June 6, 2014 at 9:31 AM ET
On June 6, 1944, Tom Blakey and 17 other U.S. Army soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division parachuted in darkness behind Nazi lines and into the greatest invasion in military history.
A small-town kid from Texas, Blakey was in a cemetery at 1 a.m. in Saint Marcouf, France, while 156,000 soldiers, including 73,000 Americans, were in the Atlantic Ocean preparing to storm the beaches of Normandy in the largest amphibious invasion in world history. Now 93 years old, Blakey still remembers it all vividly. On the 70th anniversary of D-Day, he spoke with NBC's Tom Brokaw at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, where he volunteers, and again at the Normandy American Cemetery in France.
"I don't want to be a hero for anybody,'' Blakey said. Gesturing at the graves of fallen soldiers in the Normandy American Cemetery, he added: "They are the heroes. They're the ones that did it, that gave the best that they could."
Brokaw, who detailed the historic invasion in his best-selling book "The Greatest Generation,'' particularly felt the weight of the day on Friday's anniversary.
"I'm at a stage in my life, and having gone through what I have with my health issues in the last year, I think a lot more about them, about what they had to face,'' Brokaw told Matt Lauer on TODAY. "It was magnified by an infinite number to what I'm going through, and it was a life-changing experience for me, professionally and personally as well.
"I am utterly in awe of what they did. Not just here, but around the world. It's an enduring lesson that we must never forget."
Blakey will never forget the early hours of the Normandy invasion, when he landed 12 miles from where he was supposed to land with one simple thought in his mind.
"I hope I don't mess up,'' he said.
Shrouded in darkness, he had only a clicking device in his hand to determine in an instant whether anyone he encountered was an American or a Nazi.
"You gotta find somebody to give a click to, but you don't want to give yourself away to just anybody,'' he said. "Give him one click. If he's a German, he won't answer back. If he's an American, he'll answer back (with) two clicks. Then you know you've got a friend."
Blakey and his unit soon engaged the Germans in fierce fighting.
"I had five bullets that could've killed me, any of 'em,'' Blakey said. "One of them [went] right by the side of my helmet and left a silver streak where it took the paint off."
Blakey only had one thought at that point.
"Well, I'm gonna get the next one,'' he said.
Seventy years later, Blakey can still remember the first Nazi he shot dead, even though he never got a clear look at his face.
"He jumped in the air, raised his hands, dropped his rifle and fell backwards,'' Blakey said.
Blakey killed numerous men after that, but was haunted for more than 50 years by the first man he shot dead. He never told anyone but his wife about the image of the German soldier that continually appeared in his nightmares.
"He did not go away,'' Blakey said.
Finally, his work at the World War II museum in New Orleans helped free him from the trauma, because he realized he was killing for a greater cause.
"We were fighting Germans who were doing bad things to people,'' he said.
While Blakey was fighting the Nazis behind enemy lines, men like Frank DeVita, a self-described "skinny runt from Brooklyn,'' were at sea, readying themselves for an unprecedented amphibious assault. DeVita was only 18 years old when he dropped out of his senior year of high school to enlist in the Coast Guard after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
That same year, he landed on the Normandy beach code-named Omaha in a Higgins boat launched from the U.S.S. Samuel Chase to begin the assault. Seventy years later, he brought his entire family back to France to revisit that day, which began with the sounds of his fellow troops retching over the side of the boat followed by a hail of bullets from the Germans.
"We had overfed the troops that morning,'' DeVita told Brokaw. "They were all seasick. When we got near the beach, one particular machine gun took a liking to us and was hitting my boat. The Germans had the high ground. They were shooting down at us. It was like hitting fish in a barrel."
An emotional DeVita recalled the fear of being ordered to drop the ramp to the boat.
"I knew in my head, even though I was a young kid, when I drop that ramp, instead of the bullets hitting the ramp, they would come into the boat,'' he said. "So the coxswain says, 'Drop the ramp,' and I made believe I didn't hear him. So he said it a second time, and I made believe I didn't hear him. And the third time, he says, 'Goddamn, DeVita, drop the effin' ramp.
"We had 30 men on the boat. Three men made it to the beach. They were all wounded and some were dead."
DeVita can still remember the sounds of soldiers in their final moments.
"You know, there's a fallacy when a man is dying — they don't ask for God,'' he said. "The last word that that they say is, 'Mama, Mama."
Those painful memories have been with DeVita for 70 years, and he is just sharing them now with his children. Four generations of his family joined him at the beach in Omaha to honor his service. DeVita returned because he feels a duty to speak for the men who died that day.
"These kids were 18, 19 years old,'' he said. "They're never gonna see their son play Little League baseball. They're never gonna walk their daughter down the aisle, and they're never gonna hold their grandchild in their arms. They had their whole life ahead of them.
"My family thinks I'm a hero. I'm not a hero. When you go up to the cemetery above Omaha, those are the heroes. Those are my heroes."
DeVita is hoping his family and others take a lesson from the anniversary.
"Love your freedom,'' he said. "Because that's what we fought for. We fought for your freedom."