George Ciampa had never left the United States before being drafted into the army to fight Nazi Germany in 1944. But at 18, he was on the shores of Normandy in France, collecting the dead.
Paul Golz was a reluctant 19-year-old with the German army, sent to Normandy to try and block the Allied invasion. He was tasked with carrying ammunition for a machine gun crew.
Seventy-five years later, both men mark the living memory of one of the most significant moments of the 20th century. And as world leaders gathered in Normandy Thursday to mark the enduring legacy of the D-Day invasion of World War II, these men, both now in their 90s, recounted what it was like.
“The government didn't want bodies lying around for other troops coming in to see,” Ciampa told VICE News from his home in Palm Springs. “We gathered them as quickly as we could.”
Before he could bury the dead, Ciampa had to survive landing at Utah Beach.
“You're seeing guys getting hit. You're seeing bodies,” he said. “I was scared to death, tell you the truth.”
Golz was 14 when he heard the German army had marched into Poland. By 19, he’d been drafted into that same army.
“I saw the American wounded,” he told VICE News from the village of Königswinter in Germany. “The German wounded, I didn't really notice them until I heard them scream, 'Comrade, help me.’ That's when I understood ‘the hero's’ death. Nobody wants to die a hero’s death. Those are all young kids who want to live.”
Ciampa and Golz represent the thinning ranks of soldiers from both sides of the war that are still alive to tell the story of the largest military invasion in history. They hope their legacy lives beyond their generation.
“I do think that we have to tell these stories,” said Golz. “These young people who haven't experienced it, they have to realize that because of this successful invasion, we have had 70 years of peace. They should always preserve that, preserve the democracy that we gained because of it.”
This segment originally aired June 6, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.