WWII vet brings D-Day to life for new generation

UTAH BEACH, France -- It's been nearly 70 years since Charlie Wilson was on Utah Beach, where he landed in the first wave with the U.S. 4th Division. Then, the object wasn't to take in the scenery, it was to take France.

"We got in," Wilson says.

But the point was not to stay there.

"Get off this dang old beach and get outta here," he says. "And never look back."

He was an 18-year-old kid in a tank then, which makes him 88 now. This is his first trip back.

"I was scared to death, and I was shaking -- 'Are they going to kill us?'" he recalls. "But we were trained to do it swiftly and surprise them and outsmart them."

Wilson says he couldn't afford to go back until now.

"I was a school principal, and when I retired, that's all I was making -- $19,000," he says.

Wilson helped the French then, and they've helped him now. The French government paid his way so that he could tell his story in Normandy to the grandchildren of those he helped liberate.

To them, Wilson is history in the flesh. To him, their freedom is what he fought for.

Charlie Wilson
CBS News

"I'm proud to be here after 70 years to see what has happened," Wilson says.

And they, says Julie LaLoutre, are proud of him.

"I will always remember his emotion," she says. "He was really breathtaking."

Wilson came to France with a group of high school students from Kentucky. You don't get history lessons like this at George Rogers Clark High in Winchester, says Montanna Palmer.

"And if we can't show this kind of respect to someone who was willing to lay down their life for people that they don't even know, then I don't know what kind of respect we can give people," she says.

Wilson tells his story to the grandchildren of those he helped liberate.
CBS News

Wilson got plenty of respect here, honored at a commemoration attended by thousands.

"I didn't think I deserved it," he says. "All veterans are my heroes. I would still go back if I had to today. I could still kick butt, if I had to."

Like he did then.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.