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Veterans Day: Trip to Omaha Beach provides opportunity to pay respects

From left, Bemidji area veterans Tony Nicholson, Ron Nelson and Ed Nelson, with the help of dark-coated officials, raise the American flag at the American Cemetery on the cliff above Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. Not pictured are veterans Bob Montbriand and Arlin Sorheim. More than 10,000 Americans who died as a result of the D-Day invasion are buried in the cemetery. Submitted Photo

Flanked by the graves of thousands of American soldiers, a group of Bemidji veterans raised the flag that flies on the cliff over Omaha Beach.

The veterans took part in the Oct. 14-25 First National Bank 55 Connection tour of France led by club director Lynda Stenseng. The group traveled through various parts of France, but for the veterans, seeing the Normandy beaches and bluffs where the American, English and Canadian Allies made their landings on D-Day, June 6, 1944, was the most impressive experience.

As veterans, members of the group were invited by the American Cemetery staff to participate in the daily flag-raising ceremony.

The cemetery, situated on the height above the landing site, is the resting place of more than 10,000 Americans who died as a result of the D-Day invasion - or the Liberation, as the French call the landing that was the beginning of the end of World War II.

"It was quite moving. It was the highlight of the whole trip," said Clarence Monger, who served in the U.S. Army stationed in North Carolina from 1953-1955.

"It was really quite an honor," said Ed Nelson, who served in the Army in Korea from 1960-1962.

"There were a few tears shed," said Tony Nicholson, who served in the Army in Korea from 1963-1965. "Emotionally inspirational - very moving for us who were there."

"Raising our flag in their country in memory of our fallen soldiers - I was crying," said Ron Nelson, who served in the Army in Korea from 1968-1971.

The veterans also visited the grave of Pvt. Virgil Tangborn, a Bemidji man who died in battle on June 14, 1944.

"My half-brother (Gordon John Nelson) was there," said Ed Nelson. "It was really emotional to see all those graves."

"Gordon John Nelson was my father," said Ed's nephew, Ron Nelson. "He landed on Omaha Beach and survived."

"My brother (Otis Monger) was over there - he was with the 158th Combat Engineers Division," Monger said. "He fought there. I just wanted to see where he'd been."

Monger said his brother, a tall man, told when he returned home about disembarking on D-Day from the landing craft into the deep water and grabbing the collar of a short man, holding him up to keep him from drowning.

"(Otis) didn't know what happened to him," Monger said.

Monger said his brother and other engineers had to bury the dead quickly in mass graves as the American troops moved inland. After the battle, they had to return to the battlefield, disinter the bodies and sort them out by their dog tags for individual burial.

"That was hard," Monger said.

Of the 30 travelers who participated in the trip, the other area veterans were Bob Montbriand and Arlin Sorheim.

They visited other Allied landing sites, as well as the Cimetiere Allemand where the German casualties of the battle are buried. There are about twice as many German dead as American.

Nicholson said the birth and death dates are carved on the crosses in the German Cemetery.

"Some of those soldiers you could see were pretty young," he said.