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updated: 6/6/2012 12:12 PM

Suburban D-Day vets reflect on 68th anniversary of historic invasion

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  • World War II veteran Don Carter of Libertyville, who was honored by his neighbors with a surprise block party last August, took part in the Normandy invasion 68 years ago. Carter said his experiences then continue to have meaning in his life today.

       World War II veteran Don Carter of Libertyville, who was honored by his neighbors with a surprise block party last August, took part in the Normandy invasion 68 years ago. Carter said his experiences then continue to have meaning in his life today.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

  • D-Day veteran Gene Prindle stands and sings the national anthem during a Veterans Day program at Friendship Village in Schaumburg. Prindle returned to Normandy in 2004 for ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the Allied invasion.

       D-Day veteran Gene Prindle stands and sings the national anthem during a Veterans Day program at Friendship Village in Schaumburg. Prindle returned to Normandy in 2004 for ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the Allied invasion.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
 

Though he won't be back in Normandy as he was a year ago, Wednesday's anniversary of D-Day will mean just as much to Libertyville veteran Don Carter as it ever has.

For the 87-year-old Carter, it's no mystery why commemorations of World War II and its particular events -- such as the Honor Flight he took to Washington, D.C., last August -- only seem to increase as the decades roll by.

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"It has more meaning when you have a little perspective on it," Carter said Tuesday.

But he realizes, too, that the bittersweet nature of such remembrances has grown stronger as the number of surviving veterans has diminished.

In fact, a fellow veteran from Atlanta whom Carter met and struck up a friendship with during their visit to D-Day ceremonies in France last year passed away just before Memorial Day last month.

Carter is quick to point out that while he was part of the Normandy invasion, he arrived two days after D-Day itself. Only in recent years has he begun to tell his stories of the invasion -- especially to young students. He said they're fascinated by such details as the five weeks that elapsed before Allied soldiers like himself were able to bathe after the invasion.

He also tells them of how he slept underneath a tank every night for the relative, but far from absolute, safety it offered.

Carter's overcoming of the reluctance to tell his war stories was something that came about gradually at the urging of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. And he's glad it did.

"It gets it out of your system," he explained. "We'd been told in the last 10 years that you have to tell your story or it's gone forever."

For Gene Prindle, 87, of Friendship Village in Schaumburg, it was his attendance of 60th anniversary ceremonies in Normandy back in 2004 that helped release all his pent-up emotions about that day.

Prindle was allowed to sit up on the stage with other D-Day veterans and was just five chairs down from U.S. President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac.

But the bigger impact came when Prindle and his wife returned to the site the next day and were greeted by a French man who thanked him for allowing three generations of his family to have grown up free.

"It made a hell of an impression on me," Prindle said. "It gave a meaning to what we did."

For 88-year-old Paul Benson of Prospect Heights, the sights and sounds of arriving on Utah Beach, where it was every man for himself, have remained fresh in his mind.

"It's a significant day in my life," Benson said. "It's a sad story, but it's still a thankful story that I'm alive."

Like Carter often did, Benson crawled under a tank for shelter on the first night. But he soon got a premonition that he wasn't safe and crept into a nearby ditch, leaving his raincoat behind.

Shrapnel bombs began to fall. The impact of one threw him into a different ditch and covered him with dirt.

When Benson later made his way back underneath the tank, he made a shocking discovery.

"My raincoat was full of holes," he said. "I would have been killed that night."

Benson would ultimately escape injury in five major battles in Europe and was among the soldiers who freed the starving and traumatized survivors of a Nazi concentration camp.

Still, he said it was a long time before his presence on D-Day seemed like a distinguishing fact of his military service.

"We didn't really think about it," Benson said.

But as another anniversary of that historic day arrives, Carter said it's good to reflect on the importance of such transformative events -- as well as their place among others.

"The things that have changed ... I can't even imagine what the world will be like 68 years from now," Carter said.

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