Northern Irish veterans of the 1944 Normandy landings who |returned to the D-Day beaches yesterday said they still carry harrowing memories of the famous Second World War battle.
Eleven men aged between 82 and 90 left for a five-day visit as part of the international commemoration of the 65th anniversary of D-Day, to be marked on June 6.
The military operation marked the beginning of the end of the Second World War and veterans from around the world will be joined by heads of state to mark the anniversary.
For Belfast-based veteran Tommy Fulton it will be the first time he has been abroad since the war and his trip was only secured when Baroness Paisley stepped in to ensure he was issued a passport in time.
But as he and other veterans gathered at Belfast International Airport they said they would recall fallen comrades, but also revealed they are still haunted by their war-time experiences.
“It is a very emotional time for me,” said 84-year-old Mr Fulton.
“I landed at Arromanches, four miles from the American beach. It was bad, really bad. I haven’t got over it and it was 65 years ago.”
Born in Dromara, Co Down, he lived in Belfast for 70 years and hails from the city’s Village area.
He said he hoped, however, to have good memories from the trip and thanked Baroness Paisley, wife of former DUP leader Ian Paisley, for securing his passport.
George Thompson, from Donaghadee, Co Down, who celebrates his 83rd birthday next week, was among the first men to land on the French coast for the epic encounter with German troops.
“I was with the Navy on combined operations,” he said, “We went in on the first wave on Sword Beach on D-Day. We were the first in. It was rough. They were still bombing the beach and between that and the Germans, it was rough. It was a rough time.”
Mr Thompson was involved in hand-to-hand fighting and witnessed events that he said he still finds painful to recall.
He attended the 50th anniversary in France and as he prepared to board the flight to Paris he said he was still daunted by the thought of a return to the site.
“There is mixed feelings. I will not know until I come back what feelings I have,” he said.
“It is hard to know. It is only now you talk a bit about it. For years you didn’t talk about it.”
He added: “There are things you remember, things you can’t remember and some things you don’t want to remember.”
There were some fond images recalled as the men, who were wearing their medals, met for their flight this morning. A piper from the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment and a restored Second World War Jeep were at the entrance to the airport.
Mr Thompson said he was glad the events were being recalled but said he feared the memory of what happened was fading from the public mind.