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Normandy Invasion vets have favorite Derby horse

May. 3, 2013 - 06:38PM   |  
World War II veterans, who were part of the Normandy Invasion, view 'their' horse, Normandy Invasion, at the backside of Churchill Downs on Friday in Louisville, Ky. From left, Ray Woods, Rick Porter (owner of Normandy Invasion,) Ray Woods, Alan Reeves, J. J. Witmeyer, and Chad Brown, trainer of Normandy Invasion.
World War II veterans, who were part of the Normandy Invasion, view 'their' horse, Normandy Invasion, at the backside of Churchill Downs on Friday in Louisville, Ky. From left, Ray Woods, Rick Porter (owner of Normandy Invasion,) Ray Woods, Alan Reeves, J. J. Witmeyer, and Chad Brown, trainer of Normandy Invasion. (Bill Luster / The Courier-Journal via AP)
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LOUISVILLE — Four World War II veterans who were involved in the Normandy Invasion are here as guests of the horse Normandy Invasion, who will run Saturday in the Kentucky Derby.

“I’ll tell you, this excitement has made my legs feel better than they’ve felt in weeks,” Ray Woods, 90, of Ottowa, Ohio, said Friday morning as he stood on a cane out Normandy Invasion’s barn at Churchill Downs.

The veterans were invited here for a three-day stay by Rick Porter, owner of Normandy Invasion and Fox Hill Farm of Lexington, Ky.

The Normandy Invasion, also known as D-Day, was the June 6, 1944 assault on the beaches of Normandy, France. The horse, trained by Chad Brown and to be ridden by jockey Javier Castellano, was 12-1 in the morning line.

“We name a lot of horses after patriotic things. And when I went to Normandy in 1994, which was the 50th anniversary, we spent three days there. I was blown away by everything, and they were memories I’ll never forget,” said Porter.

Porter was contacted by one of the veterans about perhaps attending the Derby.

“We should have thought of this ourselves. So here they are,” said Porter, who is putting the veterans up in a hotel and will have them in the Millionaire’s Row clubhouse area for the race.

During D-Day, Woods was a Navy chief radar man on the USS O’Brien. “A destroyer, 2,200-tons, the largest destroyers,” he noted.

Woods said his destroyer shelled the beach defenses, including after the beach landings to assist in the protection and evacuation of the wounded.

“We saved their butts. After all the carnage, our skipper decided to go in without orders,” said Woods. “We went in and blasted the German guns. We threw salvos at every one of the gun ports.”

Bill Wilch, 89, of Middletown, Ohio, was a private in the Army when he hit the beach in the Fox Green sector of Omaha Beach.

“Where the big cemetery is today,” said Wilch.

At one point, he and fellow private were assigned to take a dozen German prisoners back to headquarters. They came under fire. They returned fire and got their prisoners back. Wilch and his fellow private earned Bronze Stars.

Wilch said his late wife, Mary Rita, always wanted to attend the Derby.

“My wife and I used to go to Derby day parties, and we watched it on TV, and she loved horses,” he said.

He brought a photo of Mary Rita here.

“We finally made it,” said Wilch. “Thanks to him,” he said, gesturing toward Porter.

Army veteran J.J. Witmeyer Jr., 92, of Harahan, La., is here, too. He was wearing his WWII medals on the breast of his jacket. His decorations include two Purple Hearts, four Bronze Stars, two Presidential Unit citations. He is a member of the French Legion of Honor.

“I was an infantry officer,” said Witmeyer. “My job was to lead them ashore. I was in charge of a company of infantry men, Utah Beach.”

He got a look at the horse Normandy Invasion Friday morning.

“He’s a pretty horse,” said Witmeyer. “I had a couple (of race horses), but times got rough, and they didn’t win more,” he said.

Might he bet $2 on Normandy Invasion.

“A little more,” he said.

Army veteran Alan Reeves, 91, of LaJolla, Calif., was instrumental in setting up the trip here with his fellow veterans. In 1944, Reeves was involved in civil affairs with the Army and worked in Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Supreme Command.

About a week after the invasion, he went to France.

“I was slated to go in right after the invasion to be part of the country, and I went in with Eisenhower to some tents. It was a very brief meeting. And the history books show that,” said Reeves.

Reeves also will make a wager on Normandy Invasion — $69.

“It’s the 69th anniversary of D-Day,” he said. “Can’t lose.”

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