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D-Day saluted on 75th anniversary

June 6, 1944, marked momentous invasion to liberate Europe

The nation on Thursday marks the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, one of the fiercest fought battles for liberation in history, with declining numbers of World War II veterans remaining to join in the commemoration.

June 6, 1944, is still a momentous date in Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, said Lou Smith, junior vice president at Cantigny VFW Post 367 in Joliet.

It's especially important to his generation, he said.

"We're the sons of the World War II veterans," Smith said. "It's implanted in our heads. That's the day that the invasion began that liberated Europe."

More than 160,000 Allied troops landed on the northern coast of France on D-Day supported by more than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft. More than 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded in the invasion marking the start of the liberation of Europe from the control of Nazi Germany.

The enormity of the day – the risks that would have come with failure and the future opportunities promised with success – made D-Day a word that would resonate for years with gravity.

Keeping the importance of D-Day in the minds of generations born decades after 1944 is a challenge, however.

"That's a problem," said Felix Pasteris of Joliet, who, like most World War II veterans, is in his 90s.

"It's normal," Pasteris said of the declining recognition of D-Day's significance in more recent generations. "They don't really care. You have to talk to them."

Pasteris, a tech sergeant in the Army Air Corps, was in Corsica in June 1944 preparing for another lesser known invasion of southern France.

He learned more about D-Day after the war than while he was in it, Pasteris said.

Some news came from British Broadcasting Corp. radio reports, Pasteris said. More came from Axis Sally, the generic name given to female broadcasters employed by Nazi Germany to spread propaganda.

Whatever he heard from Axis Sally didn't influence Pasteris.

"Great," he said when asked about the impact of D-Day. "You know why? We defeated the Germans. It's hard to defeat somebody standing still."

John "Jack" Lonergan of Lockport was a machinist's mate in the Navy on D-Day. But he was in the Pacific at war with the Japanese, and information about D-Day was hard to get.

"If our radio man wasn't giving us the low-down, we wouldn't know much about it," Lonergan said.

"We were very curious about it. We knew that we were losing a lot of men," Lonergan said. "We were just hoping it would be a success, which it was."

Eric Percy, a historical reenactor, is doing his part to keep the significance of D-Day in the minds of younger generations. The Plainfield resident each year leads a World War II reenactment at Plainfield Central High School that depicts either the Battle of the Bulge or D-Day – depending on weather conditions.

One of the things that makes an impression on students, Percy said, is the 100 pounds of supplies paratroopers carried with them into D-Day.

"It took three men to get one guy into the plane – two guys pulling and one guy pushing," Percy said.

One of those paratroopers in the 101st Airborne was the late Frank Perconte, a Joliet native who is mentioned in the book "Band of Brothers" and depicted in the movie. Percy met Perconte before he died in 2013 and got an autograph for his copy of "Band of Brothers."

The movies "Band of Brothers" and "Saving Private Ryan" are the introduction most young people have to D-Day, Percy said.

Asked whether many people will still have an impression of D-Day when the 100th Anniversary comes, Percy said, "I would hope so."

"We try to bring it to life as best we can," he said. "I plan to be around and doing this in 25 years."

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