Seventy-five years ago on June 6, more than 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch on the beaches of Normandy, France, to fight Nazi Germany in the continued fight for freedom. Troops from the United States, Britain, Canada and more fought across the Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches during Operation Overlord in the largest seaborne invasion in world history.
Many would not come home. And those who would could never forget.
Now 75 years later, on June 6, 2019, the Berlin VFW, AMNAC Post 6253, hosted a World War II D-Day 75th Anniversary Dance at its building in Berlin Borough to honor the courage and bravery of those who were willing to give it all so that freedom may win.
Louis Neirle, a World War II veteran who served in the United States Navy for 18 months, had the idea over a year ago to have some sort of a gathering for South Jersey and Philadelphia area veterans of World War II to come together and be honored by fellow service members.
Neirle, a Berlin native, was not involved in D-Day, but wanted to have a way to thank those who were after all this time.
“That’s why I’m doing this, to bless all the guys that went before me and saved my butt,” said Neirle. “I’ve been wanting to do this for the past several years and finally it was able to actually come to life because of the 75th anniversary.”
Thanks to the hard work from him and others at the Berlin VFW, more than 100 veterans and their family members attended the anniversary dance as a way of honoring and thanking those who stormed the beaches of Normandy or served in World War II.
Music played during the dance was from artists during the 1940s, with the hall being decorated with American flags over every wall possible. Rolling on a loop on the TV in the corner was information and pictures about the D-Day invasion.
Four World War II veterans attended the dance, John Rigby, Vincent Corsetti, Edward Balajeski and Neirle. John Wozniak, who also served in World War II, had planned to come but was unable to attend.
The stories the veterans carry with them are harrowing. None of the four World War II veterans who attended the dance were on the beaches of Normandy during D-Day, but can still recount the horrifying images and moments they encountered during their service.
Rigby, now 92 years old, was just 17 when he joined the United States Navy. He served for more than two years on a Landing Ship Tank, seeing action across the Pacific Ocean during his time in World War II.
Balajeski, a veteran of the Marine Corps, joined at the age of 16 during February 1943. He joined the Third Marine Division as a replacement upon its return from Bougainville.
Balajeski would eventually be involved in the invasion of Guam, being in the fourth wave.
He says that one of his strongest memories, after all these years, is his friend and foxhole buddy, Woody.
“He died in my arms in our foxhole on July 26, 1944,” said Balajeski. “It doesn’t matter how great or sorry I feel, I never cry about anything because all I have to do is think of Woody. Anytime I feel sorry for myself, I think of Woody because he never came home with us.”
After taking Guam, Balajeski was stationed there and told they were waiting to invade Japan along with the Army. While he wasn’t involved in D-Day, he remembers learning about the first atomic bomb being dropped on Japan while stationed on Guam.
“We were going to be the initial landing on Japan,” said Balajeski. “While we were on Guam killing time, we were going out on patrol until we invade. Well, one time I come back and guys are crying and laughing all over. I come to find out, we just dropped a bomb on Japan. It was unbelievable.”
Those who attended were thanked for their service, however Neirle also hopes that he was able to honor those who never returned home after D-Day or other World War II service.
“This is what I wanted to do, I wanted to be able to celebrate the memory of the guys that weren’t fortunate enough to come home like we were,” said Neirle.