He landed on the beach with the 29th Infantry Division on D-Day plus one a day later because the beach had been cluttered with the debris of war and yet what he saw did nothing to minimize the pain of those images.
"I wound up in a couple of days of grave registration,'' recalls Paul A. Popovich, who lives in Cold Spring. "There were so many. We had to go ahead and get the dog tags so they would have some record of them. That was my first-day assignment.''
As the 60th anniversary of D-Day approaches the battle that brought an end to the war in Europe within a year veterans like Popovich, who is 82 years old, reach back across the decades. While some memories can be harsh, Popovich was glad to be in the service. "Jobs were hard to find back then,'' he says. "It was a challenge.''
On June 6, 1944, about 150,000 Allied Forces landed on the beaches of Normandy on the coast of France. More would follow. According to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, located in Bedford, Va., the invasion involved 5,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes. In some cases, the invasion force had to dash across more than 200 yards of beach before reaching cover.
"Blanketed by small-arms fire and bracketed by artillery, they found themselves in hell,'' according to the foundation's website.
Before the end of that first day, the Allied Forces suffered 10,000 casualties, with more than 4,000 killed.
Popovich remembers the pounding that continued the next day.
"What I seen was a lot of bombing,'' he said. "I seen people running off the beach. The Germans were still firing at us. We were waiting for our big guns to go ahead and knock ‘em out. We saw quite a few of our paratroopers hanging up in trees. So we had to cut them down.
"I don't know. You seen somebody up there screaming for you to help him. Or another one has already passed away. It was just…I don't know what to say. It's just…you don't know which one to take first.''
Fred Spillman watched D-Day unfold from a different vantage point from the air. He was a tail-gunner on a bomber and flew over the beaches on D-Day; the Channel was awash in battleships and destroyers.
"Guns all going off,'' recalled Spillman, who lives in Carrollton and flew that day at 12,000 feet. "I seen the landing craft as they were about to come ashore. We'd drop small bombs, 100-pounders. Our mission was to just hit anything that was the enemy down there. Even land mines if they were down there. We were trying to clear the way for the invasion. There were so many planes, the vapor trails made it real cloudy.''
Spillman said they knew it was the invasion when they were awakened that morning in England. Then the briefing confirmed it.
"They weren't firing back at us as much on that first mission,'' he continued. "A lot of small arms fire. Then it all stopped. I don't know if the Navy knocked them out, or if they just decided it wasn't any use.''
Leonard Gatewood, who lives in Louisville, also went ashore the day after D-Day with the 1st Signal Corps. He recalls a horizon filled with ships, the boom of guns on the destroyers. This weekend, while the soldiers who participated in D-Day are called heroes, Gatewood said he will also consider the soldiers of Korea and Vietnam.
"They deserve things as much as we do,'' said Gatewood.