MEANING & HISTORY
World War II
When World War II ended in 1945, more than a million Americans had lost their lives or been wounded during the widest war in world history. Operation Overlord, or what has become known as D-Day, began on June 6, 1944 and marked the beginning of the end of the war.
Sixty years later, on June 4, 2004, the National World War II Memorial was dedicated in Washington, DC. It is a fitting tribute to the generation of men and women who helped save the world from tyranny.
On the 2004 “National Memorial Day Concert,” Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks, one of the major supporters of the World War II Memorial, honored the veterans of WWII by thanking them for their service and sacrifice. He said, “You and your generation changed the course of history. You did nothing less than preserve our freedom, and help save the world from tyranny.” And with narration and historical documentary footage, he painted the picture of D-Day.
Mr. Hanks then introduced the distinguished actor Charles Durning, a recipient of a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts, who recounted his own personal experience from D-Day. He was a 20-year-old Army ranger about to face his baptism of fire on that first wave at Omaha Beach. At our Concert, he shared the following story.
Charles Durning’s WWII Experience
It's hard to describe what we all went through that day, 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.
This guy in the boat, he turned to me and threw up all over me, and I got seasick. It was scary. You're not thinking about anything, you're just thinking about, you hope that shell that just went off isn't going to hit this boat. Even the guys who had seen a lot of action before – and this was my first time – they were just as ashen as I was.
And I was frightened, to death. I was the second man off my barge and the first and third man got killed. The first guy, the ramp went down, the guy fell, and I tried to leap over him and I stumbled, and we both slipped into the water.
We were supposed to be able to walk into shore, but they didn't bring us in far enough, and I was in 60 feet of water, with a 60-pound pack on. So I let it all go. I was under the water, and you could see the bullets go "ps..ss...tt" down past you. But what I was afraid of was that I'd come up and meet a bullet coming my way. But I came up, and I didn't have a helmet, a rifle, nothing. When I hit the beach, the guys pulled me in who were already there. I'd lost everything, but they said you'll find plenty of them on the beach, rifles and helmets that belonged to nobody.
Nobody knew where we were supposed to go. There was nobody in charge, you were on your own. All around me, people were being shot at. I saw bodies all over the place, but you didn't know whether they were alive or dead, 'cause they were just lying there.
The ships were still bombing in there too. Somebody asked me how it was on D-Day and I said "loud." When something goes off, you can't hear anything. You could watch a guy's mouth and know that he was talking to you, but you couldn't hear him. That was frightening 'cause you didn't know what was going on. The artillery was dropping constantly and all around you, and you were lucky not to get splattered. And then our planes were coming in and they couldn't see where to shoot and they were hitting some of our men.
We got behind this tank to protect ourselves. We were holding our own there, until they called us over. I asked the sergeant, do you want me to go first? And he said you go first, I'll be right behind you. I heard an explosion and I turned around and his torso was here, and his upper body was over there.
There was another guy whose intestines were out on the sand in front of him. And he was still alive, and he seemed to be very calm. You know when someone's dying, you can see it right away. Everything changes in their face, its kind of gray. He said, "I can't go home like this. How they gonna push all that back into me?"
I saw wounded or dying guys crawl up in front of us to act as barricades, so they could protect us from getting hit with their own bodies. I saw that. They would come up and just lay there, you know, take the shot.
Once we got up to the bluff, you could see for miles. It was this eerie sight of bodies which looked like driftwood floating in the water. The beach was covered with the bodies of American soldiers.
All of these are like flashbacks for me. I can't recall everything ...
I forget a lot of stuff now, but I still wake up once in a while and it's still there … I can't count how many of my buddies are in the cemetery at Normandy.
The heroes are still there, the real heroes.