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Profiles

The Greatest Generations Foundation takes WWII veterans back to Normandy

When Clarence and Kerry Scharbauer flew to Normandy, they expected a history lesson. What they found was a living testament to World War II.

WWII-era Jeeps in Normandy
Touring Normandy in refurbished WWII-era Jeeps.

Lieutenant Arthur Staymates charged ashore on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. He was part of the first wave of American troops to storm Normandy on D-Day. He says it was like “coming into hell,” crashing out of the landing crafts into a hail of machine gun fire and mortars. The unit sustained 75 percent casualties – most killed before they made it from the surf to the top of the cliffs. He was 19 years old. But Staymates had no time to mourn. He fought on: in Paris, Bastogne, the Battle of the Bulge. As a member of the 1st Infantry Division, known as the Big Red One (for the large red numeral one on their shoulder patches), he was part of the most decorated unit in the European theater.

They were later chosen to serve as MPs at the Nuremberg trials at the end of the war.

When Staymates shipped back to the United States he could never have imagined that he would return to France 70 years later. But in October 2015, he traveled to the small town of Caen, Normandy, with The Greatest Generations Foundation (TGGF), a Colorado-based nonprofit that takes veterans back to the battlefields where they once fought, all expenses paid.

“The only thing we ask for in return is for them to tell us their stories,” says founder Timothy Davis. The firsthand accounts are recorded and turned into vignettes available for viewing on the organization’s website. “Our goal is to preserve their legacies.”

Since its founding in 2004, TGGF has taken more than 3,500 American combat veterans back to their battlefields. They go in groups of 20 to 30 and stay an average of two weeks. So far, the organization has completed over 110 of these programs (called “programs” rather than “trips” to highlight the educational component of these battlefield returns).

Staymates was with a smaller group that had gone on to Normandy after a larger program in other parts of Europe. The men included Davis and another vet, Joseph Reilly, who parachuted into Normandy behind enemy lines at 1:30 a.m., five hours before Staymates landed.

As Staymates headed to meet his companions at the hotel bar in Caen, another man was checking in: Clarence Scharbauer, a Texas businessman with interests in oil and gas, as well as real estate development. He and his wife Kerry had just traveled to Scotland on their Challenger 300 aircraft to fulfill her lifelong dream of seeing the lands of her ancestors, who include William Wallace, the hero who inspired the film Braveheart. Now it was Clarence’s turn to set the itinerary. He was born on D-Day (though years after the war ended), and had wanted to visit the Normandy beaches his entire life.

 

Soldiers in Normandy, France
Soldiers approach the coast of Normandy, France, on D-Day.

While his wife settled into their room, Scharbauer walked into the hotel restaurant. There, he noticed the American veterans in their uniforms.

“I introduced myself and Joe said, ‘Clarence, I’m Joe Reilly and I’m here with The Greatest Generations Foundation. I jumped in the 101st Airborne on D-Day outside of Sainte-Mère-Église.’ I sat down, and I just went, ‘Really?’ Then I said, ‘And you, sir?’” That’s when he met Staymates. “Both of them were just as clear as a bell,” Scharbauer recalls fondly in his Texan drawl.

Like Staymates, Reilly survived while many of his comrades were killed in action. He spent three weeks fighting in the notorious Normandy hedgerows, the maze-like fields where American soldiers faced heavy mortar fire from German forces. He then went on to Holland – where he jumped again.

He is one of the last members of the Band of Brothers involved in Operation Overlord, the code name for the Allied invasion of France.

Soon after the men began trading stories, Kerry Scharbauer joined them and both she and her husband noted how almost everyone at the restaurant came up to the men and asked for pictures or autographs.

“Justin Bieber,” is how TGGF’s Davis describes it. “That’s exactly what it’s like for these 90-year-old men when they go back to these little villages.”

Kerry Scharbauer immediately noted how different the two veterans, soon known as “Art and Joe,” were. “Joe’s 94, shorter than me – and I’m 5'3"! He walks with a cane but he can still wear his same exact paratrooper uniform and boots from the day he left the army. He’s a born storyteller.” Meanwhile, “Art is 91, 6'2", stately and handsome. Kind, soft-spoken, very intelligent.”

While the two men never met during the war, they bonded through the foundation, and were happy to let Clarence and Kerry join in. When the Scharbauers heard that the veterans were planning to drive three hours to Paris to catch a commercial flight back to the United States, they invited them to stay a few days longer so they could fly them back in the Challenger 300 jet.

After a surprised silence, the men happily agreed. Then Davis suggested that he and the vets act as guides to the Scharbauers, and it was the couple’s turn to offer an enthusiastic, “Absolutely!”

“We put these men back where they were as 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids… They say goodbye to their brothers in cemeteries throughout Europe and the Pacific. They release demons. They find closure.”

The group set out early the next day for the first leg of a three-day tour in refurbished World War II era Jeeps. That windy October morning at Omaha Beach (the code name given to the stretch of French coastline by the American military) the Scharbauers saw firsthand the impact The Greatest Generations Foundation has on combat veterans. They arrived at 9:06 a.m. because, Clarence Scharbauer explains, “Timothy Davis knew at 9:06 that day the tide would be exactly the same as the day that Art landed in the first wave on Omaha.” The temperature was near freezing. The sands were deserted save for a family kicking a soccer ball. It was the first time Staymates had been back since the war.

“Art figured out where it was he came in because he recognized the cliffs. He remembered going up them when they knocked out the Nazis’ machine gun next to the bunkers.”

When the group got out of the Jeep, Staymates started crying, says Clarence Scharbauer. “And then we all backed off.”

Except Joseph Reilly. The two men sat in the Jeep together and talked. Timothy Davis says that this strong emotional reaction happens a lot.

“We put these men back where they were as 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids,” Davis says. “One veteran starts to talk and find the emotion. The other men understand what he’s going through. They cry, or the tone of their voice changes; they comfort each other. After seven decades, they see what they did was worth it. They say goodbye to their brothers in cemeteries throughout Europe and the Pacific. They release demons. They find closure.”

As Staymates and Reilly talked, Kerry Scharbauer watched the children laughing on the beach as the wind caught their soccer ball. She reflected on the fact that these strangers had no idea that only a few feet away from them were men who had secured their freedom, whose bravery had likely made their very lives possible.

After three days of touring out-of-the-way museums and bunkers and secret spots only men who had fought on the beaches could know about, it was time to head home. Knowing they would soon be saying goodbye wasn’t easy for either group.

“They both fell flat-smooth in love with Kerry!” Clarence Scharbauer says with a warm laugh. “She made sure they had their blankets on when they were in the Jeeps, that Joe had his pint of Guinness at night. Joe even asked me when we got back to Midland, ‘Can I take her home?’ And I said, ‘Well, we’ve been married for 43 years. I don’t know, Joe.’”

As the men boarded the aircraft, they couldn’t have known they were helping the Scharbauers fulfill a vow Clarence Scharbauer had made in a speech at the delivery ceremony for the Challenger 300 jet, the last one built before the Challenger 350 entered into service.

“I told Bombardier that day that this airplane wouldn’t just be for doing business. When we can help, we’re going to help,” says Scharbauer, who is on the board of Texas Christian University (and had the aircraft painted with a TCU purple and black stripe). “I love these guys, and I love what they represent and what they did for this country.”

Adds Kerry Scharbauer, “It was a blessing to have them on that plane and know that they were comfortable. We put them in those front seats that can recline. They could lie back and put their feet up. We had them covered with blankets. They took naps. Even though Art’s a really tall man, he could almost stand up in our plane. He could get up and move about in the cabin and get some circulation going.”

No matter how veterans return from The Greatest Generations Foundation programs overseas, it’s only the beginning of their journey.

“When they come home, they’re able to say to the families, ‘Here’s what happened. Here’s my story,’” says Davis. “Some of them haven’t talked about their wartime experiences for 70 years.” They also continue to share their stories and those of other veterans with the public. “How we engage them back into the community throughout the United States – we feel strongly about this – we’ve extended their lives. They’ve got something to fight for: their legacies.”

The men also reunite, courtesy of The Greatest Generations Foundation, at NASCAR events, and at professional football and baseball games. And the efforts won’t end when the World War II veterans fade away. Davis points out that there’s a reason the name of the foundation is plural: Generations. Veterans who fought in Vietnam will be its next big focus. Men like Arthur Staymates and Joseph Reilly are joining TGGF’s efforts to create new programs and get the next wave of veterans back to visit the battlegrounds of Vietnam.

“The men who participate in TGGF programs overseas all come home with the same goal, the same mission,” Davis says. “How can I help the next group of veterans?”

This story was originally printed in issue 26 of Experience magazine published May 18, 2016. Arthur Staymates passed away April 23, 2017.

How you can help

Roughly 123,000 veterans have applied to The Greatest Generations Foundation to go back to their foreign battle sites. To assist all of those who served, more resources are needed.

“We’re getting applications every day. But we’re also receiving obituaries of the veterans who have been patiently waiting,” says founder Timothy Davis. “Our mission is to put as many back on the battlefields of Normandy and Pearl Harbor and other sites before it’s too late.”

One of the biggest hurdles TGGF faces: the actual air travel.

“We want to fly them all first class, but on the routes we fly there are usually not enough seats,” says Davis. While he would love to partner with a major airline, he welcomes the participation of more private aircraft owners like the Scharbauers.

“I can fill that plane right now and send them to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii or Normandy, France. All these veterans need is a few days’ notice. Get their hair cut, pack their bags, and they’re gone.”

The Greatest Generations Foundation is an IRS 501(C)(3) tax-exempt charitable organization. Make a donation or volunteer your personal or corporate aircraft by going to The Greatest Generations Foundation website. You can also check out photos of veterans and their journeys back to the battlefields on the group’s Facebook page.

www.tggf.org

A version of this article appeared in Issue 26 of Experience magazine published May 18, 2016.

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