Normandy trip evokes a time of action for Illinois WWII veteran

by Admin
Normandy trip evokes a time of action for Illinois WWII veteran

In a nursing home in Durand about three hours northwest of Chicago, on the edge of a small town nicknamed the “Village of Volunteers,” three World War II veterans are talking about the upcoming 80th anniversary of D-Day.

It’s hard not to get excited — one of them will be traveling to Normandy for the occasion. But increasingly frail at 98, Frank Kohnke is a bit anxious about the upcoming trip.

“What if everyone wants me to tell war stories?” he asks. “Sometimes I forget the details. All I really know is I’m so, so proud of what we accomplished.”

Kohnke straightens his 101st Airborne cap, glances at the American flag hanging above his bed and holds a sepia-toned photograph of him in Army greens. “I’m not sure why they’d invite us old-timers anyway,” he says, genuinely perplexed.

At the beginning of June, the Army kicks off 10 days in Normandy to commemorate perhaps the most iconic military maneuver in modern history: the day America and her Allies stormed the beaches of France with the aim of freeing Europe from Nazi tyranny. Tens of thousands of visitors are expected to attend. But the guests of honor will be the nearly 130 World War II veterans such as Kohnke who are making the trip on two medically supported Honor Flights.

I have the privilege of leading a group of soldiers from First Army, the unit that commanded all ground and airborne forces on D-Day, as we return to the sands so entwined with our history. It has been humbling to learn about the heroes we will meet there.

Kohnke is emblematic of a great generation that unceremoniously answered when the nation called. The Milwaukee teenager enlisted at age 16, lying about his birthday and forging his mother’s signature. He was desperate to be a paratrooper, a bold new military specialty that trained men to jump out of perfectly good airplanes and float into combat zones under silk chutes and the cover of darkness.

“You look at it now, and you just think: ‘Stupid,’” Kohnke laughs. “But that’s the definition of being young. I was stupid, but, oh, how I wanted to be a paratrooper.”

He was assigned to the 101st Airborne, an untested unit that was stood up just days before the end of World War I and never saw action then. But before World War II, the 101st was reorganized with parachute regiments, and it got the critical assignment of dropping deep behind enemy lines hours before the invasion. Its commander would famously call the mission a “rendezvous with destiny.”

Kohnke arrived in France just after the June 6 landings, and on Sept. 17, his 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment participated in the largest airborne operation of all time. Operation Market Garden sought to capture bridges over the Rhine, allowing the Allies to advance into Germany through the Netherlands and encircle the Ruhr industrial region, the heart of the Nazi war machine.

The operation failed; losses were catastrophic. Nearly 4,000 Americans were killed, severely wounded or taken prisoner. Eight decades later, Kohnke does not talk about it.

“I don’t like to remember the bad things,” he says. “At my age, it’s better just to forget them.”

Frank Kohnke, 98, holds his enlistment portrait on May 28, 2024. He enlisted at age 16, lying about his birthday and forging his mother’s signature. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune)

If Kohnke’s story isn’t remarkable enough, down the hallway from him in the nursing home are two other World War II heroes. Sverre Vinje is resting after physical therapy for a broken hip. At 99, he had been living independently and still driving until a recent fall. Vinje was on the USS Donaldson when the atomic bombs were dropped and the Japanese surrendered. He remembers sailing into Yokohama Harbor days later.

“We saw all the guns lined up,” Vinje says. “We would have lost so many Americans if we’d had to invade. My God, we’d have lost good men.”

Gordon Walstrom hears the war talk and scoots over in his wheelchair. He served in the Army’s 25th Infantry Division during the final months of the war in the Pacific and remained as part of the occupation force after the Japanese surrender.

“You’re 18 and still a daredevil,” he says. “But I can tell you they got our attention real quick when we got briefings about the dangers of radiation from the bombs.”

This 80th anniversary will likely be one of the last big D-Day celebrations to include so many living World War II veterans. Only about 100,000 of the more than 16 million Americans who served during that conflict are still living. It is truly remarkable that inside the 89-bed nursing home in tiny Durand there are three in one hallway.

The military has an expression: “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” Kohnke, Vinje and Walstrom are the living embodiment: patriotic, wise, humble. And they retain that dark sense of humor unique to those of us who have experienced the hell of war.

On this warm spring morning, Kohnke blurts out something on his mind: “What if I up and die over there?”

One of his friends deadpans: “Well, then they’ll either send you home in a vase or bury you over there. Basically, the same options you had in 1944 — and at least you’ll go out doing something more fun than napping in a nursing home bed.”

There it is: the old belly laugh.

“You’re right,” Kohnke smiles. “I’m going back to France.”

Maj. Gen. William A. Ryan is the acting commander of First Army, headquartered at Rock Island Arsenal in Rock Island, Illinois.

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