‘I’ve never forgotten what happened there’

Death loomed all around the young U.S. Navy sailor as his ship approached the shores of Nazi-occupied France just after daybreak on June 6, 1944, what would forever after be known as D-Day.

Ninety-nine-year-old Richard “Dick” Rung of Carol Stream recalled the Germans waited from atop the cliffs that encased the fiercely protected crescent-shaped Omaha Beach, one of five landing sites of the Normandy Invasion.

Once Rung’s vessel let down its ramp into the choppy waters and could no longer easily retreat, the enemy opened artillery and machine gun fire — including an 88 mm shell that tore through the ship and into the skipper’s quarters, just a few feet from where then-19-year-old Rung was standing.

Nearly 160,000 Allied troops landed in Normandy that day, marking the largest amphibious invasion in military history and a turning point in World War II, which paved the way for the liberation of Europe.

An order to troops from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower underscored the importance of the mission, which was code-named Operation Overlord.

“The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you,” the message said, in part. “In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”

Yet D-Day was bloody for the Allied forces, with an estimated 4,414 killed that day alone, including about 2,500 Americans, with thousands more wounded; more than 73,000 Allied troops were killed in the ensuing Battle of Normandy, according to The Associated Press.

“D-Day was terrible,” Rung recalled during a recent interview with the Tribune. “You can’t even describe it. Everywhere, there were guys floating in the water. There were guys trying to get on the beach before they were hit. It was a terrible experience.”

Rung plans to return to Normandy for an 80th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day landings, which President Joe Biden is scheduled to attend.

“Seventy-three thousand brave Americans landed at Utah and Omaha beaches in Normandy on June 6, 1944 and the President will greet American veterans and their family members while in France to honor their sacrifice,” the White House said in a recent statement.

French President Emmanuel Macron will be presiding over an international ceremony on Thursday at Omaha Beach, where Rung landed.

Although the invasion occurred many years ago, Rung said his memories of D-Day are so vivid it sometimes feels much more recent.

“For me, it’s not 80 years ago,” said the retired Wheaton College history and political science professor. “Periodically, it (feels like) yesterday.”

For decades, Rung has had to grapple with why he survived when so many other young men never got to come home.

Blood from the dead and wounded had covered the deck of his ship, Landing Craft Tank 539, which had to be hosed down, he recalled.

Many troops made it through enemy fire only to be maimed or killed by mines buried in the sand of the beach that were intended to destroy Allied tanks and vehicles. When on land after the invasion, Rung, a motor machinist’s mate, always walked with trepidation and was warned to never touch anything along the beach.

He recalled once passing by a pile of the arms and legs of troops, believed to be casualties of that intricate minefield.

“Why did I live through this and I saw all these other guys that didn’t get through?” Rung said. “I always asked the question, ‘Why did it happen to them and not me?’ I’ve never forgotten what happened there.”

Walk on the beach

This will be Rung’s fourth trip back to Normandy since World War II.

The first time was for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. He recalled looking on at the shores of Omaha Beach and watching folks swimming in the water and running at its edge.

But he refused to walk in the sand, plagued by memories of the minefield that killed and injured so many troops a half-century ago.

“I wasn’t going on the beach,” he recalled. “I said to myself, ‘I wonder if they missed one mine.’”

Rung went back for the anniversary in 2022 and finally tiptoed on the shore, still a little nervous. He returned to Normandy last year on June 6 as well.

This year’s trip and the two previous ones were coordinated by the Best Defense Foundation, a San Diego-based nonprofit that honors military veterans and their families.

Rung is among roughly 50 World War II veterans the Best Defense Foundation is taking to France to be honored at the 80th anniversary commemoration this year.

“The number one thing is that veterans get a sense of closure and camaraderie,” said Amanda Thompson, executive director of the nonprofit. “To know that their sacrifice will never be forgotten.”

On previous trips, Rung has visited the Normandy American Cemetery, the final resting place of more than 9,000 military dead, most of whom lost their lives on D-Day as well as follow-up operations.

On this trip, Rung plans to pay his respects at the cemetery once again.

“There’s white crosses everywhere,” he recalled, noting that each one marks the grave of a veteran. “Every one is a tragedy. Someone’s son. And I’m here.”

The number of World War II survivors who can share this kind of firsthand history is dwindling.

“Every day, memories of World War II are disappearing from living history,” laments the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which estimates that just under 120,000 of the more than 16 million Americans who served in World War II were alive as of 2023.

But the D-Day recollections of some of these veterans are captured in stories in the Tribune archives.

The Rev. George Knapp of Westchester, an Army captain and chaplain, recalled the waves were horrendous the night before D-Day and many troops went into battle seasick.

“The night before, while we waited to go in, the fellows were eating their C-rations, gambling, telling jokes — if they felt well enough to,” Knapp told the Tribune before his death in 2009. “Everyone knew some of us would get killed the next day, but it’s human nature to believe you’re not going to be one of them. You take the gamble that you’re going to come out OK.”

For a while, it seemed as though the Germans had won, according to John Hudetz, a U.S. Coast Guard signalman from Warrenville.

“They were all over the hills in pillboxes shooting down at us. It was like target practice for them,” he said in a Tribune story. “All afternoon there were mines exploding up and down the beach. Looking out at the ocean, I could see all the dozens of vessels out there firing in over the land. It sounded like freight trains flying over your head.”

Smoke and dust filled the air as dead bodies floated around the surviving troops wading in the water, recalled Robert Hayden, an Army veteran from Homewood.

“Dead bodies as far as you could see,” he told the Tribune. “Later we pulled the bodies out of the water and stacked them up on shore like cordwood.”

While it was horrible work, “we were just glad to be picking them up instead of being one of them,” he said.

On Thursday, the First Division Museum at Cantigny in Wheaton is scheduled to debut an outdoor immersive D-Day exhibit titled “Nothing but Victory,” which is designed to give visitors a visceral experience that simulates the landing at Omaha Beach.

“The special outdoor exhibit, a fusion of art and history, begins with a captivating visual story measuring 300 yards, the approximate distance across Omaha, with enemy fire raining down,” the museum’s website states. “After ascending the bluffs, the exhibit takes visitors on a path through simulated hedgerows culminating in a sculptural tribute to the heroic sacrifices made 80 years ago.”

Museum curator Jessica Waszak said the display intends to honor the pivotal role the invasion played during World War II as well as the sacrifice of the troops.

“Whether it’s time or emotions or life, the individuals who went to war, they gave so much up,” she said. “And families did too. The sacrifice the soldiers made on D-Day it could have been their entire life.”

Bittersweet victory

Rung will be turning 100 in September.

His wife of 75 years, Dot Rung, believes he was spared on D-Day because God had other plans for him. The couple went on to have two children, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

“That he survived it, when there were so few of them that did, I’ve often just thought the Lord had something more for him to do,” she said.

Raised in Buffalo, New York, Rung trained to be an auto mechanic after high school. He was drafted at 18 in 1943; once the Navy learned of his background in auto mechanics, he was sent to the U.S. Naval Institute in Richmond, Virginia, where he trained to work on diesel engines.

At Omaha Beach, his landing craft carried supplies, ammunition and troops to the shore from larger ships out at sea, because the Allies didn’t have control of major ports.

While his roughly two months of serving in Normandy were terrifying, Rung recalled a few bright times, including the day they received a shipment of oranges to distribute to the troops.

“Men waded into the water and were on the shore. We were throwing the oranges everywhere,” he said, smiling. “It was a nice, fun moment.”

Later in the war he shipped out again for the Pacific, traveling aboard a ship that carried a dangerous cargo of phosphorus shells. During 1945, he served in the Philippines and Japan.

Wartime photo of Dick Rung, a 99-year-old D-Day veteran who plans to return to Normandy for the 80th anniversary. (Family photo)
Wartime photo of Dick Rung, a now 99-year-old D-Day veteran who plans to return to Normandy for the 80th anniversary of the Allied invasion. (Family photo)

Laughing, he recalled the time another crewmember bought a monkey from an islander and brought it back on their ship.

While Rung was temporarily manning the ship’s gun, the monkey climbed up the ship’s mast, unbeknown to him. Another vessel closed in behind them and threatened to fire unless they identified themselves.

Rung noticed the radar began detecting movement atop the ship’s mast. The monkey suddenly dropped from the mast and landed on Rung’s shoulder.

“I’d been hit!” he thought immediately, until he realized it was actually the monkey, not enemy fire.

The other ship turned out to be American.

“Things were so tense back then,” he said as he laughed, adding that the crew had to immediately get rid of the monkey.

After the Japanese surrendered, the skipper attached a broom to the mast of the ship, symbolizing a “clean sweep” of victory over the Axis powers, Rung recounted.

But the triumph was, in some ways, bittersweet: Rung also recalled visiting Hiroshima, Japan, after it was devastated by the atomic bomb, the first time a nuclear weapon was used in warfare.

He’s still haunted by the image of those who survived but were covered in severe burns.

On Memorial Day, Rung spoke about D-Day and his World War II service during a ceremony at Creekside Park Veterans Memorial in west suburban Winfield.

Although Rung said he had been committed to doing his part during World War II — and remains grateful the Axis powers were defeated — he explained to the crowd that the horror of the experience changed his thinking about war.

“Death and destruction were all around me,” he said in his speech. “War is hell. It truly is. Take that from someone who was there.”

After World War II’s conclusion, he vowed to “commit my future to being a peacemaker.”

“So as we remember … the hundreds of thousands who have paid the ultimate price, yes to preserve our freedom, but also to give us the opportunity to live in peace,” he told the crowd. “Let us strive to be peacemakers and, to the degree possible, to live in peace with our fellow man.”

The Associated Press contributed.


Source link

Leave a Comment