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'He died right in front of me': Denver league brings students, vets to Normandy to remember D-Day

Denver PAL organizes an annual trip to France for veterans and students to experience an immersive historical experience.

NORMANDY, France — Frank Devita was just a 19-year-old Coast Guard member when he was one of the first soldiers to storm Omaha Beach in the Normandy region of France on June 6, 1944.

"On the first wave, my job was to drop the ramp...but I knew when I dropped the ramp the machine gun bullets were going to come into the boat...but I had to drop the ramp because the troops had to get out," Devita said.

And that's exactly what Devita recalled happening.

"All those machine guns opened up the front of my boat," he said.

Devita said the troops, who he described as kids, "absorbed the bullets that were supposed to hit me."

"[One] had red hair. He died right in front of me and I went into shock," Devita said. "He was just a little boy... just a little boy."

The siege of the beach that day — code name "Operation Overlord" — is when allied forces attacked Nazi-occupied France in World War II. It's famously known as "D-Day," and on June 6, 2019, 75 years will have passed.

"We fought for peace. The Germans fought to kill, and we fought for peace," Devita said.

Devita shared his story ahead of a recent trip to France. The Denver Police Activities League (PAL)'s Overlord Project pairs veterans with students who, after weeks of studying, travel to Normandy for an immersive historical experience.

Denver PAL executive director Jake Schroeder organizes the annual trip, where students visit historic sites and meet local families to learn about the 1944 Allied Invasion firsthand. 

"It gives us an opportunity to take these kids from the inner city to a completely different country," Schroeder said. "They see a different country and how different the people are and [how] the world is so much bigger than they might think."

The group heads to landing areas, monuments, the German gun batteries, museums and the American Normandy Cemetery, where 9,000 U.S. soldiers are buried.

"You see the beach and you look up at those cliffs, and you imagine somebody shooting down at you, and you can't run because you've got so much equipment on and you're soaked — that's when it starts to hit them like, 'This would be really scary,'" Schroeder said.

Credit: Gary Shapiro

9NEWS' Gary Shapiro and photojournalist John Kuhrt joined Denver PAL for its 2019 trip to France.

Credit: Gary Shapiro

The full special, "Lessons from Normandy, D-Day 75 years," will air on June 6 at 9:30 p.m. on KTVD Channel 20. 

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