SUMMERVILLE — During a Memorial Day observance 10 years ago, George Drury remembers a gathering of fellow D-Day survivors that drew 60 veterans of the Normandy invasion.
But within a few years, the group had mostly dispersed. At their next gathering, only four came out. They sat alone in the back of a local pizza parlor. It was more sad than uplifting.
“I thought at least 20 or 30 guys would show up,” Drury said.
With just days to go before the 66th anniversary of the D-Day landings, Drury said Memorial Day 2010 may be a last chance to send out feelers, trying to bring together a final meeting of the citizen soldiers who took a first step toward freeing Nazi-occupied Europe.
Waiting another year might be too late, he said, adding that time is the enemy. "It's running out for me, too," said Drury, 84.
No one knows for sure how many D-Day veterans are still alive in South Carolina. It could be as few as dozens. Many others landed there because the Normandy battle stretched into weeks as Allied troops tried to secure their beachhead in France.
Drury, originally from Providence, R.I., enlisted when he was 17. He served in the Navy's landing craft corps and drove a Higgins boat, shuttling men and equipment from ship to shore. On June 6, 1944, he was responsible for taking mostly British and Canadian troops to the beaches. He knew the invasion was real when he saw the armada of ships around him that morning clogging the English Channel.
"I wondered how the hell I got over there and got in the middle of all this trouble," he said. He made about eight round trips that day, moving troops in and taking prisoners and wounded out.
For weeks afterward, Drury lived in Normandy. He slept on the beach at night while shuttling men and equipment from ship to shore by day. One time while his 40-foot landing craft was beached for repairs, he was approached by a member of the German Hitler Youth who was allowed to walk around free after the fighting ebbed. The teenager had walked up to him armed with a dagger, looking for a fight. Drury disarmed him with a quick thrust of his arm. He still has the knife.
Drury's amphibious service didn't end after the landings. He moved on to help Gen. George Patton cross numerous rivers in France and Germany until peace was declared in May 1945. After the war, he landed in South Carolina, married a mill-town girl and taught Navy reservists in Charleston until retirement. For years he would remember the soldiers he'd met overseas. "Kids from all over," he said.
One reason behind the breakup of local D-Day reunions was the departure from Charleston of Frenchman Bernard Marie. He had grown up in Normandy and as a boy spent hours in the cellar of a house just a few miles from the landing beaches. For years afterward, he honored the D-Day men who liberated his country by holding an annual veterans' luncheon. Marie left the area 11 years ago but this week is holding his luncheon remembrance in Salem, Va.
Marie, now 70, said the problem is that the World War II generation is dying out, and people born after World War II have shown little interest in keeping the vets' message and roster going. "It's time- consuming," he said.
U.S. Census figures estimate about 39,000 World War II-era vets live in South Carolina. Nationally, projections are the fighting men and women from that period are dying out at a rate of more than 1,000 a day.
Drury wants to reunite the D-Day veterans, if only to have them available to give talks at local schools so students can hear about their experience that day.
"People need to know."