Haskin's Derby Report: Normandy Invasion Revisited

For William A. Wilch, Ray Woods, J.J. Witmeyer, and Alan Reeves, this year’s Kentucky Derby will have great significance, evoking images that have remained indelible for seven decades. The four unknowingly helped inspire the name of Kentucky Derby contender Normandy Invasion, along with the other thousands of brave soldiers who participated in the historic events of June 6, 1944.

Normandy Invasion’s owner, Rick Porter, was so moved during his visit to Normandy and the D-Day beaches, especially the American cemetery that overlooks Omaha Beach, he wanted to pay tribute to the men and the invasion that eventually led to the surrender of Germany.

Not only did he name his colt by Tapit – Boston Lady, by Boston Harbor Normandy Invasion, after first trying for the name Arromanches (after the French town where the artificial harbor was built), he arranged through Richard Duchossois, who operates Arlington Park (which is owned by Churchill Downs), to bring four D-Day veterans to the Kentucky Derby as his guests.

After flying into Lexington, they will be at trainer Chad Brown’s barn Friday, where they will greet the media. They will then van to Churchill Downs Saturday morning.

Porter actually got the idea from a phone call he received from Alan Reeves. He told Porter his story and expressed a desire to be at the Derby and root on Normandy Invasion.

Porter thought it would be a great idea to have Reeves and others join him at Churchill Downs. He felt this was a perfect way of thanking them and hopefully providing them with a trip they will remember.

He began spreading the word about his idea, first talking to ESPN’s Jeannine Edwards, whose sister works for a veterans group and wrote up a story saying Porter was looking for Normandy veterans to invite. A number of e-mails and phone calls ensued and several people came forth to help out.

Wilch, 89, of Ohio, served with the 29th Infantry Division that landed on the Fox Green Sector of Omaha Beach. Wilch and another Pfc, Burton E. Burfeind, were assigned to take 12 captured German artillery officers to company headquarters, along with maps showing enemy artillery positions. Both Wilch and Burfeind were awarded the Bronze Star in their role in delivering the German officers, thwarting a German attack while vastly outnumbered.

On June 22nd, Wilch was wounded in action by an enemy hand grenade. After recovering in England he returned to France in early July 1944 in time to fight in the battle of Vire in what would be the early stages of the Battle of the Falise Gap. On August 15th 1944 he was severely wounded by an artillery round bursting in the tree tops.  He then returned to rehabilitation in England through the early months of 1945.

After his recovery, Wilch’s assignments were limited to guarding German prisoners of war. He thwarted one escape attempt, recapturing the prisoners as they were evading capture. In the fall 1945 with the war now over, Wilch was assigned to guard U.S facilities at an abandoned U.S. Air base near Belfast, North Ireland.

On Thanksgiving Day 1945, Wilch returned home on the captured German liner Breman. Renamed by the U.S. Navy as the Europa, as the ship entered New York Harbor, it nearly capsized as all the troops aboard rushed to one side of the ship to view the Statue of Liberty.  A quick thinking crew averted disaster. As the ship sailed ahead under even keel, a yacht carrying The Andrews Sisters pulled alongside the Europa. Again, all the soldiers ran to the railing to see them, nearly capsizing the ship a second time only a few minutes later. This time the crewmen used clubs to spread the troops evenly to prevent a post war disaster. Even today, Wilch remembers the event vividly, thinking to himself how awful it would been to die in New York harbor after surviving Omaha Beach.

Woods, also from Ohio, served as a Radarman on the USS O’Brien, which led 45 LCIs to Utah Beach, after which it headed to Omaha Beach and was the first Destroyer to go to the water’s edge to take out German gun emplacements. These Destroyers played a major role in the success of the D-Day invasion.

Witmeyer, of New Orleans, won the French Legion of Merit, which is equivalent to the Medal of Honor. He was part of the Utah Beach invasion and was awarded two Purple Hearts. At age 92, he is still an active docent at the National World War II Museum.

All told, Witmeyer has been awarded two Purple Hearts, four Bronze Stars, two Presidential Unit citations, a European Campaign medal, a Combat Infantryman's badge and scores of other military decorations to his name.

He was one of 75 recipients of the Legion of  Merit, France's highest award, which was presented to him in Paris on June 5, 2009, the day before the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy.

He was congratulated by Sen. Bob Dole and actor Tom Hanks, and the following day joined President Barack Obama, Prince Charles of Britain, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Normandy for the D-Day commemoration.

Reeves, 91, from San Diego, worked as a French translator and was assigned to the Supreme Command under General Eisenhower, where he worked on a number of special assignments. He helped lead an invasion in Southern France, taking over a building in Marseille that had been used by the Gestapo.

He attended school in France and one of his classmates was Prince Philip.

As for the equine Normandy Invasion, he had another of his typical spirited gallops this morning and schooled beautifully before the third race, never breaking out in a sweat, despite the hot temperatures. He stood perfectly in his stall and never turned a hair walking around the ring.

Other schoolers today were Orb and trainer Todd Pletcher’s five Derby candidates, and all did well considering the heat. Revolutionary’s coat looked great and it was reassuring to see him back galloping this morning and feeling good.

The post position draw, or I should say the dread post position draw, is an hour away as this is being written, after which we’ll have a much better idea where we stand.

Wednesday Schooling Photos
All photos by Steve Haskin.

 
Normandy Invasion


Normandy Invasion


Verrazano


Verrazano


Revolutionary


Orb


Palace Malice


Overanalyze

14 Comments

Leave a Comment:

mz

The American Cemetery is a powerful place.  

As a Canadian, I also went to the  little Canadian cemetery outside of Beny-sur-Mer.  Also a powerful place.

All full of 20yo's and 30yo's with a sprinkling of 40yo's.

I am glad I had a chance to visit these sites.  Good on Porter for the remembrance.

01 May 2013 5:04 PM
Pedigree Ann

They didn't get Arromanches, because the grey, near white, Relaunch horse still has offspring racing, in particular, the durable and versatile Caixa Eletronica. Arromanches raced until he was 9, won 31 of 78 races, and over $800K. He's never had a crop over 15 in number, but is the sire of the winners of around $3 million in purses. His 2013 fee was listed as 'Private.'

01 May 2013 7:17 PM
Davids

Nice photos Steve, the horses look good and ready to run. Orb and Normandy Invasion drew well which was a positive omen. I always feel for those who are 'possibly' unlucky with the number they are given. Fingers crossed for a fine day and clear racing - it's just too exciting.

01 May 2013 7:17 PM
Fran Loszynski

Oh Steve what a courageous story. I have tears in my eyes! I hope these brave men can visit Gainesway and Tapit- Normandy's Dad. It is the most peaceful place, nothing short of paradise. I think Normandy is going to reach the finish line and with Boston Harbor and Boston Lady circling round his head this fearless and eye-catching colt will take us back to bravery. Dear sweet  BOSTON City of our young patriots and Normandy your war horse has arrived!

01 May 2013 8:35 PM
DDD

I am disappointed that all the so-called experts have not addressed the big issue with Orb's behavior before the race. Please think back to what this horse looked like before the Florida Derby. He was a hot mess! So...for a little Handicapping 101 lesson please look at the above pictures. Notice each horse's body language and their eyes. A+++ to

Verrazano, Normandy Invasion,Overanalyze(he looks like a sweety in the paddock), B to Palace Malice, C- to Revolutionary AND

F- to Orb..he is washed out,tense,& not a happy horse...

Guys, do you really think this horse will handle the long walk over in front of the grandstand, the overcrowded paddock, and a longer wait than normal in this enclosure?????

Thanks for these awesome pictures to help me prove my point, Mr. Haskin  

01 May 2013 9:03 PM
Paula Higgins

We owe these men everything. The American, British and Canadian Cemeteries speak for themselves. I wish the young kids knew about D-Day and its significance. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be a topic of discussion in most history classes anymore.

I loved this article Steve, just loved it. I wish them luck with Normandy Invasion. He is in my top 5 with Verrazano, Revolutionary, Orb and the 5th spot to be determined. I would be very happy to see him or Orb win.

01 May 2013 10:14 PM
Sail On

Steve, what a joy to read your stories! Normandy Invasion got an excellent PP and should finish first if he can catch Verrazano.

02 May 2013 12:54 AM
nordancer

A very touching story.  I'm rooting for Normandy Invasion, whose chances have now increased with Mike Battaglia picking Orb as the favorite. Mike never picks the winner so, in as much as I like Orb, his chance of winning has been handed the kiss of death.

02 May 2013 7:18 AM
A Horsey Canuck

Thank you, Steve, for such a great history lesson, and for introducing these wonderfully, heroic men. What an honour for Churchill Downs and all in attendance to have them share such a marvellous horse on such a special day. I was born 2 days after D-Day in England, and even though Normandy Invasion is not my favourite, after this, I am definitely pulling for him. As always, thank you for such a great and insightful piece.

02 May 2013 11:50 AM
mz

Hey Paula: when we were in Normandy in 2007 and were walking along Juno Beach, a trio of French kids were riding their bikes along the dunes and the path.  They went swooping past us and then stopped, listening a bit because we were speaking in English.  We then started talking to them in French and then my sister, the teacher, said: do you know what happened on this beach?  And they actually knew about Canadians hitting Juno Beach on D Day; they actually studied it.  These were 13 or 14yo boys.

There's hope.

02 May 2013 12:05 PM
Jean in Chicago

Steve,

Every time you do a back story on a horse, I wind up with somebody new to root for.  And this piece kept bringing to mind the great Omaha, the only triple crown winning son of a triple crown winner (Gallant Fox).  Maybe that's another omen.

02 May 2013 2:34 PM
GonnaFinallyHitThe Derby13

DDD...yes ORB looked washed out a bit before the FD then he ran by them like they had cement shoes on. Its a crapshoot but you can keep looking in their eyes.

02 May 2013 3:15 PM
El Kabong

Steve,

I am a big fan of Tapit. I rooted for him that year in the Wood and the Derby. I have an immense amount of respect for his offspring who are excelling. Yet, I doubted this horse would like going beyond 9F's. But I liked his effort in the Wood. I love that he is feeling his oats and I am going to include him in my elite 5. I really hope he gets a good trip and lights up the board. Don't expect a win but definitely a brave showing. He's running for the greatest generation. Boots On NI!

02 May 2013 8:54 PM
Coldfacts

With a 70% chance of rain Goldencents has a great opportunity to wire the Derby field.

He will not be caught.

03 May 2013 8:20 AM

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