At the age of 22, Captain John C. Raaen was one of more than 150,000 Allied soldiers who invaded a 50-mile stretch of coastline in Normandy, France. That attack, D-Day, went down in history as the beginning of the end of World War II.
Born in Georgia, Raaen grew up playing tennis and attending classes with peers from prominent military families, including John Eisenhower and George Patton. In 1943, a year and a half after America entered World War II, he graduated the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. One year later, he sailed for Normandy.
As a captain in the 5th Ranger Infantry Battalion, Raaen’s task was to lead his soldiers to attack a battery of guns at Pointe du Hoc, which stood heavily defended at the top of steep cliffs. Seeing the heavy casualties onshore, the battalion commander ordered Raaen’s group to change course. They landed farther down the coast in the early morning, taking cover in the breakwaters as gunfire rang out overhead.
More than 9,000 Allied soldiers died in the attack. The original codename for the invasion site – “Omaha Beach” – would later lead to the nickname “Bloody Omaha.”
Raaen led his troops across the beach and pressed inland, navigating minefields and steep hills. They fought across Normandy and into Brittany, then through Luxembourg and Belgium, where they joined the Battle of the Bulge on December 22, 1944. In the midst of battle, Raaen fell from his jeep and was injured. He returned to America, and when Japan formally surrendered, Raaen received the news at West Point.
In recognition of his service at D-Day, Raaen was awarded the Combat Infantryman Badge and the Silver Star, the military’s third-highest honor for heroism in combat.
However, that was just the beginning of his 36-year military career: Raaen also served in the Vietnam and Korean Wars, and was promoted to the rank of Major General before retiring in 1979. In that time, he received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Army Commendation Medal and the Bronze Star.
Now, Raaen is one of only a handful of surviving D-Day veterans. Historians don’t have an exact count, but the National World War II Museum estimates that fewer than 1,000 of the original 150,000 D-Day soldiers are still alive.
Although he doesn’t enjoy dwelling on the memory of war, Raaen considers it a duty and an honor to share his story. He has spoken at memorial ceremonies at Normandy, including the 50th anniversary in 1994 and the 75th anniversary last year. He has been interviewed by more than two dozen war historians, the BBC and the Smithsonian Channel.
Using official war documents and his own letters written just weeks after D-Day, Raaen authored his own first-hand account of the invasion. Titled INTACT, it tells the story of the 5th Ranger Infantry Battalion as they helped secure Omaha Beach. At age 98, Raaen now resides at The Mayflower in Winter Park, Florida.