BASILDON war veteran Don Sheppard is living proof you just can’t keep a good man down.

Just two weeks ago Don, 103, was on the brink of death, yet just as he has so many times in his life, he put up a ferocious battle and is now recovering well.

Despite increasing frailty and ill health over the past few years, which has included bouts of pneumonia and a broken pelvis, Don is determined to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day in June.

Don, who will turn 104 next month, is one of only a handful of Normandy veterans left alive. He was just 24 when he took part in D-Day, serving as a sapper with the Royal Engineers Don – who grew up in Laindon and has lived in Methersgate, Basildon, with his wife Sandra for the past 60 years – completed his army training at the Colchester garrison before serving in Sicily and north Africa.

Echo: Don reads the newspaper from his Basildon Hospital bed two weeks agoDon reads the newspaper from his Basildon Hospital bed two weeks ago (Image: Family handout)

By the time D-Day came along Don was considered a seasoned soldier.

Once he landed on Juno Beach in Normandy, the sheer scale of the situation became clear.

“There were shells and a whole lot of people killed. Bodies were everywhere,” he said.

“The noise is something I won’t forget – the roar of a battleship discharging its guns over our heads and the sound of rocket ships.

“I was lucky. I’d had some combat experience before D-Day – not loads, mind you, but it made a difference.

“Some of the lads had never seen any enemy action.”

Echo: Don Sheppard as a young army despatch riderDon Sheppard as a young army despatch rider (Image: Family handout)

Don still has a piece of shrapnel wedged in his lungs as a result of an enemy bomb attack at Pegasus Bridge during the D-Day operation.

“I don’t suppose it’s done the pneumonia any good,” he joked.

The veteran, who has 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, was chairman of the Southend Normandy Veterans Association for many years. He has spent the decades since the war fighting to ensure those who didn’t come back from France are as celebrated and honoured as the veterans who did.

“The boys we left over the there - the ones who didn’t come back - are the ones we must remember,” he said.

For many years Don and his family travelled over to Normandy each year for D-Day, then, as old age took its toll on Don’s mobility, they marked the anniversary at the National Arboretum in Staffordshire.

Now, chasing 104, even Staffordshire is too much for Don, but he is determined to go to the Living Memorial at White House Farm in Rettendon, for the landmark 80th anniversary.

The Living Memorial space was created by Fran and Peter Theobald in 2009 and includes a small museum, seating areas, plaques and more than 700 trees planted in memory of those who died during the war and other conflicts.

Echo: Don pictured last year at the Living Memorial in Rettendon Don pictured last year at the Living Memorial in Rettendon (Image: Family handout)

Last year Don was the guest of honour to unveil a new special D-Day memorial at the peaceful site.

Despite being pushed by his grandson Sam in a wheelchair for most of the ceremony, Don was determined to walk to the podium to deliver his speech, which he did - supported by Sam all the way.

He even clambered onto a vintage army motorcycle at one point, relishing the chance to sit on the same type of bike he rode as a young army despatch rider.

Don’s daughter, Jo O’Brien, said: “Two weeks ago Dad was so ill in hospital that we all said our goodbyes. Then, typical of him, he literally rose from the dead and the next thing we knew he was sat up in bed reading the newspaper!

“It has made us all even more determined to press ahead with celebrations for his 104th birthday in May and for the 80th anniversary of D-Day. We want to make both days special for dad and to give him whatever he wants.”

Don and his family have started a campaign to raise funds for the Living Memorial at Rettendon in time for the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

To show your support visit