ELYRIA — The last time World War II veteran John Polgar saw France, it was only a half-mile section of Omaha Beach in Normandy.
Yet it was that upon that stretch of land, amid gunfire and mines, that his life changed on D-Day — June 6, 1944.
As Polgar readies himself to return to France seven decades later, the 89-year-old said he believes going back may bring up painful memories, possibly accompanied by closure.
“I might actually forget what’s bugging me … I hope I can get it out of my mind when I see (the beach),” Polgar said, remembering the destruction he witnessed when, as a Navy officer, he landed on the beach during the Allied invasion.
This year, for the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Consul General of France in Chicago has awarded a medal to Polgar and named him a Knight of the Legion of Honor.
“It is a sign of true gratitude for your invaluable contribution to the liberation of France during these difficult times in the history of our nation,” the Consul wrote in a February letter to Polgar.
As a further expression of gratitude, the U.S. Embassy in France is hosting Polgar in Paris this week and taking him to the memorial ceremony this week to commemorate the battle.
Today will mark the first time Polgar has traveled to the country since he was a teenager.
Polgar left high school and his hometown of Elyria to join the Navy during World War II. A year later, he was assigned to one of the landing crafts to Normandy for the invasion.
“It was frightening and exciting at the same time,” Polgar said, remembering the multiple trips he made from the landing craft to the beach.
Polgar’s ship hit a mine and blew apart. Polgar and another Navy officer survived the explosion and were forced to swim through water that was littered with dead bodies to reach land.
“You really don’t stop to think about anything,” Polgar said, adding that he swam in a bid to save his life. “You just think, ‘What am I going to do now?’”
Polgar’s memory is fuzzy after they reached land. Polgar said he was saved by another landing barge before passing out. He woke up, days later, in a hospital bed in Wales.
Although nearly 70 years have passed, Polgar is still plagued by memories and violent flashbacks from the war. He regularly attends counseling sessions to work through his post-traumatic stress disorder.
“They try to make us forget, but it never goes away,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to talk about a lot of the destruction he saw for fear of bringing up difficult memories.
He knows the memories will return when he visits Normandy again. But Polgar said he is more excited than nervous — the visit may bring a bit of closure.
“Now I can see what else is on that beach.”