John Wisely – story on 50th Anniversary of D-Day
"You know you’ve been in this business a long time when you see the 75th Anniversary of D-Day in the news and you remember covering the 50th. I was working Downriver at the News-Herald and the paper put out arequest for D-Day veterans to share their stories for a special section to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of the invasion. The subject of my profile was Pfc. John Nerowski of Wyandotte, Mich. He was one of the most memorable interviews of my career.
We met him at his home. I asked him to tell me about his involvement and he was off to the races. For the next two hours, he talked non-stop, pacing the living room floor waving his hands as he spoke. I scratched notes as fast as I could. He was 18 in 1944 and his Army unit prepared for the invasion. In England, they practiced for the orders they knew were coming. They’d be awakened in the middle of the night by officers blowing whistles to roust them. They’d dress on the fly, sling gear on their backs and race to their boats only to find an officer there staring at his watch to check their time. Just a practice. Go back to bed. It happened repeatedly.
As the calendar turned to June, the tension grew. The night before the invasion, they were pretty sure this was the real thing. Nerowski was convinced he would die in the attack so he sought out a priest and confessed his sins to clear his conscience. His was the second wave to hit Omaha Beach. The first wave was pretty much wiped out when they arrived. He described climbing over the bodies of his comrades, some of whom were not yet dead. Some of them were crying out for their mothers as they died. Troops were under strict orders to not stop in the water lest they become casualties themselves. He said ignoring their cries was the hardest thing he ever did. He made it ashore safely but about 75% of his unit died that day. Over the course of the rest of the war, about 95% his unit was killed in action. He was a statistical outlier in history’s bloodiest war.
Nerowski took some grenade shrapnel in his forearm. It was enough to earn a Purple Heart, but not enough to keep him out of the fight. He was part of group that liberated one of the concentration camps, where he saw piles of corpses and prisoners on the edge of starvation.
After the war, he returned to Wyandotte, married a pretty Polish girl and started a family. After he’d been talking to me for about two hours, he excused himself to use the bathroom. When he walked out of the room I looked over at his wife, who’d sat silently through the whole thing. She was crying. I told her she’d probably heard all these stories before. She shook her head no. They’d been married 40 years and he’d never before spoke of it. She’d asked him many times over the years about his experiences. His answer was always the same: “It was awful’ he’d tell her, offering no details. She told me he still had nightmares about it. They came frequently when he was younger but less often as he aged. Still, once a month, or every other month, he’d start thrashing about in his sleep, screaming and kicking hard enough to bruise her. She’d shake him awake and he’d be soaked with sweat.
When I interviewed him in 1994, he’d recently retired from a long career as a butcher. For more than 30 years, he worked the meat counter at the local Farmer Jack store. I couldn’t help but wonder how many people over the years had thanked him for some chops or a roast, never knowing what he’d been through as a teenager. I wrote his story and it ran in that special section. When someone bares their soul to you like that, you always wonder what they thought of your piece. Did I capture him correctly? Did I do justice to his story?
A few days after it ran, I got an answer of sorts. I didn’t see him come in, but I glanced out the office window and spotted him walking out the door with a pile of special sections under his arm. I took that as a stamp of approval.
The internet tells me he died in 2011 at age 85. God bless the John Nerowskis of the world.
Journalism faces an existential crisis right now and we all worry about its future, but it’s still an honor to tell people’s stories."