WWII vet receives France's Legion of Honor at Wheaton museum

  • World War II veteran John Chrenka is congratulated by Vincent Floreani, consul general of France in Chicago, after he received the Legion of Honor, the country's highest distinction, at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton.

      World War II veteran John Chrenka is congratulated by Vincent Floreani, consul general of France in Chicago, after he received the Legion of Honor, the country's highest distinction, at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • "Faced with the uncertainties of a changing world, let us strive to remain loyal to the legacy, the sacrifice and the values of the heroes who liberated France," French Consul General Vincent Floreani said before pinning the award on John Chrenka.

      "Faced with the uncertainties of a changing world, let us strive to remain loyal to the legacy, the sacrifice and the values of the heroes who liberated France," French Consul General Vincent Floreani said before pinning the award on John Chrenka. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • World War II veteran John Chrenka and Paul Herbert, right, executive director of the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, listen to the U.S. and French national anthems during a ceremony that awarded Chrenka the Legion of Honor from France.

      World War II veteran John Chrenka and Paul Herbert, right, executive director of the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton, listen to the U.S. and French national anthems during a ceremony that awarded Chrenka the Legion of Honor from France. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • World War II veteran John Chrenka received the Legion of Honor from France, recognizing those who have performed "remarkable deeds" for the country. It will be added to his U.S. military awards: three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star.

      World War II veteran John Chrenka received the Legion of Honor from France, recognizing those who have performed "remarkable deeds" for the country. It will be added to his U.S. military awards: three Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 7/1/2016 7:29 PM

John Chrenka listened quietly to the stories of war he always kept to himself.

Recovering from a kidney infection, the 94-year-old rested in his wheelchair outside the First Division Museum at Wheaton's Cantigny Park Friday morning while speaker after speaker celebrated the World War II veteran's military career and decorated him with the Legion of Honor, France's highest distinction.

 

It wasn't until the end of the ceremony that Chrenka suddenly snapped to attention. Andrew Woods, the museum's research historian, began to sing a song, a cappella.

These were the lyrics Chrenka had written all those years ago in England, when the then-22-year-old from Berwyn tried to find comfort in music before charging the beaches at Normandy.

On Friday morning -- more than seven decades after D-Day -- Chrenka remembered every single word of his song and, in a soft voice, began to sing along:

"The Navy will bring us in/But some of us will have to swim/Once on that beach/We'll dig and dig right in/There'll be shrapnel flying and doggies dying/Tomorrow when the world is free."

by signing up you agree to our terms of service
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Those verses eerily foreshadowed what Chrenka encountered in the early hours of June 6, 1944.

With his unit in the Army's 1st Infantry Division, Chrenka joined the first wave of troops to hit Omaha Beach. They took "extremely heavy casualties" against German forces, museum Executive Director Paul Herbert told the gathering.

Chrenka left cover to throw a grenade into a machine gun nest, successfully interrupting German fire and allowing his fellow soldiers to advance -- an act that would later earn him the Silver Star, his application for the Legion of Honor reads.

He also would receive the first of two combat injuries he suffered overseas. During the initial invasion on Omaha Beach, shrapnel hit his hip, and Chrenka covered the wound with clotting powder to slow the bleeding and "kept pushing through." Some eight hours later, he finally collapsed from the blood loss.

"You were ready to sacrifice your young life for France's freedom, for a country that was not even yours," said French Consul General Vincent Floreani, who presented Chrenka with the honor, recognizing those who have performed "remarkable deeds" for his country.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Allied soldiers would prevail, and the tide of the war would turn. But France and Belgium still had to be liberated.

"There was much suffering to come, but hope was alive again, at last," Floreani said.

That December, Chrenka, who held the rank of technician fifth grade, would go on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, where he suffered another shrapnel wound, this time to his left eye. His unit later advanced across Germany and into Czechoslovakia before the war ended.

"Every single person, including myself, who was born in the United States and in France since 1945, owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to that generation, that we grew up in a world free of the Nazi tyranny and the dictatorships we opposed in the 1940s," Herbert said. "Any other outcome is almost unthinkable, and we owe it to men like John."

Uncovering those details of Chrenka's service involved meticulous research.

Diana Anastazia was the driving force behind an effort to track down the military records needed to complete the award application and recruited the help of the Wheaton museum, where researchers maintain detailed archives about the 1st Division.

Anastazia, president of Project Join Us, a group that raises funds for military organizations, was approached about a year ago by a veteran at a 1st Division reunion who thought Chrenka would be a good fit for the Legion of Honor created in 1802 by Napoleon Bonaparte.

The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Anastazia vowed to pay tribute to a man who arrived on the shores of Normandy while her father, a Polish Catholic, was held in the Buchenwald concentration camp.

"It took over a year, but the mission is accomplished today," she said.

The French government approved the application a few days before the anniversary of D-Day, and Anastazia gave Chrenka the news at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital near Maywood, where he now lives, by playing the French national anthem.

On Friday, she thought a performance of another song, the one penned by Chrenka in 1944 and set to the tune of "The White Cliffs of Dover," would make a nice surprise.

"They sang it real good," Chrenka said in approval, "real good."

"He loves every part of it," his wife of 69 years said of the ceremony.

Dorothy Chrenka only wished their late daughter, Robin, could have attended and heard "these stories because he didn't talk about them."

"He had his share, but I always tell him, 'You've got to thank God you came home in one piece,'" she said.

0 Comments
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.