June 6, 2009 - 65th Anniversary of The Great Crusade

OK, I know I'm a little off my usual topics again, but today is an anniversary. In the early morning hours on a Tuesday morning 65 years ago today, D-Day paratroopers began jumping into the French countryside. At first light, six divisions of soldiers from the United States, Britain, and Canada began landing on the beaches of Normandy.  The beaches all had code names Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno, and Sword. The United States landed on Omaha and Utah. The British took care of Gold and Sword, and the Canadiens landed on Juno.

Just prior to the invasion, General Eisenhower read what is now an historic passage:

"You are about to embark upon the great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months."

Obviously, you can read about the Normandy invasions everywhere, so I'm not going to describe all the events again here. I will, however, talk a little bit about my experiences touring the area as well as introduce you to Charles Durning.

Who is Charles Durning? You probably know him by his movies. His film career began in 1965. Some credits include "The Sting", "Dog Day Afternnon", "North Dallas Forty", "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas", "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", and dozens of others. What you may not know about Charles Durning is that he survived two most horrific periods in WWII. You wouldn't know because like many veterans of that era, he rarely spoke about it until years later when asked.

Durning was awarded the Silver Star and three Purple Hearts. He was among the first wave of troops that landed on Omaha Beach. Suffice to say, the nickname of "Bloody Omaha" is descriptive because of the more than 2,200 casualties suffered on 6 JUN 1944.

By 17 JUN 1944, Durning was back in England recovering from  shrapnel wounds in the left and right thighs, the right hand, the frontal region of the head, and the anterior left chest wall. He was pronounced fit again on 6 DEC 1944, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge and his second historical experience.

In 2008, Durning received France's National Order of the Legion of Honor (each year France honors 100 veterans that served with distinction in France). At the ceremony, he described his experiences during the Battle of the Bulge. Early in the battle, Durning was stabbed 8(!) times during a hand-to-hand fight with a young German soldier. The fight did not end until Durning was able to reach for a rock and bludgeon the German soldier to death. He said when it was over he wept with the dead German soldier in his arms.

Soon after, Durning was taken prisoner and would have been shot on the spot were if not for an english speaking German officer that accepted his surrender and had his wounds tended to (the 8 stab wounds - one to the chest). As a prisoner now, Durning was led to a small town called Malmedy. It is here that the infamous Malmedy massacre took place. At Malmedy, some 150 prisoners were rounded up and dozens were executed. Durning and two others of his group managed to escape the carnage. There were many incidents in an around Malmedy, resulting in 72 bodies being discovered.

Durning was on the TV show "Rescue Me" this year. It was here that I was reminded of his service and felt the urge to talk about it. I'm thankful for men like Charles Durning and thousands of other's like him. Like most veterans, I agree that the true heros are the ones that didn't make it back.

I was lucky enough to pay a short visit to Normandy many years ago. The visit was far too short, but I was able to stand on Omaha and Utah beaches and see what men like Durning faced. Think about 2-3 football fields of open beach to cross with an amphitheater of cliffs all around. Unlike what you see in the movies, it's not the machine guns right in front of you that are the most dangerous. It's those to the side. This is one of the reasons some units saw casualty rates of over 50% in the first few minutes of the landings. Powerful stuff.

In this time of robots and smart bombs, we will thankfully never again see mass invasions and infantry action. I only hope it isn't replaced with something far worse. So today, while you are enjoying a wonderful Saturday, send a "Thank You" to those men and women that started the Great Crusade to clear Europe of Nazi tyranny 65 years ago today.