Ninety-four-year-old World War II veteran Sherwin Callander, center, recites the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony with Army Spc. Gulam Ali, left, originally from India, and Army Spc. Iddrisu Ibrahim, originally from Ghana, right, oin Monday in Atlanta. The World War II veteran from Alabama is headed to France for D-Day ceremonies, a trip that seemed unlikely just last week. (David Goldman/The Associated Press)
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A 94-year-old man who fought for the U.S. in World War II is heading to France for D-Day ceremonies, a journey he nearly wasn't able to make because he didn't have the proof of his citizenship needed to get a passport.
But after getting some help from social media and his local congressman to overcome his financial and passport issues, Sherwin Callander, of Alabama, was set to board a plane Monday night for Paris.
Callander heard last month about ceremonies for the 70th anniversary of D-Day and said he thought it would be meaningful to attend. He hadn't been back to France since landing on Utah Beach during the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, and had cherished memories of buddies lost that day.
But Callander hit a snag when he went to get a passport. Born in Canada in 1920 to an American mother and having lived in the United States since the age of 3, Callander didn't have any documentation that proved his U.S. citizenship.
He also didn't have enough money to pay for the trip.
His granddaughter, Elaine Oakes, who will accompany him to France, set up an account two weeks ago on an online fundraising website to tell the story of the man she calls "Papa" and his wish to go to Normandy. She set a goal of $5,000. By Monday, donations from 249 people totaled just over $10,000.
Oakes also helped her grandfather work through a bureaucratic maze to get the necessary papers for his passport, and she credits the office of their congressman, Rep. Mo Brooks, with speeding things along. On Friday, Callander learned he had an appointment with Citizenship and Immigration Services in Atlanta to get a certificate of citizenship. That would be followed by an appointment at the passport office to get a specially expedited passport.
After getting the citizenship certificate Monday morning, Callander recited the Oath of Allegiance to the United States flanked by two active Army members who happened to receive U.S. citizenship that day.
Specialist Iddrisu Ibrahim, 28, who was born in Ghana, and Specialist Gulam Ali, 25, who was born in India, beamed alongside Callander, repeatedly telling him how honored they were to meet him.
Callander enlisted in the Navy as a young man after hearing from recruiters from different branches of the military.
"When they said, 'You'll have a girl in every port,' I said that's the branch I want," he said with a chuckle.
He saw action on many fronts during World War II but made it through "without a scratch," he said.
He was stationed at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 but was out at sea on the day the Japanese attacked. He recalled returning the next day to see the devastation and helping to pull bodies of dead servicemen from the water. He also served in Italy and north Africa. And then there was France, where he recalls being "scared to death" during the D-Day invasion as friends died beside him.
"I had tears in my eyes and I had prayers in my heart, and I just prayed I would come through," he said.
He plans to visit the graves of his fallen comrades while in Normandy.
After the war, Callander used the GI Bill to become trained as a plumber, a trade he worked in for decades. He married twice and had several children and many grandchildren.
After leaving the citizenship office, Callander was escorted to the passport office across town, where he got his brand new passport with hours to spare before he and Oakes were scheduled to board a plane for Paris Monday night.
"I'm just going to try to enjoy everything, hug every girl I can see and go back on the beach and reminisce a little bit," he said.