliart that he wanted a kiss on each cheek.

“That’s my daddy,” a woman said.

Sweitzer of Vero Beach fought in the battles of the Bulge and Rhineland. Several of his family members flew to the area for the ceremony, including his nephew’s 9-year-old grandson, Oliver Wang.

Oliver has taken an interest in Sweitzer’s history and recently interviewed him for a school project.

Sweitzer’s son, Ralph Jr., also flew in for the event and said it was “amazing” for him to see his dad be honored in such a way.

“My father lost his entire platoon. Everyone died in the bunker except him,” Sweitzer, an Air Force veteran who fought in Vietnam, said of his dad. “Many of our veterans died before they could receive the honor they deserve.”

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