Durning's War: Heroism, Exaggeration, Fabrication? War records
don't match all Durning's accolades.
Web2Carz Staff Writer
Published: May 24th, 2013
“My father’s body was completely peppered with
shrapnel — face, chest, and head. When we were young, I could put my
fingers through his bullet holes in his leg.” — Douglas Durning
When beloved actor Charles Durning died on Christmas
Eve, journalists unanimously praised the actor's storied war record.
“[Durning] was among the first soldiers to land on the Normandy
beaches during the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944,” wrote The
Washington Post. Other news sources and blogs punctuated their
obituaries with stories of hand-to-hand combat and escaping Nazi
execution squads at the infamous massacre at Malmady.
however, is more complicated.
At National Memorial
Day Concert with friend Joe Mantegna.
As a frequent
contributor to the National Memorial Day Concert, Durning shared war
memories of his own with millions. In a 2007 Memorial Day speech
about D-Day he recalled "I was the second man off my barge, and the
first and third man got killed."
records show that Charles Durning did not land at Omaha Beach on
Class Durning returned from the war in Europe with 5,000 other
soldiers on a liberty ship called the SS Samuel Adams, just after
New Year’s 1946. He left Fort Dix on Jan. 30 with an honorable
discharge and $196 in mustering out pay — a seemingly paltry sum for
a 23-year-old that left a lot of his own blood in Northern France a
year-and-a-half earlier. But here was a second chance at life and an
opportunity to make up for lost time.
He did just
that, and over the next 50 years the short, stocky Irish American
known widely for his breathtaking ability to traverse archetypes
played roles from gruff New York City cops to cotton tycoons in
The Sting, Dog Day Afternoon, Tootsie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, To Be
or Not to Be, and Death of a Salesman, to name just a
about his abilities as an actor, he was driven to maintain a
breathtaking work schedule well into his 80s and he continued to
book film and TV roles until weeks shy of his death.
only happy when he was working,” said close friend and actor Joe
Mantegna. “The best job for Charlie was the next job. I mean, his
body of work speaks for itself.”
But for the
lion’s share of his adult life he didn’t care to talk about his army
service, his Silver Star, or the psychological trauma and physical
wounds that came with the war.
body was completely peppered with shrapnel — face, chest, and head.
When we were young, I could put my fingers through his bullet holes
in his leg,” Douglas Durning told us recently.
“He didn’t talk
about the war at all but it affected him greatly.”
With Dustin Hoffman in
didn’t talk about the war. And, there was nothing unique about show
business types, who had been to war. Every guy that could have been
drafted between the ages of 18 and 38 was in WWII, and drama schools
after 1946 were teeming with ex-servicemen paying tuition with the
page may just as well be an index of Hollywood’s WWII veterans.
Fellow cast-mates in The Sting Paul Newman and Harold Gould,
as well as the film’s director George Roy Hill, had all served in
the war (Gould himself was badly wounded in Normandy). The following
year, in Billy Wilder’s The Front Page, co-stars Walter
Matthau and Jack Lemmon had both been in the service, as had his
castmates Leonard Bremen, Biff Elliot, and David Wayne.
with veterans’ affairs in the third act of his life was perhaps a
delayed, if not mutual, healing process for him and the young
servicemen he met who were returning from Iraq and Afghanistan
suffering from paralysis, loss of limbs, PTSD, and traumatic brain
injuries from IEDs.
Durning did finally begin to speak about the war, the facts of his
service became more confused, not less. This is what we now know.
born on Feb. 28, 1923, in Highland Falls, New York. He grew up in
the shadow of the United States Military Academy at West Point,
where his mother worked as a laundress. It was an extremely close,
yet blighted, family, often visited by tragedy. Out of the 10
children born to Louise and James Durning, five of them, all girls,
died from smallpox and scarlet fever by 1940.
"He was born in
a small town with no prospects. His father died when he was sixteen
and his mother worked until she was well past retirement,” said
anything and being told his entire life, ‘You have no talent, you’re
too fat, too short’ … My father’s really strong willed. He and his
brothers were a very tough bunch — really tough fighters. So, they
all fought for what they had — every bite of food on the dinner
All the Durning
brothers would eventually serve in the military in WWII.
enlisted in the army on Jan. 17, 1943, and a month later was sent to
“C” Battery of the 386th AAA (anti-aircraft) Battalion, a coastal
artillery outfit stationed at Camp Edwards in Massachusetts.
Replacements come ashore, D-Day+6
months of training, his outfit was sent to Fort Polk in Louisiana to
take part in large-scale maneuvers, alongside other inexperienced
outfits. That August, he was promoted to Private First Class.
arrived in England on Feb. 18, 1944, in time to prepare for the
invasion of France. Durning’s battery would eventually be assigned
to other organizations on an as-needed basis once in a combat zone.
But two weeks
before the invasion, on May 23, Durning and 12 others were
transferred to Unit 2, Replacement Detachment 06E of the 17th
entirely clear why Durning — who had been with the same group for
nearly a year and a half, with whom he had trained, forged bonds,
and was shipped overseas — was transferred out of it.
“It was not
uncommon for troops to start out in one unit and then, for various
reasons, get transferred to another,” said Colonel (IL) J.N.
Pritzker (Retired), founder and chair of the Pritzker Military
Library in Chicago.
sometimes lost people, particularly later in the war if the demand
for infantry was greater. Units that hit the beach on 6 June, 1944,
often took extremely high casualties, driving up the demand for
records show Durning was one of those replacements, not “one of the
first to land” on Omaha Beach.
Replacement depot in England, he would have been allocated to units
relating to the divisions who were in the process of landing,” said
WWII historian Gerhard Weinberg.
Replacements. December 1944.
Replacement depot would have been told, ‘We need x number for
the 1st division and x number for the 29th Division.’ But
sending off replacements, individual soldiers to fill the gaps in
the units that had landed on D-Day, would not have begun for several
“By the time
replacements arrived in Normandy, the survivors of the first wave
that went in on Omaha Beach on D-Day would have been few and far
between,” WWII historian and author Alex Kershaw told us.
suffered injuries at noon on June 15th, 7–10 kilometers inland from
Omaha Beach, when shrapnel from an exploding s-mine — set off by
long range German artillery — tore into him and another replacement
named Leo Forster. Records indicate that Forster later lost his
Charles E. 32726378 was received at the 24th Evacuation Hospital in
Le Cambe on June 15th. Records describe a badly wounded G.I with a
severe concussion, multiple lacerations to the face, and
fragmentation shrapnel wounds to the right frontal region of his
head, left chest-wall, both legs, left foot, knee, fingers, and
It’s still not
exactly clear when he arrived in Normandy. Hospital rosters, as well
as his subsequent Purple Heart citation, list Unit 2, 06E as his
unit affiliation. He may have just gotten to France.
“It is entirely
possible for a replacement to be wounded or killed, quite literally
on the way to the company they are supposed to join, even after
getting the assignment on the beach,” Weinberg said.
“Of course it doesn’t reflect in any way on the individual.”
Surgeons operating in a field hospital. Normandy, 1944.
was awarded The Legion of Honor in 2008 for his participation in
liberating France, Consul General of France Philippe Larrieu
addressed Durning in his speech: “On D-Day, you took part in the
invasion at Omaha Beach, landing early in the day with a battalion
of Rangers, alongside the First Infantry Division. Your unit
suffered heavy casualties, though you yourself made it to safety.
You were seriously injured by a landmine.”
didn’t do anything to dispel all the things said about him. His
actual service wouldn’t have made him any less deserving of the
Legion of Honor.
"Even if he hadn’t been on Omaha Beach, what he experienced was
massive trauma, so psychologically it affected him obviously. It’s
enough to haunt anyone for life," said Kersahw.
records indicate that Durning was declared “fit for full-field duty”
on Dec. 6, 1944. The disposition note reads, “[Patient] is now able
to walk 12 miles without pack.”
Six days later,
he was transferred to the 10th Replacement Control Depot, where he
again became a replacement.
with replacements was one of the worst aspects of filling the ranks
for the Americans in WWII. It was notoriously damaging to the
individuals and it was something that came under a lot of criticism
after the war and during the war. Most WWII historians that focus on
the individual experience will always complain about it and say how
unjust and cruel it was. What you had were kids with very little
training, dropped into hell and thrust into a front line situation.
They didn’t know what they were doing, so they attracted fire, they
made mistakes. It was a terrible situation to be."
OF THE BULGE/MALMEDY
In a 2008
interview Durning told SAG AFTRA’s Alan Rosenberg, “The day I got
out of the hospital, the Battle of the Bulge started, and everybody
had to go up there. If you could pull a trigger, you had to go up. I
got wounded twice up there and got the Silver Star. But I got out. I
did the march to Malmedy when they killed over 200 prisoners.”
one military website, "Durning was stabbed eight times by a
bayonet-wielding teenage German soldier. That day, he survived by
killing the German with a rock in hand-to-hand combat. Durning
recovered from those wounds and was released from the hospital just
in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was taken
not appear on any roster of the 285th Field Artillery Observation
Battalion — the ill-fated outfit massacred by the 1st SS Panzer
Division in Malmedy. Further, the only combat wounds listed on a
medical report filed just prior to his discharge are the shrapnel
wounds from June of 1944. There are no bayonet wounds listed.
confusing is the absence of the word “Ardennes” from the “Battles
and Campaigns” section on his discharge papers, implying that he
missed the Bulge altogether.
the heroic act for which he was subsequently recognized with the
Silver Star still remains unknown.
remains unknown is the unit Durning shipped out to from the 10th
Replacement Depot during the Battle of the Bulge.
movement of Durning from one outfit to another is fairly typical of
what happened to many members of the U.S. Armed Forces that reached
the limits of institutional turmoil,” Pritzker said.
between 12 to 16 million people served in the U.S. Armed Forces
between 1939 and 1945 — 12 million on duty in 1945. So it is no
wonder that tracing what happened to one private nearly 70 years ago
is such a challenge.”
Reports after the war indicate
that he was a rifleman with the 159th Infantry Regiment — an
outfit sent in the last weeks of the war to reconstitute the
regiments in the 106th Infantry Division that were decimated
in the Bulge. It’s entirely possible that Durning had been sent as a
replacement to one those companies after he was declared fit for
duty, but the records don’t indicate that he participated in the
fighting in the Ardennes.
the first person to have exaggerated his military record. Fellow
actor Brian Dennehy repeatedly claimed to have been wounded in
action in Vietnam, when in fact his only Marine service was in
Okinawa in 1962, playing football.
include Iowa Senator Tom Harken, who lied about participating in
combat in Vietnam and Cuba; silent film actor Tom Mix, who said he
fought at San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt, but never participated
in combat of any kind; and historian James Ellis, who spun untrue
tales of having served as a paratrooper in Vietnam.
recount their experiences, it changes quite a bit,” said Kershaw.
years, their stories change slightly, because all of our memories
change. Even with credible veterans, not inclined to exaggerate to
make stuff up, and then suddenly a movie comes out. The classic
example was the USS Indianapolis, and every single Indianapolis
survivor you could find and interview before Jaws would say,
‘there were absolutely no sharks in the water when the Indianapolis
went down.’ After Robert Shaw makes that great speech about sharks
in the water and suddenly all of these Indianapolis survivors
remember sharks. So, it’s interesting how broader popular culture
affects even veterans.”
Getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
And then there
are those who invariably take issue with their fellow veterans,
celebrity or otherwise, that misrepresent their war records.
“I don’t know
about Mr. Durning, but it makes me angry when somebody lies about
their military past,” said Joseph Davis, a USAF veteran of the Gulf
War and a public affairs official for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“You’re a con
man if you pass yourself off as someone you aren’t. It makes me
between military records and Durning’s stories raise questions about
the press’ responsibility to check records that have been available
to the public since the Freedom of Information Act.
been an easy task. A massive fire at the National Personnel Records
Center in 1973 destroyed 80 percent of U.S. Army’s WWII personnel
records, causing most people to rely on the inaccurate source
material, like word of mouth information or faulty testimonies.
But while the
fire also destroyed all rosters for 1944–46, Army morning reports
are army documents detailing personnel changes for the day, status
of soldiers in the unit, which unit they may have transferred from,
if they’ve been promoted, demoted, assigned temporarily to another
historians swear by these records, which, when pieced together
correctly, create a realistic timeline of an individual in the
military — more reliable than the veterans’ often less-than-accurate
versions of their past.
just one of many worth re-exploring.
Among the media
outlets who have repeated Durning’s unsubstantiated claims are
The Boston Herald, The Orlando Sentinel, AOL.com, salon.com,
The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Guardian,
Reuters, The New York Times, USA Today, and the Associated
returned from the war, he achieved a success on Broadway and in
Hollywood that seemed to reflect his fighting spirit. Ironically,
his many post-war accomplishments need no embellishment.
Charles Durning is at rest. Mysteries around his military service
He won a Tony
Award for best actor and also received 2 Academy Award nominations
for best actor, 9 Emmy Award nominations, a Golden Globe award for
best actor, 4 Golden Globe nominations, and a Lifetime Achievement
award from the Screen Actors Guild.
“One of the
last things written about my father was ‘if he had his druthers he
would have loved to die on Christmas day,’” said Douglas Durning.
true at all. He didn’t want to die. He thought he’d live forever and
one actually thought that he would, because he was one strong son of
a bitch. My father never wanted to write a memoir; he never wanted
anyone to write anything about him. He didn’t want to direct or
produce, he just wanted to act. That’s all he ever wanted to do. He
was proud of every role because he was an actor, not a critic."
Charlie’s legacy is that he was the consummate professional and he
was able to show that the good guys don’t finish last,” Mantegna
said. “If people are going to ask me who my heroes are, he’s right
at the top of the list. He was the consummate character actor. The
range this guy had. Every role, he brought something special to it.
But the joy, professionalism, and spirit, all of that was equal to
the talent. Then of course Charlie is the reason I got involved with
the Memorial Day concert, which changed my life in many ways.
Durning had a
respectable military past and a successful acting career; he was
awarded the military's third highest honor for valor in WWII, the
Silver Star. Why he didn’t dispel the untruths surrounding him
National Memorial Day Concert, just held in Washington, DC paid
tribute to Durning, touching on his D-Day experiences thus
perpetuating innacurate claims surrounding his war years..