Most of today's generation know Charles Durning, if they know him at all, as an actor. In the 1970's he made a name for himself in The Sting with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Then he showed his singing and dancing skills as the two-stepping Texas governor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with Dolly Parton.
He was honored at age 84 with a Life Achievement Award by the Screen Actors Guild. Charles Durning died on Christmas Eve, 2012, at age 89. His family said he loved Christmas, and if he could have chosen a day as his last, this would be it.
Like Medal of Honor recipient Audie Murphy, Charles Durning was a highly-decorated soldier in World War II before he began an acting career.
His is a remarkable story of survival. As a 21-year-old infantryman, Private Charles Durning was in the first wave of soldiers to land on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion of Normandy. He was the only man to survive a machine-gun ambush. Despite suffering serious machine gun and shrapnel wounds, Durning killed seven German gunners to survive D-Day.
Several months later, in Belgium, Durning was stabbed eight times by a bayonet-wielding teenage German soldier. That day, he survived by killing the German with a rock in hand-to-hand combat. Durning recovered from those wounds and was released from the hospital just in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was taken prisoner.
Charles Durning was one of only three men to survive the infamous massacre of American POWs at Malmedy, Belgium. He and two others escaped, and the rest were murdered. Durning was obliged to return with American troops to identify the bodies of his fellow prisoners.
Several months later, a chest wound caused his return to the US, where he recovered from both physical and psychological wounds in Army hospitals until being discharged as a Private First Class in January 1946, a month shy of his 23rd birthday.
For his service during World War II, Charles Durning was awarded the Silver Star Medal and three Purple Hearts.
In a People magazine interview in 1990, Durning said, "There's only so much you can witness." He spent four years in and out of Army hospitals, being treated for the physical and psychological scars of war.
In a Parade magazine interview, Durning is quoted as saying, "The physical injuries heal first. It's your mind that's hard to heal." Like many other soldiers, Durning continued to suffer from nightmares about his war experiences throughout his life.
After being invited by fellow soldier and fellow actor Ossie Davis to participate in the National Memorial Day Concert to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day, Durning has made it an annual event. He is also well-known for participating in various events to honor American veterans.
For a first-hand account of what it was like on Omaha Beach on D-Day, here is Charles Durning's moving remembrance during the National Memorial Day Concert in 2007:
Thank you for your service, Mr. Durning, and for bringing more awareness to the psychological wounds of war. You will be missed.
Join our conversation! Leave me a comment about this page in the box below. If your comment is about another page on this site, please leave your comment on that page, because I have no ability to move it to the correct page. Thanks!