Charles Durning joined the US Army when he was 17 years old, and during World War II he was seriously wounded by a mine and suffered severe bayonet wounds in hand-to-hand combat with Nazis. His unit was eventually defeated in Belgium by an SS Panzer unit, but Durning escaped and was spared the fate met by many of his friends — the infamous Malmedy massacre, in which German officer Joachim Peiper had over 100 American prisoners shot dead without warning as they stood in a field. On 6 June 1944, Durning was with Allied troops for the invasion of German-occupied France in the Normandy landings. For his military service, he was awarded three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star. He later had a long career as a movie actor.
Durning’s impressive 50-year acting career has been crowned by a Tony Award and nominations for two Oscars and four Emmy awards, yet he never lost sight of his wartime experiences. In 1990, when he was making his Tony-winning star turn as Big Daddy in the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, he opened up in a People Magazine feature. “There’s only so much you can witness,” he said of his time overseas. Indeed, his war decorations were hard-earned. Durning was the only man to survive a machine gun ambush on Omaha Beach – and he had to rise above serious wounds andkill seven German gunners to do it.
In late June 1944, Charles was seriously wounded by a mine at Les Mare des Mares, France but refused to seek a military discharge and spent almost 6 months recovering .
Months later in Belgium, he was stabbed eight times by a German teenage soldier wielding a bayonet; Durning eventually bludgeoned him to death with a rock. He was released from the hospital in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, where he was taken prisoner. After escaping a subsequent massacre of the other prisoners, he was obliged by American forces to return to the scene and help identify bodies. Finally, a bullet in the chest a few months later ended his relentless tour of duty – and began four years of repeated hospitalizations for his physical and psychological injuries.
In an interview with Parade Magazine, Durning said of his initial post-war years, “I dropped into a void for almost a decade. The physical injuries heal first. It’s your mind that’s hard to heal.” And, as he points out, it’s not just a matter of what is done to you, but what you find yourself capable of doing. “There are many secrets in us, in the depths of our souls, that we don’t want anyone to know about. There’s terror and repulsion in us, horrifying things we keep secret. A lot of that is released through acting.”