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Veteran remembers crossing English Channel in 1944

June 7, 2014 at 1:05 PM EDT
Private First Class Charles Thomas was only 20 years old and thousands of miles away from his home in Chicago when he took part in the most audacious amphibious military invasion in world history. Eddie Arruza of Chicago Tonight reports.
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CHARLES THOMAS: I didn’t take time out to pray. I didn’t have time.

EDDIE ARRUZA: Private First Class Charles Thomas was only 20 years old and thousands of miles away from his home in Chicago when he took part in the most audacious amphibious military invasion in world history.

CHARLES THOMAS: It was rough and I wouldn’t say exciting. Trying to stay alive was the main job I had myself.

EDDIE ARRUZA: Charles Thomas was a member of the 1st Infantry Army Division which on June 6, 1944 was among the first allied forces to land in Normandy. Only a year before Thomas was a recent high school grad living in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. He enlisted in the Army in the summer of 1943 and less than a year later he was making a historic 100 mile crossing of the English Channel.

CHARLES THOMAS: We were 12 miles out from the beach when they put us on Higgins boats. That’s a long ride in the rough water with a Higgins boat. Water was splashing we were all wet. Two hour sleep probably. Sea sick, we all got sea sick. We got bags to throw up in [laughs]. We had paper bags to throw over side.

We hit the beach, we get off the boat. You forget everything you’re not sea sick or nothin’ you’re just trying to take care of yourself. You could see the boats covered by tracers, really tracing the water.

EDDIE ARRUZA: First division army veterans like Charles Thomas have a museum dedicated to them in west suburban Wheaton. It’s on the sprawling estate once owned by Col. Robert McCormick. Among the displays there is a vivid exhibit recreating Omaha Beach.

EDDIE ARRUZA: Visitors here to the Cantigny museum can get some idea of what the troops saw as they stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. As you leave a landing craft you land on Omaha Beach. You encounter the beach obstacles, the barbed wire and up ahead are the Nazi-occupied hills of Northern France overlooking the English Channel.

PAUL HERBERT: This depicts what I personally believe is the single most important day in the history of the first division. The plan although a good plan didn’t work out as well as the planners had hoped and the soldiers took the fight into their own hands and won the victory, very heroically I might add.

EDDIE ARRUZA: Thomas’ survived D-Day to suffer a concussion from a German shelling later in the war. It was his only injury. Among his possessions, he still has the wallet he carried on D-Day which held a photo of a girl back home. He didn’t meet his wife Bernadette until later.

Thomas worked as a cartographer after his military service and is now 90 years old. While many might see his service on D-Day as his greatest achievement, he prefers to tout another accomplishment.

CHARLES THOMAS: I raised a family of five. I was married 63 years to my wife.

EDDIE ARRUZA: All in a life’s work for a D-Day hero.