ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO) — Four Gen Z participants from the Rockford area recently accompanied two World War II veterans on a trip to France and Belgium, learning history from the men who lived it.
The “Normandy: Bridge to History” project works toward bridging the history gap between Gen Z and The Greatest Generation.
In June of 1944 a young Gene Kleindl landed on Utah Beach as a Combat Medic. He never dreamed he would one day return.
But 79 years later, Kleindl made the journey back to the beaches of Normandy. The 101-year-old says returning was bittersweet.
“It brought back a lot of memories for me. And I remember a lot of guys who got killed and so forth where they were at and so on. And things you hadn’t thought for a long, long time. Was it hard? A little bit but time kind of heals a lot of stuff,” he said.
During their visit to France and Belgium, word got out that American WWII Veterans were there and people sought them out. For Kleindl, that was especially touching.
Mikayla Kind, one of the Gen Zers who participated, recalled, “When he got to Utah (Beach), he stood up and wanted to walk the entire way to the beach because that’s the beach he landed on. And then a bunch of school kids came around and talked to him for about fifteen minutes they are from France. Asking about his story and how thankful they were. To say thank you to a 101-year-old that they didn’t even know. Just amazing experience.”
Evan Benkovich, also a Gen Z participant, said, “Every time other people asked him and actually showed genuine interest he opened up a lot. And I feel like he just hasn’t experienced that a lot here. He hasn’t had a lot of people asking him about what he did. A lot of people in the US just see him as a 100-year-old guy. Not the 19-year-old who was scared to leave home but found himself in France being a medic treating wounds he couldn’t even imagine when he lived at home and now he’s here.”
Much to their surprise, the veterans were showered with attention and treated like celebrities.
“Oh yes, we were. Gee. The French gave us a royal welcome. Every place we went,” said WWII Navy Veteran William “Magic Bill” Hunter.
While the pair said the show of gratitude was refreshing, the visit to Normandy American cemetery was especially sobering. Seeing the more than 9,300 marble crosses in honor of the Americans killed on D-day.
During a solemn ceremony, the French military presented both veterans with American flags.
“Wars have been going on in the world almost since the beginning of time,” Hunter said. “At the end of WWII, we thought that’s the last war. But the wars continue. It’s not the people. It’s the leaders of the country.”
Hearing the stories firsthand from the veterans themselves made it more personal for the young adults. Especially when Gene talked about his older brother, Cliff, who was fighting at the same time.
“We were able to be in the field where he heard his brother was injured during the war. And he was a medic trying to get to his brother who was injured in the field and not knowing what state he was in. It just put you in the first-hand experience of what they went through,” Kind said.
“He got wounded. I hitchhiked trying to go to where he was located. But when I got there they’d already evacuated him back to England. Cliff made it out okay.” Kleindl said.
Cliff got out but thousands of U-S soldiers did not. It’s history these veterans don’t want to see repeated.
“What do they say? There’s enough in this world for every man’s need. But not enough for one man’s greed,” Hunter said.
The trip was documented by Drywater Productions, a Janesville production company, who hopes the documentary can be shown in schools.