Trump the transatlantic nightmare? Not for these D-Day vets

Joseph Schmid
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US veterans Jack Gutman (C), Georges Ciampa (2R) and James Forlking (R), landed on "Omaha Beach" on June 6, 1944

US veterans Jack Gutman (C), Georges Ciampa (2R) and James Forlking (R), landed on "Omaha Beach" on June 6, 1944 (AFP Photo/GUILLAUME SOUVANT)

Colleville-sur-Mer (France) (AFP) - When Jack Gutman rushed onto Omaha Beach as an 18-year-old US soldier on June 6, 1944, he was taking part in one of the greatest acts of transatlantic cooperation ever seen.

His participation in the Normandy landings of D-Day, under the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, helped push the Nazis out of France and ultimately resulted in the Allied victory in World War II.

And yet Gutman, returning to Normandy this week for the first time in 75 years, is an admirer of President Donald Trump despite the current White House incumbent being accused by critics of undermining that very transatlantic alliance.

"If I could see him, that'd be a thrill for me, because the man has done an awful lot to help our country," the California resident told AFP at the US military cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, ahead of Trump's arrival Thursday to attend a commemoration ceremony.

Trump was given a warm welcome by the veterans as he arrived for the 75th anniversary ceremony with French President Emmanuel Macron.

"Hey, you're our president too. Come on up this way," one of the veterans told Trump before shaking hands him.

"There's a lot of people back in Pennsylvania who want to vote for you," the man said, to the apparent delight of the president and his staff.

- 'Doing so much for vets' -

Trump's political credo is based on an "America first" policy that for critics is at odds with the US membership in NATO and its historic partnership with Europe.

But for some of the shrinking number of veterans who saw first-hand the costs -- and payoffs -- of the Allied invasion, Trump's belligerent isolationism has hardly dented their support.

Instead they praise a president who they seeing as doing what it takes to get results on the home front.

But perhaps most importantly, they cite the Trump administration's push to let millions of vets facing long waits at state-run facilities seek private care instead -- paid for by the government.

The major policy shift follows the 2014 scandal that erupted after extensive delays and management failures were uncovered at the Veterans Administration.

"He's the only president in my history doing so much for veterans," said George Ciampa, a fellow D-Day vet at the cemetery, who is making a documentary on the experiences of his comrades.

"He's not going to let veterans stand in line for years to get care," he said.

- 'He fixes it' -

Ciampa was part of a casualty recovery team that would find and bury some 75,000 American and German victims in the 11 months following the D-Day landings.

Trump, by contrast, has been dogged by claims he skipped out of Vietnam service by claiming bone spurs on his feet.

But that didn't stop him from getting Ciampa's backing.

"I was a Democrat years ago, I voted for Kennedy and others," he said after a private ceremony at the cemetery on the eve of Trump's visit.

He now describes himself as a conservative independent who appreciates his commander-in-chief as a pragmatic, can-do leader.

"He's not a political person, he sees a problem and he fixes it," Ciampa said.

"That's what George S. Patton did," he added, referring to the celebrated general who commanded US forces in Europe in the final phase of the war.

"He had the same temper as Trump, and he helped win the war over here."

His approval echoes the support Trump enjoyed among veterans in the 2016 presidential election. Exit polls showed he had won their vote by a two-to-one margin over Hillary Clinton.

But Trump's uncompromising stances get traction in particular with the generation for whom duty to country meant braving a hail of Nazi bullets on the Normandy coast.

"It's a tough thing he's doing, and he's not loved by a lot of people," Gutman said.

"He's got an agenda, and so whatever he's got planned, that's why he's president and I guess I have to leave it in his hands."

- 'Not a lot of faith in politicians' -

British veterans, asked about Trump's presence at the D-Day ceremonies Thursday, were less loquacious.

"I'm very sorry for your question," one WWII veteran told AFP in Bayeux after a remembrance mass attended by Britain's Prince Charles and his wife Camilla.

"I have every admiration for America... without their help we could not have created the world in which we now live," said Don Hitchcock, who was 19 when he landed on Omaha beach the day after the initial invasion.

Pressed about Trump's diplomatic abrasiveness, he said: "Politicians are politicians, sometimes they do daft things. I've not a lot of faith in our politicians at this juncture."