Young, strong and able, many of them were just boys when they stormed the beaches straight into withering machine-gun fire or dropped from darkened skies into the unknown.
Seventy years later, the world again is focusing on France's Normandy coast in a salute to those who endured unimaginable horror and overcame daunting odds June 6, 1944, in the battle that marked a decisive turning point of World War II: D-Day.
The honored now are lions in winter, the youngest among them in their late 80s, dealing with the frailties of advanced age. And with so few of these veterans healthy enough to return to Europe, there is the harsh realization that this likely will be the final major commemoration while men of their remarkable era still are alive.
"I just want to go back and see it again," said Hayward's Tony Malin, a medic on a landing ship that ferried men and equipment onto Utah Beach, and who has returned for the anniversary. "This will probably be the last time. After all, I'm 91."
The generation that was forged by the Depression, fought in the war, then came home to change America forever is fading away in the same quiet, dignified way that they have lived. An estimated 555 World War II veterans die each day, and only 1 million men and women are left who wore uniforms in the global conflict.
While it's unclear how many D-Day vets remain, Bill Kays, 93, of Palo Alto, said they are passing away fast.
"I might be the last living officer in my battalion that served on D-Day," said Kays, a combat engineer on Omaha Beach. "That's pretty remarkable because I thought for sure that I was going to die on that beach, I can tell you that."
The decades have changed these men physically, but not their attitudes. They still refuse to cast themselves as heroes. Some remain reluctant to even talk about a day that would become one of the most storied in U.S. military history.
"I have a lot of memories, but I keep them to myself," Malin said. "There are a lot of history books about D-Day that you can read. I just did what I was supposed to do, and that's it."
A risky gambit
Operation Overlord was the largest amphibious invasion in history, featuring 5,000 vessels, 11,000 aircraft and 156,000 Allied troops. The armada crossed the choppy English Channel, invaded five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of French coastline and dropped airborne troops inland.
They established a foothold in Adolf Hitler's vaunted "Fortress Europe," opening the long-awaited second front -- with the Soviet Union squeezing from the East -- that put Germany in a vise grip and toppled the Nazis the following year.
"It was an all-or-nothing throw of the dice," said Keith Huxen, senior director of research at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. "If the Germans had succeeded in pushing us into the ocean, there was no alternate plan. Had we failed, we would live in a vastly different world today. It probably would have led to consideration of making a separate peace with Hitler because people would have thought it was too difficult to bring down that regime."
Instead, average Americans helped carry the day. Before the war, Earl W. Spargur had worked at a San Jose service station. At Normandy, he piloted a C-47 transport plane pulling a glider that contained troops on the second day of the battle.
"We were just guys off the streets who were made into pilots," said Spargur, 96. "And then suddenly we were flying, wing tip to wing tip, 500 feet off the ground. We just felt like were doing something that would always be remembered."
Amid the chaos, they witnessed deadly beauty.
Emmert Parmley was a 20-year-old paratrooper, jumping into France hours before the landings. He watched with fascination as German tracer rounds rose into the night sky, searching for their planes.
"I remember how those tracers kept going off around us," said Parmley, 90, of Antioch, who suffered a gunshot wound to the neck seven days after the invasion. "There was orange, white and blue rounds going through the air. It was kind of pretty."
On a landing craft the next morning, Nick Leonoudakis helped put wave after wave of men ashore on Omaha Beach, which became known as "Bloody Omaha."
"The most vivid thing was the amount of shells that went over our heads from the cruisers and battleships," said Leonoudakis, 90, of South San Francisco. "It was like a big Fourth of July celebration. But that beach was not a happy experience for a young man. It was pretty bad."
Kays, in the second wave to reach Omaha Beach, was in a landing craft with Life Magazine photographer Robert Capa. Later, Kays would realize that he was part of "The Magnificent Eleven," a grainy photograph of soldiers scrambling onto the beach that became one of the war's lasting images.
"We were under heavy machine-gun fire when he stopped on the ramp and took that picture," said Kays, a retired Stanford School of Engineering dean. "By that point, there were a lot of bodies and wounded men in the water."
In his 2010 memoir, "Letters From a Soldier," Kays detailed how he later wrote to his family about D-Day, telling of how he found shelter behind a tank at the water's edge.
"Then I thought of a passage from the 23rd Psalm -- 'Yea though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil,' " Kays wrote. "I took my men and walked through all that fire, stumbling and stepping over the dead all the way."
The liberation of Europe had begun, but with a terrible cost that included 6,603 American causalities, including 2,499 dead.
Changing the country
When the war ended, the veterans' story was just beginning. They came home, went to college on the GI Bill, became the parents of the baby boomers, and launched the country onto an unprecedented trajectory of prosperity.
"It's not just that they put their lives on the line in the war," said Huxen, the historian. "But they also changed the country. They set us on a pathway toward civil rights and women's rights, and created the modern economy. They rose to the challenge."
And they did it without drawing attention to their war service. Maybe it was because so many Americans had been in uniform -- 16 million -- and most figured nobody wanted to hear about their own experiences. Or they simply were too painful.
George Depold, 91, of Campbell, was a combat engineer on Omaha Beach. He politely declined to delve too deeply into what he saw.
"Only with me is he willing to talk much about his memories," said his wife, Daphne, 89, a native of England who met her husband during the war. "But to a certain extent, I'm sure there are things he hasn't told even me. You have to remember, they were so very young when they were going through this."
For Ken Bull, the memories of Normandy are jumbled. The 89-year-old Los Gatos resident was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2006.
But the commendations in Bull's living room speak for themselves, including the Purple Heart he received for being wounded June 18, 1944. He pulls up the sleeve on his left arm to show a scar.
The former Army sergeant often wears a D-Day cap.
"It's so touching because people just come up to him and say, 'Wow, were you part of that? May I shake your hand?' " said his wife, Louise, 73. "And people will hug him. He was sitting in the car recently while I went to get his medications, and a lady saw his hat and took a picture with him."
Bull smiled as he listened.
"Of course I'm married to a hero," she added.
Journalist Tom Brokaw coined the phrase "The Greatest Generation" with his 1998 book, and perhaps it was then that many aging veterans understood, finally, how much they were admired. Leonoudakis and Bull are among the Bay Area veterans who have received the Legion of Honor from France in recent years for their Normandy service.
However, few were able return this week.
Kays stopped flying a few years ago, and Depold is dealing with diabetes. Parmley marked the 50th anniversary by jumping out of an airplane over France, and he wanted to return with The Greatest Generation Foundation, the same tour group that invited Malin. But Parmley wasn't up for the trip.
They are an example of why this is the last time the nonprofit will organize a Normandy visit on the June 6 anniversary.
"The numbers are dwindling," said Timothy Davis, president of the organization. "Just look at the obituaries in any newspaper. Soon they will be all gone. It's been a great journey, but unfortunately it's coming to an end."
Follow Mark Emmons at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons.
73,000 Americans (34,250 Omaha Beach, 23,250 Utah Beach, 15,500 airborne)
156,000 total Allied troops
5,000 ships and landing craft
6,603 Americans casualties, including 2,499 dead
Sources: The National World War II Museum, The National D-Day Memorial
"It was just something that had to be done. Hitler obviously was totally out of control. He thought he could take over the world, but he didn't count on us. When we came home, we just didn't talk about it. None of us did. We did the job, came home, and went back to work. We never did blow our own steam. I just thought it was over and had no reason to talk about it." -- Peter Schantz, 89, of San Leandro, a military policeman after the D-Day invasion who is returning to Normandy, France, for the 70th anniversary.
"The beach was just a mess. Boats were turned over. Vehicles on fire. It was just chaos down there. I could see these men, dead and alive, on the beach. I thought that the whole thing had failed and this is exactly what (German Field Marshal Erwin) Rommel was promising to do. All the troops were piling onto one another. Nobody could find their own command. But we survived that first day, and then it got better." -- Bill Kays, 93, of Palo Alto, who was in the second wave to land on Omaha Beach.
"For the first few days, I thought it was a total disaster. Nothing went according to plan. There was a lot of confusion. At one point, I found myself in a bomb crater with a lieutenant colonel. It was just us two. He didn't know where he was and was scared to death, too. And here I was waiting for him to tell me what to do." -- Emmert Parmley, 90, of Antioch, a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne.
"A number of the boats hit mines and sunk. The whole scene that day is impossible to forget. There were so many planes overhead that it blotted out the sun. It was like nighttime. And the gunfire. I never had heard the full power of our ships until that day." -- Nick Leonoudakis, 90, of South San Francisco, who was part of a landing craft crew ferrying men onto Omaha Beach.
"It was just a job that we wanted to get over. The Army did a good job of teaching you what to do without thinking about the possible consequences." -- George Depold, 91, of Campbell, a combat engineer on Omaha Beach.