Jake Larson, 96, of Martinez, returned to Normandy for the second time last week, to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion he took part in. (Rebecca Rosman/KQED)
BONNEVILLE-LA-LOUVET, FRANCE — Ninety-six-year-old Jake Larson of Martinez is one of the last living veterans who stormed Normandy's Omaha Beach on D-Day.
Last week, he returned to France for just the second time since June 6, 1944, to mark the 75th anniversary of the landmark World War II invasion that marked the beginning of the Allied liberation of Nazi-occupied France.
The first thing Larson wants you to know about his life's story is that he isn’t making any of it up.
"How could I?!" he exclaims. His blue eyes widen, and he slams his left fist on the arm of his rocking chair.
The last time he landed here, he was a 21-year-old sergeant dodging machine gun bullets on D-Day. Panicked by the chaos, Larson pulled out a cigarette and asked a younger soldier next to him for a match. But when he turned toward him, he saw there was no head under the helmet. So Larson dropped his cigarette and ran as fast as he could toward some cliffs about 1,000 yards away.
“While I was running I looked up and said, ‘God, what the hell am I doing here?!' ” he remembers. “But it’s moments like this that saved my life.”
Larson, the last surviving member of the 135th Regiment of the 34th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, began his journey into the military with a trip to the movies. He was a bored 15-year-old living in Minnesota, and the latest Gene Autry cowboy film seemed like a great escape.
But when Larson and his cousin arrived at the cinema, they realized neither of them could afford the 10-cent ticket entry. So they both lied about their age and signed up for National Guard, where they could make $12 once every three months.
“We thought we had struck gold! Mind you at that time eggs were 1 cent a piece and beef was only 1 cent a pound.”
Larson was transferred to Louisiana and eventually to Europe, where he was made an operations sergeant. He was among those that helped plan the D-Day invasion and later the Battle of the Bulge.
Being in France for the first time, Larson said he was welcomed as a savior. “We were like angels, flying in with our wings,” he says.
It was here in Normandy, after D-Day, that he had his first taste of Camembert and first sip of Champagne. The latter proved to be a steady remedy for his frequent insomnia.
He tasted both again in Bonneville-la-Louvet, a small hamlet that hosted Larson and his family during the visit last week.
“It’s a great honor for us,” says Brigitte Perkins, one of the owners of the bed-and-breakfast where Larson stayed. “I can even say that I am crying a little bit ... to have him for a second time after 75 years, it’s quite heavy emotion for us.”
Their first evening in Bonneville-la-Louvet, the Larsons were invited to a special reception dinner hosted by the town’s mayor.
Memories of World War II have always held a special significance across Normandy, where memorial sites are scattered throughout the region.
One thing that’s fading, however, is the firsthand memories of those who lived through the war.
“When I heard that [Larson] was coming, I thought it was a real opportunity for us,” says Philippe Baron, a local breadmaker. “This is the 75th anniversary, after all.”
'Better Off Without War'
Asked if he would do it all over again, Larson doesn’t even hesitate. “Of course! $12 was a lot of money back in those days.”
These days, however, Larson says he’s more skeptical about war.
That’s part of why he’s back in Normandy, this time with his two sons and two of his grandsons.
“I want them to know that peace is the most wonderful thing in the world. The world is better off without war,” he says.
On Thursday, Larson was one of 60 U.S. veterans who participated in the 75th commemoration ceremony on Omaha Beach, where President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron were also present.
Sitting on the stage, Larson said he couldn’t stop himself from feeling survivor’s guilt.
"How come I’m one of these guys that is still left when the other thousands are gone? God, I hope I’m doing something good for those that are left and those who have lost their families."
After the war Larson moved back to Minnesota, where he met his wife, a woman named Lola Marie.
They eventually moved to California, where he became a printer and worked until he was 73 years old.
It was only in recent years that Larson started opening up about his experiences during the war.
“I decided I wanted my sons to know about the hell I went through,” Larson says. “But coming back here I knew I’d gone to heaven.”
A Ticket Thanks to Crowdfunding by a Coffee Shop
Larson’s second trip to Normandy almost didn’t happen.
His military records were destroyed in a fire in 1973, which made him ineligible to have his trip sponsored by the U.S. government.
But then a couple of friends from Larson’s neighborhood coffee shop, the Bagel Street Cafe in Martinez, intervened.
After hearing about Larson’s predicament, Linda Linnell and Angela Larsen started a GoFundMe Campaign with the goal of raising $10,000. They ended up raising more than $11,000 for Larson and his family to attend the ceremony.
Struggling to put the words together to thank those that donated to the campaign, Larson started to tear up.
“I’m kind of a sentimental old man and I get a tear in my eye every once in awhile. And I got one in there right now for all the people that put their money where it counts.”
When he arrives back in the Bay Area this week, Larson says he’ll start the final chapter of a memoir he’s been working on. He plans to call the book “The Luckiest Man in the World."