Thursday, November 3, 2011

My Veteran's Day Salute to Mr. Charles Durning

I know this article is early, and yes I know that Veterans Day is not until November 11th.  But this year it will fall on 11-11-11, so I wanted to salute someone very special.

Mr. Charles Durning

So you ask, why should I salute actor Charles Durning on Veterans Day?  Well, allow me to explain a few things about Charles Durning, then maybe you'll see what makes him so special. 

He was born on the 28 of February in 1923 in Highland Falls, New York.  He was the second youngest of five children.

His mother, Louise, was a laundress at West Point.  His father, James Durning (originally Durnion) was born in 1890 in County Louth in Ireland.  His father was an Irish immigrant who gained U.S. citizenship by joining the Army.

From everything that I've been able to read about Charles Durning, basically it seems that he was a typical American kid growing up during the Great Depression.  Money was tight and families had to make do. Families stuck together during the hard times and learned to depend on each other to make ends meet.

At 5' 8" and stocky, Charles Durning was a tough kid and a pretty good fighter.  So good, in fact, that among other things he turned Professional Boxer after High School.  He even fought at NewYork's famous Madison Square Gardens.

Again those were the years of the Great Depression, and yes, he too had boyhood heroes.  His idol was actor James Cagney, who proved that a man can be tough and also a great dancer.  If you've ever seen Yankee Doodle Dandy, then you know what I mean.

Charles Durning's first job in the entertainment field was as an usher at a burlesque house.  And yes, some say that his career officially started as a singer with a band at the age of 16 before going into acting.  His first professional play was in Buffalo before he went off to the Army.  Imagine that, I guess James Cagney really had an influence on him.

But it was the opening days of World War II, and since he was brought up with a genuine love for America, like his father, he too joined the U.S. Army.   

Charles Durning joined the US Army when he was 17 years old.  He was first assigned as a rifleman with the 398th Infantry Regiment, and later served overseas with the 3rd Army Support troops and the 386th Anti-aircraft Artillery (AAA) Battalion.

He participated in the Normandy Invasion of German-occupied France on D-Day, June 6, 1944.  He was among the first troops to land at Omaha Beach.  Some sources state that he was with the 1st Infantry Division, Army Rangers at the time.

It should also be noted that he was the only member of his unit to survive the Omaha Beach D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.  While troops and equipment were still coming ashore, he was wounded in the hip and legs three days after he got off the boat.  He still carries the bullet in his hip.

Later, on June 15, 1944,  Charles Durning was wounded again.  This time it was by a German mine at Les Mare des Mares, France.  He was transported by the 499th Medical Collection Company to the 24th Evacuation Hospital.  Then by June 17, just two days later, he was back in England at the 217th General Hospital.

Although severely wounded by shrapnel in the left and right thighs, the right hand, the frontal region of the head, and the anterior left chest wall, Charles Durning recovered quickly and was determined to be fit for duty on December 6, 1944. 

Refusing to be shipped back to the States, he wanted to return to duty.  When he did, he arrived back at the front just in time to take part in what has become known as The Battle of the Bulge. 

For those who don't know, The Battle of the Bulge was really the last German counter-offensive of World War II.  It came as a complete surprise to all of the Allies at the time as Germans and their tanks steamrolled through the Ardennes Forest of Belgium and Luxembourg on December 16th of 1944.

It changed the War Map of the area for a while as Americans were in retreat trying to out distance the advancing Germans.  The unit that Charles Durning was with was eventually surrounded in Belgium by an SS Panzer unit.  Trying to hold out, fighting became intense as the Germans rolled through and engulfed American units caught behind lines.  He was rushed to the front lines to try to help plug the gap, but instead suffered severe bayonet wounds during the hand-to-hand combat.

Then came The Malmedy Massacre which took place on December 17, 1944 by a unit that was a part of the 1st SS Panzer Division during The Battle of the Bulge. 

Caught behind the lines after the American retreat, men from Battery B of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion were ordered to move away from Schevenhutte, near Aachen, to St Vith in the Ardennes.  Their route took them near to the town of Malmedy. 

On their journey on the N-23 St Vith road that passed to the east of Malmedy, Battery B met up with Lieutenant-Colonel David Pergrin of the 291st Engineer Combat Battalion.

Colonel Pergrin had heard that the Germans were along the route which the men from Battery B were taking. He advised them to take a different route to St Vith.  However, the young officers in charge of the battery decided that they had their orders.  Ignoring Pergrin's advice, they continued along their designated route.

The journey took the men from Battery B to what the locals called the 'Baugnez Crossroads' just two miles South-East of Malmedy.  In fact, the junction had five roads there and the Americans knew it as Five Points.

Battery B's column came under attack from two German tanks some 800 to 1,000 yards to its East. These tanks were the point of Kampfgruppe (KGr.) Peiper, the leading formation of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler.

This division, the premier in the Waffen SS, together with its twin, the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend, had been given the honor of spearheading the Sixth Panzer Army's attack toward the Meuse River.  They were the only formations in the German Wehrmacht to bear the Führer's name.  And yes, they enjoyed a fearsome reputation - both had already been accused of various war crimes and of killing prisoners in cold blood.

German officer Joachim Peiper was as cruel as humans come.  He already had a reputation of not giving quarter to POWs on the Russian front.  Hitler himself gave the order that Allied POWs would not receive quarter when surrendering.  Hitler wanted to put terror in the American troops.

With Battery B convoy moving south on the N-23 to his left, to the Germans it was an inviting target and they immediately opened fire and move up on the retreating column. There the Germans were confronted by the abandoned vehicles of the American convoy–some burning, some shot up, others in the ditch or crashed into each other.  The American troops took cover beside the road in ditches.

After pushing the abandoned vehicles out of the way, the Germans fired their machine guns at the ditches in which most of the Americans had taken cover.  Supposedly this was get the Americans to surrender. 

The surrendering Americans were to march back down the road toward Five Points, once there they were gathered in a field.  The survivors of Battery B were being assembled in that field.

By about 2:00pm, 113 Americans had been assembled in the field by the Café.  They included 90 members of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, all except for three from Battery B, 10 men from five ambulances, the military policeman who had been on traffic duty at Five Points, the 86th Battalion engineer and 11 men who had been captured by KGr. Peiper before reaching Baugnez, 8 were from the 32nd Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 2 were from the 200th Field Artillery Battalion and a Sergeant from the 23rd Infantry Regiment. 

The Sergeant from the 23rd Infantry Regiment was Charles Durning.

On December 17, 1944, in a large field, the German guards backed away from the prisoners when three trucks pulled up.  Then, at about 2:15pm, machine guns that were hidden in trucks opened fire on the helpless American troops.

It was a slaughter.  The firing stopped at about 2:30pm.  In all, it only took 15 minutes.  Afterwards German troops from Peiper's unit went around the field and shot those who were still, this time at close range so there wouldn't be any mistakes.

Later, through autopsies, we found out that many Americans were also clubbed them to death.  Incredible as it may be, some prisoners did get away after faking death.  It was three of these escapees that came across American Colonel Pergrin.

Colonel Pergrin heard the machine gun fire from where he was.  He grabbed a Sergeant and they went to investigate, first in a jeep and then on foot.  Near Five Points where the five roads came together, a few wounded Americans rushed up to Colonel Pergrin. 

One of the American soldiers was a wounded Army Ranger by the name of Charles Durning.  Yes, he was one of a few survivors to the infamous Malmedy Massacre of American POWs by German SS troops.

It was these men who first alerted the Americans that something had gone bad at the crossroads.  Colonel Pergrin took the wounded men to Malmedy, and at 4:40pm, he contacted the First Army's Headquarters to inform them that a massacre had taken place at Five Points near Malmedy.

Of the 113 men in that field, 84 were killed.  Of the 29 left, some were never found, and 21 American survivors made statements to U.S. authorities in Malmedy on December 17, the same day as the massacre. 

On the following day, long before there was any possibility of collusion or anybody putting ideas into their heads, they all told essentially the same story:

"After surrendering to a German armored column and being disarmed, they were assembled in a field just south of the crossroads. The Germans then opened fire on them with machine guns and rifles. In most cases, the survivors mentioned two pistol shots before the main shooting started. They said that soldiers then entered the field and shot anyone who showed any signs of life and that many of the bodies were kicked or prodded in order to get a response. Following this, the German column continued to drive past, with some of the vehicle crews taking potshots at the bodies lying in the field. All but one of the survivors insisted that no attempt to escape had been made before the Germans opened fire, and that the escape attempt came at a much later stage when they thought the Germans had left the area."

After a time again in an American Army Hospital in England, a wounded Charles Durning was repatriated to the United States.  He remained in Army hospitals in the States so that he would be able to receive treatment for wounds.  He was until being discharged with the rank of Staff Sergeant on January 30, 1946.

The Malmedy Massacre, as well as others that were committed by the same SS unit in the following days, was the subject of the Malmedy Massacre Trial which was part of the Dachau Trials of 1946.

For his military service, Staff Sergeant Charles Durning was awarded several of our nations highest decorations for valor including the Combat Infantryman's Badge, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts.

After being discharged, he wanted to get into acting.  Along the way he became an Iron Worker, an Elevator Operator, a Cabbie, and even a Waiter, while pursuing his desire to act.  And yes, despite the wounds he received in action during World War II, he also went on to become a Professional Dancer and Dance Teacher. 

In fact, he taught dance at the Fred Astaire Studios and relied upon it when he couldn't find acting work.  But then in the late 1950s, he finally got his break.  Since then, well let's just say that he's had a long and glorious career as a Film and Stage star.

When I was growing up, I heard stories about famous actors like Clark Gable who enlisted in the Army Air Corps in World War II.  Of course there was Jimmy Stewart who was also in the Army Air Corps during that time -  and in fact stayed in the Air Force Reserve until he retired at the rank of Brigadier General. 

Actor Lee Marvin was a Marine in the Pacific during World War II.  George C. Scott who became famous for playing General Patton was also a Marine.  Charles Bronson was in the Army.  Of course, Glenn Ford was a Marine and in the Navy during World War II, the Korean War, and he even spent some time in Vietnam.  At a young age, I learned to respect and admire those who have served - both famous and not.

Here's a great video tribute to Charles Durning that I thought you might want to see.  I know it has a lot to do with his acting career, but it shows a lot about the man.

Charles Durning is one of the people who I really admire, and I have for years.  Granted it was mostly because of his service to our great nation during World War II, but there are other reasons. 

He was the Chairman one year of the U.S. National Salute to Hospitalized Veterans.  He was also an honored guest speaker at the National Memorial Day Concert for many years, which was televised by PBS on the Sunday evening of Memorial Day weekend.

In April 2008, Charles Durning received the National Order of the Legion of Honor from the French consul in Los Angeles. It was awarded to him serving with distinction in France.  During the ceremony, he spoke a little about his wartime experiences in his usual humble manner.

You see Charles Durning has never forgotten the devotion that he and many other veterans have made for America.  He understands the great sacrifices and the great loss.  He has seen both for what they are.  It is because of that that he is well-known for participating in various functions to honor America's veterans.  And yes, it's because of who he is as a man that I take great pleasure in saluting Charles Durning on this Veteran's Day 2011.

Thank you Mr. Durning.  May God Bless you and yours for all that you've done for America.

Tom Correa


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  2. Hi Tom. Thanks for another great post. I just read that tomorrow (11/10/11) is the 236th birthday of the USMC. Any plans for a post on USMC history? I'd like to thank you, as well as all men and women of all branches, for your service to our great country.

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