OMAHA BEACH, France — Some may not have heard of Le Havre, the coastal town in northern France where the United States women’s national team will play Sweden. But most probably have heard of the region where it lies: Normandy.
While the U.S. players trained ahead of their final group stage match, their friends and family members visited Omaha Beach, the historic landing site of the Invasion of Normandy, and the nearby American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer.
Steve Melnikoff, a 99-year-old World War II survivor, served as an educational guide during the trip. He told them about the horrific battle, getting shot in the shoulder by a German MG 42 gun almost exactly 75 years ago to the day and the lessons his generation learned that he hopes the world remembers.
“It was a very, very difficult fight for us,” said Melnikoff, who also accompanied 11 current U.S. players to Normandy in January and will be at the match between the Americans and Sweden Thursday. “I don’t bring religion, politics up, but I know I had an angel look after me. Those people you see in Coville and all over the world who are buried — 400,000 Americans lost their lives. So, one of them took a couple of hits for me.
“I’ll say this: That prosperity and peace and everything we’ve had for 74 years, ya know, I enjoyed it too, just like you have.”
Melnikoff is among the roughly 3% of American World War II veterans still alive, based on September 2018 numbers from the US Department of Veterans Affairs, and an estimated 348 die each day.
He landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 7, the day after D-Day, with the 175th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division. He was 24 years old. Melnikoff recalled the strong ocean tides that complicated the mission, the destruction he witnessed upon landing, climbing over bodies and finding the courage to storm the beach solely because of the camaraderie of his fellow soldiers.
“People don’t really understand what war is like,” he said. “War is hell. It’s dangerous. It’s stinky. It’s bloody. It’s messy. It’s death. It’s all that other stuff, and you can only absorb so much of that.”
That’s why it took him a long time to return to the site of the battle. He thought he would go for the 50th reunion, but “was mentally not ready.” He finally returned for the 60th anniversary and has attended every five years since.
“That’s my dad. That’s my hero,” said Melnikoff’s 65-year-old daughter, who watched from the side as her father held the attention of dozens of strangers.
“What about the movies?” someone in the group asked.
“That’s Hollywood,” Melnikoff replied. “You can not portray some of the things we had to see and endure in a movie, just can’t be done.”
Melnikoff still has shrapnel in his shoulder as a reminder of war, but he searched the ground where he once laid injured for something else to keep. He found a lone poppy in the wheat field.
“That generation of mine, we had a job to do and we did the job,” he said. “It was a big job. I tell people we’re tougher than you guys. You’re not even close. Our lifestyle was tough and so we were more hardened, everybody was.
“I don’t want you to feel sorry for us, because I don’t mean it that way — it was just the circumstances.”
Hardened as he was, Melnikoff spoke with a softness in his voice and eyes. When some of the players’ parents walked up to thank him for his service, he’d squeeze and hold their hands much longer than a normal handshake.
He smiled at the two recent high-school graduates, Austin Rapinoe — Megan Rapinoe’s nephew — and Andrew Laraway, who stood on either side of Melnikoff holding a soccer ball-shaped bouquet of flowers that they placed at the foot of a statue in the cemetery while Taps played through the loudspeakers.
“I’m good now,” Melnikoff said. “I get emotional once in a while. I was emotional yesterday. I come back to here because I have to. Because we can’t forget what those guys did.
“You have to make sure that our leaders are doing the right things, and you’re the ones who have to do it. And each generation has to do it. I do this because they will remember the longest. And that’s what I do. That’s my mission now.”