To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, I am reprinting a story from 2013 when Rick Porter had Normandy Invasion in the Kentucky Derby and brought several survivors of the invasion to Churchill Downs, taking them to the backstretch one morning to meet his horse where they all told stories, still with vivid recollection, of their adventures and heroics. Porter's efforts might have had a storybook ending if his 2019 Kentucky Derby favorite Omaha Beach had not been a late withdrawal from the Run for the Roses due to an entrapped epiglottis.
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.