Locals remember what was done ‘in the name of liberty for us’
On June 6, 1944, 73,000 American troops landed in Normandy, France for the largest seaborne invasion in history. The average age of the soldiers in the D-Day campaign was a mere 19 years old.
Two of the fearless young men who fought in the campaign would later have Putnam County ties. William. H. Payne, father of State Rep. Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, was a U.S. Army forward scout during the campaign. Joseph Demes, father of Putnam County Tax Collector Linda Myers, served in the Army Air Corps on a Martin Marauder B-26 bomber crew, hovering above the skies of Utah Beach.
William Payne did not land in Normandy on June 6, but he arrived in the combat zone shortly afterward, his son said. He was one of countless young men who enlisted in the military immediately after high school on the heels of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“Dads are really our heroes in all of our lives, but my dad is like so many of the greatest generation who enlisted in the military at 17,” Payne said. “He landed at Utah Beach in the northern part of Normandy six days or seven days shy of his 20th birthday.”
Demes was 20-years-old during the D-Day campaign, Myers said. Only a few years removed from high school and with his entire life ahead of him, his life changed when he and his crew flew out of England for the historic invasion.
“It was a defining moment for a kid who grew up on the streets in Manhattan to be able to serve his country,” Myers said. “It was a very defining moment for him to actually play a role in that major war. … It shaped who he would be.”
William Payne would go on to spend two years overseas. He later returned to the United States a decorated war hero as a Purple Heart recipient and also earning the Bronze Star for valor.
“Some stories he told me were just incredible,” son Bobby Payne said, “We think we go through extreme times of suffering in our lives, and nobody has any idea what our fathers and forefathers did in the name of liberty for us.”
Demes would remain enlisted in the Air Force for the next several decades, seeing action in the Korean War and Vietnam War in his 30-year career. Myers said the memory of people like her father and the other hundreds of thousands young men who were willing to sacrifice their lives are memories worth keeping.
“I spent my whole growing up years being aware, but the farther (we go) and the less people have contact with a military service people, the less we understand the gravity of what it takes for us to have this wonderful life in America,” she said.
William Payne continued his service in the Army National Guard before retiring as a Lt. Colonel after a 43-year career, which saw him leave his mark in Palatka. His son said that several years ago he filmed conversations with his father as he recalled his life and military service, and he did not miss a beat.
“He could tell (me) every city he went through. … He could trace almost every step of where he was,” Bobby Payne said. “When he came back to the states and learned a trade, he moved to Palatka and he was instrumental in restarting the National Guard here and having the armory built.”
Demes would also retire a distinguished Lt. Colonel, with two flying crosses, 12 Air Medals and many other honors. Myers said he was a shining example of patriotism, flying an American flag at his home in memory of his fallen friends.
But before then, Demes was like so many others in 1944. A young man who was barely a legal adult, yet still prepared to make a sacrifice for others.
“The absolute selflessness of a young man. Can you even imagine a young person being that selfless to put their lives down? That is just an amazing ability,” Myers said.