COLERAIN TOWNSHIP, Ohio — Matt Croxton was 22 years old when he entered the fight of his life. On June 6, 1944, he numbered among the more than 160,000 Allied troops who stormed the beaches of Normandy to begin the liberation of Nazi-occupied France.
Thousands died. With bombs exploding on either side, Private First Class Croxton packed wounds first with gauze and then with mud.
“I really don’t know how I survived, but I did,” he said on Thursday night, the battle’s 75th anniversary. “I was just doing what I had to do, whatever it was.”
Now 97, Croxton reminisced about the battle seated beside a shadowbox containing his medals, a record of his honorable discharge and a photograph of himself as a serious young man in Army dress.
He had never spoken publicly about it before, according to longtime family friend Eugene Smith, but firsthand stories like his are becoming rarer. The National World War II Museum in New Orleans estimates fewer than 1,000 of the American soldiers who fought on D-Day are still alive.
That fact makes listening to their stories and honoring their service infinitely more important, Smith said.
“Channel 9 needs to know that,” he added.
The Allies overwhelmed the Germans at Normandy, and Croxton shifted from treating wounded Americans to guarding imprisoned Germans at an encampment in the nearby woods. Allied reinforcements would not land for two days, he said — days he spent in the tight grip of anxiety.
“After I got in with the whole Army, everything was better, but when they dumped me off on that beach, (an officer) said ‘Every man is on his own,’” Croxton said. “And that was kind of rough for a while.”
Neither he nor the rest of the Allies knew then they had just turned the tide of the war, which would end with the defeat of the Axis powers more than a year later.
On Thursday, leaders in countries across the world celebrated D-Day veterans and the service of those who did not survive the invasion of Normandy. Speaking from the Normandy American Cemetery, President Donald Trump referred to men such as Croxton as “among the very greatest Americans who will ever live” and described the “everlasting” debt the world owes to their bravery.
According to Smith, the true reward of service — his own in Vietnam and Croxton’s in Europe — is lifelong camaraderie with other veterans.
“You usually go through the timeline of 18, 19, 20, 21,” he said. “Those are the years that a man grows up to become what he eventually ends up as. That puts a bond between all the guys that have served at that time at that era. And that’s something that’s hard to explain, but you always have a bond with another veteran. It makes you feel like the time that you spent over there, the risk that you take is sort of worthwhile.”
Croxton, seated in his gray leather armchair beside the tokens of his service 75 years before, was more succinct.
“I tell you, a whole lot went on, and I went through all of it and came back.”