Asa Carl Atkins Jr. didn't talk about D-Day for 55 years until his young grandson, Gregory, began asking questions about it 20 years ago.
Atkins, who moved to Lilburn with his wife in the 1990s, had served as a Navy mechanic on one of the landing craft which carried soldiers across the English Channel to the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. His grandson was beginning to learn about the war in school, and that — along with some nudging from his wife — prompted Atkins to begin opening up about his war experiences.
Even Gregory's father, Lilburn resident Asa Scott Atkins, had not heard the tales of what his father did in World War II.
"It certainly was eye-opening," Asa Scott Atkins said. "I had no idea. I knew he had gone, but I didn't know, for example, that he still had nightmares for years after my parents first got married."
The allied D-Day invasion of Normandy is making news again this week with Thursday marking its 75th anniversary. Recent years have seen several of the people who were present for the D-Day invasion, Asa Carl Atkins Jr. included, pass away. Atkins passed away in December 2013 at the age of 88.
Those D-Day veterans who are left are in their 90s and some of them are struggling with the typical ailments that come with old age.
As the number of D-Day veterans dwindles, it's the stories they passed on to their families and others about what they did in Normandy which are helping keep the memory of their service alive and insuring those veterans are not forgotten.
"If we tell the stories of what these men did, what they sacrificed and everything, it reminds people of .. what we have gone through and struggled through throughout history and how we continue to grow in our country," Gwinnett Veterans Memorial Museum Director David Berndt said.
In the case of Asa Carl Atkins Jr., that story entails ferrying soldiers and equipment to the beaches, dropping them off and then going back to get more soldiers and equipment to bring to the beach. Atkins and his fellow sailors made that trip several times throughout the day.
Double what was shown in 'Saving Private Ryan'
His son said the elder Atkins used the opening scenes of the film "Saving Private Ryan," which depicted D-Day, as a bench mark for explaining what it was really like on the beaches of northern France.
"Basically, the gist of what he told us is that the beginning of 'Saving Private Ryan,' if you doubled that, that was pretty close — and if you've seen it, it's pretty gruesome," Asa Scott Atkins said. "He said the only thing that you can't see on television is the smell."
The Navy veteran's son said his father described the smell as initially being mostly gunpowder. It eventually turned more gruesome as the battle progressed.
"Eventually, as it went on, it was blood (and) a lot of vomit in the boats," the younger Atkins said.
Gradually, the scenes of death began to become more evident along with the smell.
"It took quite some time to get that beach secure and of course there's dead soldiers, there's wounded soldiers and it was all just there," Asa Scott Atkins said. "He said the ocean really was tinged with blood, it had a pink hue to it and there was bodies and parts floating around."
The elder Atkins even had to swim for his life at one point.
"A lot of stuff got blown up," his son said. "He was on one ship and it went down and everybody on it survived. They just went and got another ship."
Atkins' son said even though his father did not talk about his experiences for years, they never left him. Eventually he began opening up about was war experiences when his wife began prodding him after their grandson began asking questions.
"It did seem to take a burden off him for quite some time," the younger Atkins said.
The beaches were still not safe after D-Day
But even in the days that followed D-Day, there was fear among some of the soldiers about stepping off a boat in Normandy.
The beaches, it turns out, were not immediately safe after June 6. In a first person account that Atkins dictated to his wife, Sarah, he recalled the clearing of the beaches at Normandy took about three weeks to complete. He also recalled what it was like on June 6 and June 7.
"We unloaded men for two days and almost everyone we unloaded was killed or wounded as they hit the beach," Asa Carl Atkins Jr. told his wife, according to the transcript. "I will never forget what that looked like. Some men were shot and others died from stepping on the mines the Germans had hidden on the beaches. The water near the beach was red with blood."
Other stories help tell of the dangers that awaited soldiers who came ashore at Normandy in the days following D-Day.
As a member of an Army unit that operated a Howitzer artillery gun, Sugar Hill resident Patty Ruch's father, William "Bill" Pickard, came ashore at Omaha Beach on June 8, 1944 — two days after the beaches had been secured.
Because of the 8.5-mile range of their gun, Pickard's unit had to stay at least a mile behind the front line of allied forces.
Pickard told his daughter that, although the beaches had been cleared by the time they arrived, some men on boat were terrified of stepping foot on the beach. He and his unit had to wait on a boat until it was safe to come ashore.
When they did come ashore, they had to carry all of their food and supplies with them, Ruch said.
"These two guys on the boat that had these big tin cans of — I just always thought they were peaches, I don't know if that's what he told me or what they really were — but they were shrunk back sitting (and) holding onto their peaches for dear life and just not wanting to get off that boat and tears (were) coming down their faces," she said.
"And he was like 'You had to go. You just had to go.' "
In his diary, Pickard talked about D-Day and what had happened there, noting that since his unit arrived two days afterward, "we only heard about the action we missed at Normandy beach."
Despite the fact that Pickard arrived after the beaches had been taken, he noted in his diary that the approach to the coast was not easy.
"The landing didn't go smoothly," he wrote. "There were mines reported every 30 feet, three rows of them."
The unit landed near an apple orchard where the soldiers could clean their artillery gun and remove cosmoline which had been applied to it to keep it from rusting on the boat.
Stories remind people of other aspects of World War II too
Pickard shared stories about more experiences during the war including memories of one of the biggest battles during the allies' European campaign — the Battle of the Bulge.
He was present at the battle when it began in the Ardennes Forest.
"At the end of my shift at 5:30 in the morning, most of the other guys were asleep in the big tent," Rush said as she read a transcript from her father's diary. "We were walking toward it when I heard a shell exploding. I looked to the left and saw a lot of flashing.
"I thought at first it was ou planes bombing the Germans since it was coming from that direction. I should have known better though because our planes didn't fly at night. The Germans were firing their guns at us."
Meanwhile, Atkins was sent to the Pacific after D-Day, spending time stationed in Hawaii as the military prepared for a possible invasion of Japan — which was averted after the dropping of two atomic bombs prompted Japan to surrender. He was then sent to Seattle to help with shore patrols.
What the stories can tell modern generations
The stories that Atkins' and Ruch's fathers shared with them hold special meaning to them because it then an understanding of what they went through in the war. They each said there are lessons to be learned from hearing those stories.
"It is important," Atkins said. "I think the schools should spend a little more time discussing (the war) because the results of World War II kind of set up our world in the position it is in still today."
Ruch — who is going to Normandy this summer with one of her sons to see the landing beaches — said growing up hearing her father tell war stories and hang out with fellow World War II veterans shaped the way she and her siblings viewed the military.
"He taught us a deep respect for people in the military," she said. "I remember one time asking him if he thought he wasn't going to come back and he said 'I knew every day I wasn't coming back.' "
But Berndt said there is another reason to continue sharing the stories of what the D-Day veterans did.
"We have to honor these men and their sacrifices — men and women both," he said.