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Local News

Local veterans, historians look back at D-Day

Veterans, historians look back at D-Day

JOLIET – Today marks the 70th anniversary of what General Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “great crusade” – D-Day, the Sixth of June.

Most of those who fought in the Normandy invasion are gone now, men like Frank Perconte, of Joliet, whose exploits were told in “Band of Brothers,” Joe Kendziora of Lockport, who landed on Omaha Beach, and George Kozak, of Lockport, who parachuted with the 82nd Airborne near St. Mere Eglise.

Longtime Herald-News columnist John Whiteside wrote about many of these men on past D-Day anniversaries, even as their ranks dwindled. With his family’s permission, we’ve included his column from June 6, 2004, on the 60th anniversary of the battle, in Friday’s edition.

Yet a few of the old D-Day veterans still remain, along with their comrades from the other campaigns and other theaters of World War II.

Bill Finn, of Dwight, formerly of Coal City, was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne. He landed in a French field in a glider, was captured by the Germans and spent the rest of the war as a POW.

Finn said that anniversaries like D-Day are important because people need to remember and learn from history so that similar events can’t happen again.

“I want people to remember what we went through for freedom,” Finn said.

Finn recently spoke to a young man about his service. He was surprised to learn that the boy didn’t know much about World War II, or even what a glider was.

“It’s been so long ago that some people are forgetting,” Finn said.

Joe Belman’s memories of D-Day are somewhat limited.

The Lockport native was aboard a ship in the middle of the Atlantic en route to England with the rest of the crew of “What’s Shakin’ Doc?,” his Bugs Bunny-emblazoned Boeing B-17 bomber.

Belman was a staff sergeant in the 8th Army Air Forces’ 305th bomb group. His crew didn’t even hear about the invasion until after they landed in Liverpool about June 15.

Two weeks later they went on their first bombing run over St. Lo, a French town where the American invasion forces met heavy German resistance.

Belman spent his next 34 missions – first as a waist gunner, then as a ball turret gunner and finishing up as a tail gunner – over Germany, bombing heavily-defended cities like Berlin and Cologne.

Yet Belman’s experience was typical of his generation, young men who were sent overseas to fight the Nazi scourge that had enveloped most of Europe.

“It was hell no matter where you were at,” Belman said. “When someone is shooting at you it’s no fun.”

At the same time, Belman said he never felt more alive. Especially in the ball turret, which he was assigned to after the first gunner was killed on their eighth mission.

“To me, when I was down there, it was an adventure,” Belman said. “I was a kid, 19 years old, and understood you just had to do it.”

The sense of duty and willingness to sacrifice was inherent in Finn’s and Belman’s generation, which grew up during the Great Depression, said Dennis Doyle, a history professor at Joliet Junior College.

“It was a very dark period [but] there were very clear themes,” Doyle said. “Good vs. evil, democracy vs. fascism ... a lot of young men in the military did see it that way. There was no confusion about what they were supposed to do. They were citizens first and soldiers second.”

It was a time when the United States, initially reluctant to enter another land war in Europe following the blood-letting of World War I, began to embrace its new role as a leader of the free world.

“The idea was to end Hitler, end fascism, end Japanese imperialism and then come back and live our lives in peace,” Doyle said.

Yet the sacrifices made at Normandy still ripple across time, noted Michael Meyers, post commander American Legion Post 18 in Lockport.

“The important thing to remember is how many people died on D-Day,” Meyers said.

Research by the U.S. National D-Day Memorial Foundation estimates 4,414 allied soldiers died that day.

“Multiply that number by two children and four grandchildren, and there’s at least 30,000 people that never were born,” Meyers said.

“A lot of people my age are missing great uncles,” said Meyers, 50. “I lost one at D-Day and another at Pearl Harbor.”

That’s why it’s so important to recall such moments as June 6, Doyle said.

“The old saying is that history repeats itself, so we have to be careful to remember and honor those men as they pass away,” Doyle said.

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