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updated: 6/5/2014 7:46 PM

Duchossois in Europe: D-Day's 70th brings memories

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  • Richard Duchossois after his graduation from Morgan Park Military Academy in Chicago.

      Richard Duchossois after his graduation from Morgan Park Military Academy in Chicago.
    courtesy of THE Duchossois family

  • From left, Richard Duchossois with his brothers George and Albert during World War II.

      From left, Richard Duchossois with his brothers George and Albert during World War II.
    courtesy of THE Duchossois family

  • At 92, Richard Duchossois is no slouch when it comes to travel. He will be at ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day in France on Friday.

       At 92, Richard Duchossois is no slouch when it comes to travel. He will be at ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day in France on Friday.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Dick Duchossois at the track.

       Dick Duchossois at the track.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Richard Duchossois during World War II

      Richard Duchossois during World War II

 
 

It's been 70 years, but the beaches of Normandy are still fresh in Richard Duchossois' mind, and the lessons he learned on the battlefields of Europe still influence his daily life.

The 92-year-old chairman of Arlington International Racecourse returned this week to Normandy where he, and other veterans of World War II, received the Legion of Honor award from the French government for being part of the liberation forces. He will attend Friday's event marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

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After graduating from Morgan Park Military Academy in Chicago, Duchossois was studying at Washington and Lee University when Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941.

Two months later the young Duchossois, then a second lieutenant in the Army Reserves, was called up and asked to command part of a new division of tank destroyers.

"Our motto was seek, strike and destroy," he said.

Duchossois arrived on Utah beach about a month after the invasion, when remnants of that epic battle were still visible. He commanded a tank battalion through five major European campaigns, including the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded and nearly died but returned to fight on, earning a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars for his injuries and service.

The lessons he learned in wartime were tools he has clung to throughout his business career. Besides being chairman of the iconic racetrack, he also chairs The Duchossois Group, a privately held company valued at more than $2 billion.

"You learn discipline, you learn to be competitive, but also that you have to depend on others and you have to build a team," he said. "I learned that second isn't good enough."

He served under Gen. George Patton when Patton took command of the Third Army after the invasion and led the speedy, successful armored drive across France.

"He was the greatest leader I ever had the fortune of being in combat with," Duchossois said. "He never wanted to buy the same real estate twice. The Third Army never pulled back for anyone.

"We knew the faster we went, the fewer our casualties would be," he said. "Patton was a born leader."

On Sept. 15, 1944, while his battalion was crossing the Moselle River, Duchossois was shot in the side. The bullet damaged the nerves in his back and temporarily paralyzed him.

"It looked like I wasn't going to make it," he said. Still, he was back with his troops by Thanksgiving.

That put him back with the Third Army for the most critical juncture of the war.

Decades later, Duchossois still has his copy of the prayer for good weather that Patton passed out to 250,000 men in mid-December 1944.

Worried that rains would delay his planned offensive across the Rhine River into Germany, Patton commissioned a prayer from a Catholic priest traveling with the Third Army.

"Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend," wrote Father James O'Neill. "Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations."

The men received the cards on Dec. 12-14, with the prayer on one side and Christmas greetings on the other. Two days later, the Battle of the Bulge began.

Duchossois left the Army in 1946 and focused on creating a booming business career.

For more than 60 years he kept his war stories to himself, not sharing them even with his wife or children.

"War isn't a nice thing," he said last week. "It's something where you've been there, you've seen it, then you have to forget it and move on."

A few years ago, when he was inducted into the Order of St. Maurice at a ceremony in Fort Benning, Georgia, Duchossois finally started to open up about his time at war.

"It's a good experience, if you live through it," he said. "You learn a lot. You don't come back the way you went in."

Duchossois said he was looking forward to returning to Europe with his wife this week. Dignitaries including President Obama and Queen Elizabeth are expected to be at the 70th anniversary ceremony. Duchossois quipped he might talk to the Queen "only if she says 'Hello' to me first."

"I never get excited about trips like this, but I'm very excited about this one," Duchossois said. "There aren't too many of us left. At my age it will probably be the last time."

Of the other officers he served with, only two are still living. Both are suffering from Alzheimer's and won't attend the ceremony.

"The war and the men I served with shaped my life," he said. "It taught me responsibility, it taught me a way of life. If you aren't going to do it best, don't do it at all."

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