World War II veterans are dying by the thousands every year now; “the Greatest Generation” is running out of members. When one of the survivors of World War II combat who became famous in subsequent pursuits leaves us, it is important to remember that their brave service to their country was probably the most important thing they did in their lives, and was their invaluable gift to all of us. In most cases, that is how the veterans looked at it too. I know my late father did.
I can’t be sure about the great character actor Charles Durning in this regard, because he generally refused to talk about his World War II experiences, which resulted in his being honored by a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts. This too is admirable. His military service was his duty, but having to kill other human beings, no matter who they are, is something that throw most ethical people into a searing conflict of values and emotions. Durning, who died today at the age of 89, preferred to discuss his acting.
He was as talented and brave at entertaining us as he was in combat. Never a leading man, Charles Durning could play drama and comedy with equal deftness, and given the chance to be in a musical, the (awful) film version of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” he proved that he could sing and dance well too. He was outstanding in such classic films as “The Sting,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Tootsie,” an actor who seemed incapable of seeming false or inauthentic while never playing the same kind of character twice. Perhaps the performance that was closest to the real Charles Durning was in his Emmy-winning role on “NCIS” in the episode “Call of Silence,” in which he played an elderly Marine veteran and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient who is tortured by the belief that he had been responsible for the death of his best friend in combat.
Durning’s own military service would have made an exciting movie on its own. His highest rank was Private First Class, and like many others, he did the most dangerous and dirtiest work of the war. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, and was among the first troops to arrive at Omaha Beach in Normandy, after overshooting his landing zone and having to fight his way to the beach. He was severely wounded by a German “S” Mine on June 15, 1944 at Les Mare des Mares, France, but despite suffering from the effects of shrapnel in the left and right thighs, the right hand, his head, and his chest, he declared himself fit to return to the lines, which he did just in time for the Battle of the Bulge. During that battle he was wounded again, captured, and survived the German massacre of American prisoners at Malmedy, one of the most heinous war crimes perpetrated in the field.
We should honor the memory of Charles Durning as a wonderful actor who contributed a great deal to films and popular culture, entertaining millions in the process. We should also honor him as a patriot, a soldier, a citizen, a World War II veteran and a hero, not because he was unique, but because he was not, and when we salute him as he passes from this world, we also honor all the anonymous and forgotten fighting men like him who never became famous, saved the United States and the human race, and who, like Charles Durning, refused to boast about it.