George Narozonick sensed the gravity of the invasion that was about to unfold on June 6, 1944, by the last meal handed out to hundreds of GIs aboard his Navy landing ship in the English Channel that morning:
Steak and eggs for the soldiers charged with attacking Hitler’s fortifications on the Normandy shore.
“We knew that was going to be the last mission for a lot of them,” Narozonick said.
The Olympia resident, now 88, is one of an ever-smaller number of D-Day survivors on this 70th anniversary of the battle that turned the tide of World War II and set the stage for allied victory over Nazi Germany 11 months later. An 18-year-old back then, he’s on the young side among his D-Day veteran peers now.
World leaders will gather Friday (June 6) in Normandy to commemorate the more than 130,000 allied troops in the invasion. Narozonick has been to three of those ceremonies over the years, shaking hands with presidents and movie stars.
This time, he and his wife, Vila, are staying closer to home to participate in a ceremony at the Chehalis Veterans Memorial Museum.
“It’s real important that people do remember,” he said.
He saw the attack as a young sailor watching thousands of planes soar overhead and thousands more ships pound German positions with their heavy cannons to support the ground invasion.
The scale of the attack seems almost unimaginable to him today — “like something out of Hollywood.”
The battle’s toll hit home in another way that seems hard to fathom for Americans who’ve been at war for the past 13 years with an all-volunteer military. Two of Narozonick’s high school classmates were killed in the D-Day campaign; two more died in the early days of battle in the Pacific theater.
Back then, everyone seemed to know someone making a sacrifice for the war.
“I’m just one of the thousands. There’s nothing special about me,” Narozonick said.
In Normandy, his job as a Navy shipfitter was to be on hand to repair any damage to the Landing Ship, Tank (LST) on which he served. It made 14 trips across the channel in the days after the attack to deliver supplies to ground forces while retrieving casualties and prisoners.
His journey to D-Day began in the summer of 1943 when he enlisted as a 17-year-old right after graduating high school in New Jersey.
The Navy sent him to boot camp in New York, then on to Indiana to join LST 501. He sailed down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and on to England with a convoy of ships departing from Nova Scotia in January 1944.
For months, his ship readied for the invasion by escorting soldiers on missions simulating the Normandy attack. Infantrymen waded through waves to march on British beaches.
“We hit about every port in southern England.”
After D-Day, Narozonick participated in attacks on Southern France. He was later assigned to a different LST that served in the Pacific theater in the battle of Okinawa.
Fortunately, his ships never had to fire their anti-aircraft cannons in battle.
“We got lucky. We always had good (gunship) escorts,” he said.
Narozonick returned to New Jersey after the war. He met Vila on an ice rink.
“I slipped and fell,” she said. “He splashed some ice on me and called me a show-off.”
They’ve been married 66 years, raised two daughters. They eventually settled in Olympia, where Vila was raised. He left the service after the war and went into real estate development.
The Narozonicks have attended some of the largest D-Day memorial events over the years, including the 50th anniversary in Normandy. They last visited France in 2009, when he received a French Legion of Honour military medal.
The former sailor was moved more by the hugs and thanks he received from French citizens who lived through the Normandy battle as civilians.
“They know why they’re free,” he said.
He remembers his first visit to the U.S. cemetery in Normandy as if it were yesterday. More than 9,000 veterans are buried there.
It’s hallowed ground to George Narozonick.
“It’s a feeling you know you’ve been here before,” he said. “I’ve never had that feeling in my life. Everything was so still and sacred to me.”