Joe Guzzardi is a Project for Immigration Reform analyst who has written about immigration for more than 30 years.
Editor’s note: Purple Heart Day is observed each year on August 7, honoring and remembering service members who were wounded or killed in action while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.
By Joe Guzzardi
Actor Charles Durning’s D-Day memories were so painful that, for decades, he suppressed them.
Drafted at age 20, Durning eventually earned a Silver Star for valor, a Bronze Star for meritorious service in a combat zone and three Purple Hearts, given in the president’s name to those wounded or killed in military service. Just out of high school, which he didn’t complete until the war ended, Durning was the only survivor in a unit that landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.
Durning’s World War II experiences are unfathomable, and his actions in defense of his fellow soldiers, selfless and heroic. During the Normandy battle, Durning killed seven German gunners but suffered serious machine gun wounds to his right leg and shrapnel wounds throughout his body.
After a six-month recovery in England, Durning was rushed back to the front lines to fight against the German Ardennes offensive. During the Battle of the Bulge, Durning suffered more wounds, this time in hand-to-hand bayonet combat, when he was stabbed eight times. Despite the vicious assault, Durning summoned up the strength to kill his attacker, which earned him a second Purple Heart.
Soon after, his company was captured and forced to march through the Malmedy Forest. In the ensuing “Malmedy massacre,” German troops opened fire on the prisoners, and Durning was among the few who escaped.
Durning would earn his third Purple Heart when, in March 1945, he moved into Germany with the 398th Infantry Regiment, where he was severely wounded when a bullet struck him in the chest. Pfc. Durning was evacuated to the U.S. to spend the remainder of his active Army career recovering until he was discharged in January 1946.
Born in 1923, Durning grew up in Highland Falls, New York, near the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His father, James Durning, an Irish immigrant who had joined the Army to gain U.S. citizenship, lost a leg during World War I and died when Charles was 12. James’ widow, Louise Durning, supported her five children by working as a laundress at West Point. Four other children died from scarlet fever.
After the war, Durning used dance as physical therapy to strengthen his badly injured leg and speech therapy to smooth out a stutter that had developed. He began training at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts but was told he lacked talent. Undeterred, he took small roles with Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Co. and taught ballroom dancing at the Fred Astaire studio.
Eventually, Durning achieved his lifelong goal when he landed parts in television and the movies. His most memorable silver screen appearances among his 200 films include “The Sting,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Tootsie.” His significant honors include numerous Academy, Emmy and Tony award nominations.
Reluctant to visit the site where so many of his comrades lay, Durning returned to Normandy only once after the war ended. Looking back during a 1994 Memorial Day service to recognize the invasion’s 50th anniversary, Durning noted remorsefully that the U.S. had engaged in at least five wars since World War II — Korea, Desert Storm, Panama, Grenada and Vietnam. He said that each war is pertinent to only the individual who was there.
“I don’t know what they went through; they don’t know what I went through,” said Durning. “Each person fights his own war. Each person is on a one-to-one basis with whoever’s opposite him.” Durning added: “That war changed history as we knew it. It was the greatest armada that ever hit any country, anywhere, anytime in the history of mankind. No one will ever see anything that enormous again.” World War II was, Durning said, the last war that had a well-defined purpose.
In January 2008, Durning was honored with the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, and his star was placed on the Hollywood Walk of Fame adjacent to the actor he most admired, Jimmy Cagney. Durning died of natural causes at his Manhattan, New York, home on Christmas Eve in 2012, aged 89. Two days later, Broadway theaters dimmed their lights in his honor.
Durning is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the ultimate tribute to an American hero.