70 years ago Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, beginning the slow, painful defeat of Nazi Germany. It was a moment of extraordinary bravery and sacrifice, with 4,414 confirmed dead and thousands more injured - many maimed for life. I can't even imagine what it must have been like in one of those Higgins boats, approaching the shore, hoping against hope you weren't going to be killed the second you stepped foot on the sand. Movies like Overlord and Saving Private Ryan help us picture it, but no film matches the sheer power of hearing a veteran of the invasion describe what they saw.
Charles Durning was one of those men that day. 21 years old, years before he would become famous as a great character actor, Durning saw his first ever combat on June 6, 1944. In 2007 he spoke at the National Memorial Day Concert, recounting his experiences, and his testimony is inspiring and heartbreaking. Listening to him talk about how scared he was helps crystalize the real meaning of courage - it's being scared and fighting through it to do what needs to be done. Only a fool wouldn't have been terrified that morning.
We're running out of World War II vets. Time is taking them from us, and by the time the 80th anniversary of D-Day rolls around there will probably be almost no one alive who was on the beach that day. It's up to the rest of us to keep their memory going. It's the least we can do, considering all they gave to us.