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Reflections: Why we owe D-Day vets a debt of profound gratitude

Carrying their equipment, U.S. assault troops move onto Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Landing craft can be seen in the background.
Carrying their equipment, U.S. assault troops move onto Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Landing craft can be seen in the background.

Seventy-five years ago today, June 6, 1944, the largest amphibious invasion in world history, the first phase of what was code-named Operation Neptune, began the laborious and deadly process of freeing Europe from Nazi domination.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, an unprepossessing U.S. Army officer who grew up in Abilene, Kansas, gave the order to go ahead with the invasion from England across the English Channel to the Normandy peninsula in France on June 5. Eisenhower wasn’t entirely sure the invasion would be successful because of the prospect of fierce German resistance and a weather forecast that was iffy at best. So he wrote two dispatches to keep handy – one announcing success and praising British, Free French, Canadian and U.S. teamwork, and a second, taking full responsibility for failure.

The invasion began with the drop of 24,000 airborne troops soon after midnight June 6 designed to seal off the designated invasion beaches from German reinforcements. That was followed at 6:30 a.m. by the amphibious landing of 190,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops along a 50-mile stretch of Normandy seacoast divided into five landing areas – Utah and Omaha beaches for the U.S., and Gold, Sword and Juno beaches for the British and Canadians.

Although German resistance to the landings was fierce, the landings proved successful because of Allied heroism and materiel superiority, and German command problems, mostly centering around Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s micromanagement of the military.

Although the invasion was big news throughout the country, it didn’t rate much coverage here in Kendall County. The Kendall County Record, the county’s newspaper of record, didn’t have much to say about it, treating the invasion much like other war news.

But for some local families, it was big news indeed, particularly those who had relatives involved in the fighting a month or so after the invasion had taken place.

In Yorkville, Russ Devick’s friends and relatives were fascinated to hear he’d been part of the D-Day operation. And in Newark, Corporal Edolph Thompson’s family were both worried and proud he’d been part of the fighting.

In Oswego, Evelyn McKeown received a letter in early July from her husband, Pfc Everett McKeown, who had been drafted and was serving as a medic. The letter came from England, and reported that he had participated in the invasion of France. But she was concerned to learn he’d been wounded during the fighting.

The McKeowns moved to Oswego after buying the Thorsen Funeral Home in 1938, living in the apartment above the funeral home. At that time, the funeral home was located in the old Hebert House and wagon factory at Madison and Van Buren streets.

Having bought a successful business, the McKeowns worked hard to make it even more so, running both the funeral home and beginning the Oswego community’s first ambulance service.

Then along came World War II. For the first year of the war, the McKeowns carried on as well as they could given the circumstances; but in June 1943, Everett was drafted into the U.S. Army.

The question they faced was what to do with their funeral home business. In the end, they decided that Everett’s wife, Evelyn, would continue to operate the funeral home while he went off to fight. As the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent approvingly noted on June 16, 1943: “The decision is one that will face more and more wives as the war goes on and Mrs. McKeown is to be congratulated for ‘keeping the house in order’ while her husband is serving his country.”

The biggest hurdle was that Evelyn was not licensed as a mortician in Illinois. But in an excellent example of everyone pulling together for victory, Evelyn was greatly helped out when licensed funeral director Leonard M. Larson of Yorkville volunteered to help her keep the Oswego funeral home in business.

After basic training, Everett was assigned to be an Army combat medic. He trained at Camp Grant at Rockford before being assigned to his unit. Evelyn was lucky enough to spend Christmas with him in Atlanta, right before he was shipped out to Europe. In early April 1944, she received word from Everett that he was safely in England.

He couldn’t, of course, say exactly what he was doing there, but it turned out he was getting ready to participate in the invasion of France over the Normandy beaches.

There, he was seriously wounded when a German mortar shell broke his leg, and he was evacuated to a hospital in England to recover, which he did. After six months in an army hospital in England, he was returned to duty, this time as a medic with the 1st Infantry Division.

He got to his new Army unit just in time to get caught up in the Battle of the Bulge, from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945. As in the Normandy invasion, Allied troops stopped the desperate German counteroffensive, which proved to be the last major enemy push of the war.

During his 23 months in Europe, now Sgt. McKeown found himself involved in what were two of the European Theatre’s largest, and arguably most pivotal, battles of World War II. Along the way, he earned four battle stars, an invasion arrowhead, his combat medic badge and the purple heart.

McKeown received his honorable discharge on Dec. 18, 1945, and headed home to his wife, arriving in time to celebrate Christmas 1945 in Oswego.

The elderly survivors of that desperate battle three-quarters of a century ago are gathering this week on the beaches over which they stormed on their way to ending the most destructive war ever fought on Earth. They were dubbed “The Greatest Generation” by newsman Tom Brokaw, but most of those young men would probably demure at that title, protesting that they were just doing their jobs, jobs that every patriotic American would have done. Certainly, men like Everett McKeown, Russ Devick and Edolph Thompson did their jobs, but they also achieved great things for their country, and then came home to resume their lives and contribute to their communities. And it’s for that – all of that – we owe them a debt of profound gratitude.

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