By Cynthia Dizikes
CHICAGO - Nearly seven decades after John Chrenka slid across the English Channel in a boat headed toward Omaha Beach, the memory still hits him like gunfire.
"There were three of us in the front row, shells flying all over the place, guys hollering," said Chrenka, 88, of Riverside, Ill. "If you say you weren't scared, you're a liar because I was scared stiff."
As Chrenka's boat drifted into shallow water, the staff sergeant turned to his friend on the right: "I said, 'Good luck, John.' He said, 'Same to you.' "
In the dark of dawn Chrenka ran ashore, carrying his rifle, grenades and a green field jacket that his girlfriend had embroidered with the name of his hometown, Chicago.
"John got hit maybe three or four times in the chest, and I never saw him again," Chrenka said. "I just pressed on."
On Sunday, the 66th anniversary of D-Day, many Americans will remember the day when Allied forces penetrated Nazi-occupied Western Europe in a massive, coordinated effort that eventually turned the war against Germany.
But the remaining members of the "Greatest Generation," especially those who fought in World War II, may recall the moment in more visceral, less sweeping, ways: words spoken to a dying friend, a mother's care package full of sweets and shoe polish, the heavy smell of blood and bodies, shrapnel piercing skin.
Seated this many years later at Arlington Park racetrack in Illinois, Dick Duchossois struggles to explain the lingering mix of pride and horror from his service in World War II.
"Most people don't understand," said Duchossois, 88. "D-Day was very pivotal to the entire war, but you lost so many of your friends and the people close to you ... and you remember those things. It scares you to even think about it."
High above the bullets and blood on D-Day, Thomas Blakey, of New Orleans, crouched in the frigid cabin of a C-47 airplane as it flew the 82nd Airborne Division paratroopers behind enemy lines.
"My heart was beating, patter-patter-pat. It was beating like a tom-tom," said Blakey, 89. "Some of the guys were playing with their rosary beads, some of them were playing like they were asleep and some of them were just sitting there smoking."
They reached their destination, some five miles inland, just before daybreak. Blakey took a deep breath, checked his equipment and jumped into the darkness.
The scope of D-Day was immense. The mission, practically foolhardy.
More than 5,000 vessels transported about 156,000 troops across the channel while some 11,000 aircraft flew thousands of missions, bombing, strafing and dropping men behind enemy lines, according to the Library of Congress. By nightfall on June 6, more than 9,000 Allied soldiers were dead or wounded, but more than 100,000 had made it ashore.
"It was the largest military invasion ever planned by a military force in terms of intelligence and strategy," said Bob Patrick, director of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress American Folklife Center.
In the United States, factory work ground to a halt and church bells rang in reverence of the moment, said Sam Wegner, vice president of education at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
"It was felt to be a paradigm shift - a societal recognition that maybe the tide of the war had changed," Wegner said.
For men on the ground in Europe, however, winning the war would take almost another year of fighting. Chrenka, who went on to earn the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart, stayed in Europe until 1945 fighting in the Battle of the Bulge and all over northern France and central Europe.
The end of the war in Europe came on May 8, 1945. Chrenka returned home to work for a meat-cutters union, Blakey got into the oil business and Duchossois built and became chairman of Arlington Park racetrack.
The Veterans History Project estimates that there are about 2 million World War II vets alive, with about 900 dying every day.
Those who are left have found peace in various ways. On Sunday, Chrenka will gather with his wife and daughter. Duchossois will head into work, as usual, to handle the weekend business. Others will return once more to the beaches of Normandy.
That's what Tracy Sugarman, of Westport, Conn., recently did. Sugarman, 88, was an ensign in the Navy on D-Day when he rode a boat across the channel to France.
"I walked over to Utah Beach, which was my beach," said Sugarman of his trip to Normandy. "It had been such a long, sad place. And the beach was absolutely empty except for a kid on a tricycle, who at low tide was just riding out there, and that was it.
"I thought, 'Wow, life goes on.' "
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