A collection of World War II veterans and their families turned out again recebtly at La Chatelaine's French Bakery and Bistro in Upper Arlington for the annual D-Day celebration and to toast their host for a recent recognition from his native government.
On the 69th anniversary of D-Day, scores of U.S. World War II veterans gathered at La Chatelaine, as they do every June 6.
The group included a number who stormed beaches in Normandy to liberate France from Nazi Germany.
Those were the men La Chatelaine owners Stan and Gigi Wielezynski sought to honor when they began hosting a private D-Day party at their restaurant in 1994.
In keeping with tradition, the occasion celebrated France and America, and gave retired servicemen a chance to reconnect with those from their storied ranks, which with each passing year grow smaller.
"Stan and Gigi have been doing this I don't know how many years now," said retired Brig. Gen. James Abraham, 90, of Gahanna, who landed on Omaha Beach June 6, 1944.
"I come because of what they do," Abraham said.
"It's interesting to me that a couple who came here from France remember D-Day every year," he said. "To most in this country, it's not a day of significance."
D-Day is significant to Stan Wielezynski, 66, because it was a day 160,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches he would later play on as a child and liberated his homeland from the Nazis.
That's why he began the annual celebration, which includes all the French cuisine and wine the veterans and their families can enjoy -- at no cost to them.
Recently, the Republic of France recognized Wielezynski's contributions to the veterans who fought in defense of France by nominating him for a National Order of Merit, the highest honor given to civilians.
Once he actually receives the medal -- which could take three or four months -- he will become a Knight of the National Order of Merit.
"It's kind of embarrassing," Wielezynski said. "We want to honor the veterans and (the French government) decided to honor us.
"I appreciate the French government for honoring the veterans' wishes, but I feel like the spotlight should be on (the veterans)," he said. "They did the job."
Because many veterans who saw action on D-Day have passed away over the years, Wielezynski has opened the celebration to all World War II vets.
He hopes he will have his National Order of Merit medal in time for the 70th anniversary of D-Day next year.
"That means something to me," he said. "What's important is France is recognizing me for the French connection to those guys.
"I keep saying, 'Hey, guys, hang on another year. We're going to have more fun next year.' "
Amid the wining and dining and the singing of the French and American national anthems, many veterans saw the June 6 gathering as a chance to see familiar faces who share the bond of their service.
"I feel privileged to even be here," said Joe Wells, 91, of Grove City. Wells, a retired captain in the Army Air Force, flew 35 missions in the Southwest Pacific.
"Really and truly, it's more like a reunion for veterans and the courtesy and generosity of Stan and Gigi is the only thing that exceeds that," he said.
Abraham also reflected on the day when more than 9,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded.
"There's not too many of us left," he said. "I never know who still is going to be here.
"It's an emotional day," Wells said. "That was a day when a lot of young Americans really found out what war was, and a lot lost their lives. People I know, good buddies of mine, were lost that day."
"The bottom line is these guys liberated my homeland," Wielezynski said. "Liberty is not cheap. Freedom is not cheap.
"We thank them, have fun with them and open our hearts."