In the seven decades since George Corado's gunship rolled over the waters of Normandy during the D-Day invasion of France, he made a conscious decision not to dwell on the past. "You don't want to sit there and start thinking back," Corado said. "It will bother you too much. I lost a lot of friends there."
On Saturday afternoon, Corado was forced to revisit some of the more painful memories he has been trying to forget since that fateful day on June 6, 1944. The 87-year-old Niles resident and U.S. Navy veteran was in attendance during the annual D-Day re-enactment at Conneaut Township Park along the shores of Lake Erie.
Corado's eyes welled following the hourlong mock siege of the beach by over 1,000 re-enactors playing Allied and Axis soldiers vying for position in one of World War II's bloodiest and most recognized battles.
"They did a fantastic job of putting this together," Corado said. "I started to wonder whether it was a good idea for me to come up here because it shook me up. I'm glad I was able to see it, but I'm also glad it's over. It was very emotional."
The performance began with an Allied-led sea assault of the Axis soldiers dug into the park bluff serving as a mountainside. The performance was replete with special effects producing loud gunfire and ordinance blasts.
As the Allied soldiers made their way up the beach and into heavier resistance, naval landing craft and aircraft - including a B-25 bomber - buzzed over the large crowd of onlookers. The flyovers were followed by clouds of smoke along the beach and the thudding of bombs. Even a 1944 M4-A3 Sherman tank rolled into action during the re-enactment.
Under German gunfire, Allied troops storm the beach during the annual D-Day re-enactment Saturday afternoon at Conneaut Township Park in Conneaut. Photo by R. Michael Semple
Corado, who was a member of the Navy's Special Gunfire Support Group during the D-Day invasion, gave the event organizers high marks for authenticity.
"Watching them hit the beach was the main thing that stuck out to me, because that's the way we had to do it," Corado said. "I always wanted to come to this, but I never thought it would be this way. They did a heck of a job with it."
The D-Day re-enactment at Conneaut Township Park has been an annual summer event since 1999.
According to Cody Musser, a volunteer who helped organize the event and participant in the re-enactment, the event gets larger and more grand each passing year.
"This is the biggest it has ever been," Musser said. "We had 900 or so re-enactors signed up to come, and we have well over 1,000 re-enactors here with walk-ons. Next year, we look forward to it being even bigger with the 70th anniversary (of D-Day). It should be enormous."
The events began Thursday with a screening of "Casablanca" in the park, followed by the opening of the campsites on Friday morning.
Over the course of the weekend, veterans are encouraged to publicly share their personal war stories at the hospitality tent.
The D-Day re-enactment began at 3 p.m. Saturday with a USO-style dance at the legion hall closing the activities.
Musser, from State College, Pa., said people come from across the country to watch and participate in the weekend.
"My group is from the New York and New Jersey area," Musser said. "I know some others from St. Louis and other places in the Midwest. This is a big event as far as re-enactments go."
Musser estimates the cost to put on the impressive re-enactment somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars.
"The B-25 is probably $30,000 just to get it to take off and come here," Musser said. "The Mustangs are probably a few thousand each and the boats cost a few thousand dollars every time we drop them in the water. At the same time, people donate time as much as money and that's just as important. It's a huge deal."
Along with local veterans, history buffs from around the area made the 60-mile trek north to take in the sights and sounds of the World War II battle.
Siblings Valerie and Mitchell North of Girard were in attendance partly to honor their now deceased father who fought in World War II.
"It's amazing how all these people from all over the country come together for a great cause," Valerie North said. "We are able to see what it was like back then. I think it's important."
Meanwhile, Mitchell North explained the authenticity caught him off guard.
"If I would have had a gun, I would have shot at the Germans," he laughed.
More than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed during the D-Day invasion of the 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified French coastline. Those figures were not lost on Air Force veteran Rick Liet of Austintown, who was on hand for the tribute to those who fought and died in Normandy.
"You've got to do things like this, because you have to remember what these guys did to keep history alive," Liet said. "I do Civil War re-enactments, and when you are out there doing it, the adrenaline flows and you feel a part of it. It feels real."
The visuals were almost too real for Corado, who slowly made his way through the encampments and tents surrounding the site of the re-enactment.
"We were just a bunch of young kids on the beach in Normandy," Corado said. "I was 17 when I went into the Navy and I was out by 20. We were just kids.
''Again, they did a great job, but there are just too many bad memories."