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SideLines: Of war and peace

Published: Tuesday, May 27, 2014 9:53 a.m. CDT

In the words of someone who was there, "it was terrible."

John Hubert Dunn was a junior officer on the deck of a destroyer in the English Channel in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, the day part of the world exploded. Dunn was one of at least two current DeKalb County men who participated in the Allied invasion of Normandy, which has come to be known as D-Day, one of history's most important battles. Next Tuesday is the 70th anniversary of that fateful day.

The other local man I know of – I'm sure there are others – is Don Schoo of DeKalb, an infantry gunner who had been drafted the year before while working in a factory making tank tracks. Dunn was 22; Schoo, 19. What they experienced not only changed their lives, but arguably the entire world.

In trying to find other local veterans who were there, I was a little surprised at how many people have heard of D-Day, but aren't quite sure what it was. To be fair, they would probably surprised by all the things they think I should know that I don't.

Those who are interested could check out "Fields of War: Battle of Normandy" by Arlington Heights author Robert Mueller, who gave a lecture on D-Day earlier this month at the Sycamore Public Library. Besides key battles, he also explores the ordinary men who made those battles successful by performing extraordinary feats.

There's also "June 6, 1944: The Climatic Battle of World War II," by Stephen Ambrose, in which he describes in great detail the largest amphibious invasion in history. About 4,000 ships delivered over 160,000 American, British and Canadian soldiers onto five beaches strategically spread over 50 miles in the southern part of Nazi-occupied France.

One of the veterans Ambrose interviewed was Schoo, who chronicles his own personal exploits in "World War II as I Saw It." A few days after the invasion, he woke up on the beach one morning to find an unexploded shell about 10 feet from him.

"If you are on Normandy Beach, it is nice to wake up in the morning," he wrote. "If that shell had went off, I wouldn't have woke up that morning. If I did, I would have had one heck of a headache! ...God was with us."

Or you could simply watch "The Longest Day." Although not as graphic as the opening sequence of Stephen Spielberg's 1994 "Saving Private Ryan," the 1962 film captures both the beach invasion as well as the lesser-known parachute drop preceding it. Besides distracting the Germans, Mueller said the purpose of the drop, which started at midnight, was to secure bridges and roads to allow the invading forces a chance to gain a solid foothold.

I can't imagine jumping out of an airplane under any conditions, let alone in total darkness, into someplace I've never been, while someone may be shooting at me. That is a courage I can only imagine from a distance.

Dunn isn't in a book or a movie. He doesn't have to be; he was there when it happened.

"You could hear all the shots firing over you," recalled the 92-year-old veteran, whose ship was midway between Omaha and Utah beaches.

Although his ship wasn't hit, one next to his, carrying an officer he had trained with at Harvard, sank. Fortunately, his friend escaped unharmed.

Dunn, who was in communications, knew the invasion was coming long before most of his fellow soldiers. During the battle, he overheard top officers expressing concern about how the invasion was starting out. Under heavy fire, Allied forces suffered approximately 12,000 casualties the first day alone, including 4,114 killed, some before they even reached the shore.

"You see and hear a lot," he said, adding that everyone was so focused on their own jobs they didn't really have time to pay attention to what was going on around them.

Eventually, the Allies prevailed, and the rest is history.

Two weeks later, Dunn's ship sailed towards another important skirmish in the Mediterranean. Six months after D-Day, Schoo's outfit took part in the infamous Battle of the Bulge, another turning point in World War II, which he chronicles in a chapter in a new book, "The Battle of the Bulge," his seventh.

Such is war.

After the war, Dunn became a teacher while Schoo joined the DeKalb Police Department. Each started a family.

And such is peace.

Peace is better.

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