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Minnesota D-Day survivors recall an adventure – 'a big one'

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On the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landing, the Pioneer Press has a fascinating feature on a Minnesota World War II veteran who was among the soldiers that stormed the beaches of Normandy.

Ken Axelson, 90, of Wannamingo, was a 20-year-old farm boy from Welch, Minnesota, when he found himself in an amphibious assault vehicle, assigned to be a medic with an engineering unit. When his vessel landed, he waded ashore amid heavy fire – the Nazis were targeting the heavy equipment bulldozers and cranes that U.S. troops had hoped to unload.

He saw soldiers' possessions littering the beach - even a guitar – dropped by earlier waves of troops. And he saw the bodies, including his unit's mail clerk, crumpled in the sand, shot in the head. He later would walk along a long pile of stacked bodies.

"I walked on the foot side. I didn't care to look at the faces," he told the Pioneer Press. "I was thinking they never knew how it turned out."

The Pioneer Press chronicles more of Axelson's war-time experiences. He says he was part of an adventure – "a big one."

"I was there on D-Day. There's not that many people who can say that anymore."

About 16 million Americans served in the war, according to the National WWII Museum, but only about 1 million are still living, with about 555 dying a day, the museum estimates.

There were roughly 300,000 World War II veterans from Minnesota, but now there are just over 18,000 left, the museum says.

Minnesota native John W. Carpenter, 99, still has vivid memories of shivering that night and being packed in a small boat as he prepared to make his landing at Omaha Beach. He and so many others went over the side of the boat with a rope ladder into chest-deep water, laden with weapons, a gas mask and other supplies, the Shreveport, Louisiana, resident said.

“There were over 2,000 killed who never got on the beach," he told the Shreveport Times.

Among those lucky to make it home were Fergus Falls D-Day veteran Roy Jorgenson, a ball turret gunner. His eyesight is fading now, but in his mind he can still vividly see the flotilla of ships crossing the English Channel toward the shores of France. Roughly 6,000 vessels were part of the invasion.

“Everywhere I turned the ball turret, there was nothing but ships," he tells the Fergus Falls Journal.

WCCO has the remarkable story of Rollie Daniel, 91, who was among the paratroopers who jumped into Nazi territory – his first combat jump.

"You don’t even know if it’s real or not,” Daniel told WCCO, recalling his leap from a C-47 aircraft.

Daniel joined other veterans and President Barack Obama at Normandy for services Friday. He had planned to visit the grave of a buddy, Fidel Alazares, a solider who operated a rifle next to Daniel and was killed by mortar fire.

"It probably will hit me here," he told WCCO. "I’ll start thinking about all these young guys that I knew, buddies of mine, and they’re not here. They’re buried there.”

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