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"It's hard to describe what we all went through that day [in the first wave at Omaha Beach], but those of you who were there, will understand. We were frightened all the time. My sergeant said, 'Are you scared, son?' And I said, 'Yes, I am.' And he said, 'That's good. It's good to be scared.' He said, 'We all are.'"

Charles Durning

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The Greatest Generation

Honoring Charles Durning and all WWII Veterans
This year’s concert will recognize the immense contributions of World War II veterans and, in particular, honor distinguished actor, highly decorated WWII veteran and 14-year “National Memorial Day Concert” participant Charles Durning for his bravery and sacrifice as part of the “greatest generation.”

Charles Durning is a recipient of a Tony, Golden Globe and eight Emmy awards and two Oscar nominations for his work on stage and in film and television. This year, he also was honored with the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award. But it is his Silver Star and his three Purple Hearts that make him an exemplary member of the “greatest generation.”

charles durning

He was in the first wave to land at Omaha Beach in Normandy. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was bayoneted eight times, captured and then escaped. He liberated the death camps, witnessing that profound, nearly unspeakable human tragedy. Yet he has shared his story on the “National Memorial Day Concert” because he says it is “so important not to forget, however painful.”

On the “National Memorial Day Concert”, Tom Hanks said to the World War II veterans in the audience and watching on TV:

WW11 veterans

“You and your generation changed the course of history. You did nothing less than preserve our freedom, and help save the world from tyranny ... What inspired such sacrifice, such courage and devotion to duty in the men of the greatest generation? Each generation must ask themselves this question, for the answer remains hidden in our collective soul. But this is certain. We who have enjoyed freedom for the past sixty-[four] years honor those that served. And we do remember.’”

Each veteran’s experience with war is an important part of history that should be passed on to future generations. And, though difficult, sharing these stories can have a powerful healing effect both for veterans and their families. Visit the Veterans, Share Your Stories page of our website to learn more.

You can also visit our site for other resources relating to the World War II era, for general or service branch resources for veterans,  and for links to other websites relating to America’s conflicts, including and other PBS shows on the subject.

At the end of the war, when the Allied Army finally saw victory, President Harry Truman spoke to American troops by radio, and said:

"This is a time for great rejoicing and a time for solemn contemplation ... I think I know the American soldier and sailor. He does not want gratitude or sympathy. He had a job to do. He did not like it. But he did it. And how he did it! On this night of total victory, we salute you of the Armed Forces of the United States. What a job you have done! ... Good luck and God bless you!"

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