Before a ceremony to commemorate D-Day got underway Thursday afternoon, Magali Willar took the chance to thank a veteran.
Willar, 47, of Las Vegas, approached 94-year-old William Dunsmore, a two-time Purple Heart recipient and Navy veteran who served on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the Allies invaded Western Europe in World War II.
“I’m from Normandy. For me, this is personal,” she told him at the 75th anniversary event at the Las Vegas Elks Lodge on Charleston Boulevard. “My grandmother was 12 years old when you came and saved us. At the time, they all thought they were going to die.
“Seventy-five years. That’s a lot of time. I almost got killed,” Dunsmore said. “Can you imagine? I never thought I’d be alive.”
He recalled getting to Omaha Beach with the first boats. It was calm, he said, for about 20 minutes.
“Then, all hell broke loose,” he said.
At that moment, Thursday’s ceremony began. U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., stopped to shake his hand.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I’m here to honor you,” she said.
Hundreds attended the Elks Lodge ceremony, and about 20 World War II veterans there were honored by name. The Nellis Air Force Base Honor Guard did a presentation of the colors, and Dunsmore said the Pledge of Allegiance. Performers sang the national anthem, the French national anthem, “God Bless America” and other patriotic songs, as well as popular music from the 1940s that helped get the soldiers through the war.
“D-Day marked the beginning of the end of the Axis powers,” said Bob Reed, trustee for the Elks Lodge. “And if you look in these veterans’ eyes, you can see they’re still the same 18-year-old and 17-year-old boys that entered the war.”
Former Nevada Gov. and U.S. Sen. Richard Bryan read the names of the World War II veterans in the room. He recalled being 6, growing up in Las Vegas, when the D-Day invasion began. He said his neighbors had a map of Europe. Each day, his job was to color in the advance of the Allies with a red pen.
“Every single day, we did that,” he said. “You are the greatest generation this country has ever seen.”
Las Vegas resident and Holocaust survivor Stephen Nasser, who was a 13-year-old Jewish Hungarian at the time, told the audience that he was the only member of his family to survive the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. He thanked the veterans for liberating him, and for being brave enough to storm the coast of Normandy that day.
“In my heart, Memorial Day is every morning when I get up, and I thank the veterans who gave their life and are watching us from above, seeing what they have done,” Nasser said. “Because if not for them, we would not be free, and we wouldn’t have our family.”