Today, 74 years ago, Army Pvt. Stanley Kozar stood in a landing craft with fellow soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division, the “Big Red One,” as they neared Omaha Beach in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in World War II.
The Cleveland veteran of combat in North Africa and Sicily braced himself as the boat surged through waters whipped to a froth by machine guns, mortars and artillery shells. Soldiers around him threw up into their helmets.
As the boat ramp dropped, Kozar said to a buddy behind him, “Let’s go!” But he suddenly slipped and fell, then glanced back. His buddy had taken a bullet that should have hit Kozar.
A diary compiled by a member of his platoon later noted, “the men went into an inferno of machine gun fire from the heights above the beach, cross-fired so that it seemed to cover every square foot, into mortar fire and artillery fire. Through the waist-deep water, men by the hundreds waded beachward as the murderous fire cut them down.”
As Kozar struggled through the water, he grabbed a floating medic’s bag and held it in front of him, feeling bullets slam into it. On the beach, he took cover behind the bodies of dead GIs as he moved forward.
Kozar survived D-Day, and nearly a year of combat across France and into Germany that followed.
He lived to tell the stories, but didn’t pass along those memories for a long, long time.
His sons – Greg, 63, of Euclid, and Stan, 71, of Mentor – recently recalled that their father (who died in 2000 at age 79) never talked about the war for most of his life.
They’d ask, and the Collinwood High School grad would glare, give them “the look,” or quickly change the subject.
“It came to a point, I just stopped asking because I knew he was going to get mad and I didn’t want him to be mad at me,” Stan recalled. “And probably somewhere in there I thought, well, he doesn’t want to talk about it for a reason. Now I understand why.”
A stroke that their father suffered about seven years before his death changed all that, according to the brothers.
“He started opening up. That’s when he started telling us details,” Greg said.
A box of old photos taken during his combat tour – including rare views of the D-Day beachhead a day after the invasion – came down from the attic.
And the old soldier talked about his service as a member of an intelligence and reconnaissance platoon that scouted ahead of infantry advances.
He told his sons the funny stories, like the time officers ordered the soldiers to go out and scout-up some steaks for dinner. The vet had wryly noted, “Well we butchered a cow and made sure we had some steaks for ourselves that night!”
Each of the old vet’s photos came with a story. Like riding in a jeep with one leg outside the vehicle so you could jump out faster when the shooting started.
Or the photo of a dead German soldier that Kozar captioned: “This is one of many dead Heinies laying in a gutter, just where they belong.”
Stan once asked his father if he had killed any Germans. He remembered, “And he says, ‘All I know is I was shooting, they were there, I don’t know if I got anybody. I was just shooting like everybody else. And trying not to get hit.”
Greg said his father was offered the chance to join the Army Rangers before D-Day, and was tempted. His father said, “I almost did because I figured what the hell, I’m not going to make it home anyway.”
Stan said the impact of the war, particularly D-Day, surfaced when he and his father watched the 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan,” which depicts the horror and bloodshed of Omaha Beach in its opening scenes.
“So we’re sitting downstairs, watching ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ I knew it was going to be graphic. But I didn’t know it was going to be THAT graphic,” Stan recalled.
“It’s getting real graphic and that stuff on the beach, the bodies blown apart, and all of a sudden my dad starts shaking. And then he’s crying. He’s just crying. And I went, ‘Oh my god what have I’ . . . I turn it off. I says, ‘Dad I’m so sorry. How stupid of me.’ Cause he was just crying. And it’s the only time I’ve ever heard him, seen him do that.
“And he says, ‘No, no, I’ll be OK.’ And we just waited around for a while then watched the rest of the movie.”
After the initial shock, his father recovered sufficiently enough to enthusiastically start critiquing the film’s sloppy depiction of military tactics, according to Stan.
There were chinks in his father’s stoic post-war armor that kept him from talking about the experience for so long.
The sons later learned there were exceptions made when the old soldier played with toy soldiers with his grandsons, telling them a few stories but swearing them to secrecy.
Their mother, Betty (now 97), once told them that shortly after her husband returned from the war, she’d burned the dinner. In a rage, he pulled the dinner out of the oven and threw it across the kitchen floor.
The war had changed him, according to the sons. They point to pre- and post-war photos of Kozar.
Stan held an early military photo of his father and said, “There’s one like this, and he’s smiling. He just looked fresh, and like anybody 20 years old. And then three years later look at him . . . his look is like” — Stan’s voice dropped to a whisper–” Forget it!
“And he was like that the rest of his life.”
After the war, their father worked as a fireman at the Collinwood railroad yards, then as a draftsman, then ran the old Chatterbox bar on East 185th Street in Euclid with his brother for 35 years. Kozar and his wife raised five children.
Yet the military ties remained strong.
Stan remembered that when they lived in Mayfield Heights, every Memorial Day or Fourth of July, his father would join a group of other neighborhood vets, don their old uniforms and fire a rifle salute near a flagpole and American flag that stood on their street.
“Then the police would show up,” Greg said.
“Yeah, but they never did anything,” Stan added.
Stan remembered their father as “very strict, very hard-working, very family-oriented, but he didn’t smother you with love.”
Greg added, “His love was putting a roof over your head.”
And on this 74th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, as the brothers leaf through their father’s old photos, mindful of how he came a slip away from death on a D-Day landing craft, they wonder how he survived.
But they’re glad he did.
“I couldn’t be prouder of him,” Stan said. “The more I learned about what he went through, the more I’m able to understand why he was the way he was.”
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