By Anna Merriman and Bruce Bishop
ELYRIA — It wasn’t the water filling up his boat or the German gunfire threatening to end his life that stuck in John Polgar’s memory as a 19-year-old as much as the lone body floating near the shore.
It was the middle of the D-Day invasion and a single soldier, dead in his lifejacket, floated next to Polgar’s boat as it pulled away from the beach. Ocean water entered his open mouth and came out red.
“Somehow it got into my mind and I can still see him. I can still see that poor guy,” Polgar said, recalling the painful moment that shocked him as a teenager and plagued his memories ever since. “There were a lot of them that were floating every which way but this particular guy, I had to look and it stuck with me forever.”
Now 89, Polgar is a decorated World War II veteran living in his hometown of Elyria. He recently was named a “Knight of the Legion of Honor” by the Consul General of France in Chicago. This week, he traveled to France, where he’s being hosted and recognized for his service by the U.S. Embassy.
He was in the thick of the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944, when Allied troops launched an attack on German soldiers and the battles played out on the beaches of Normandy, leaving thousands of Allied casualties.
Polgar, with a memory as sharp now as it was 70 years ago, can still recall the destruction.
He was a senior at Elyria High School when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached Ohio. Polgar quickly left high school and enlisted in the Navy.
Though he trained in Florida for the Navy, in Polgar’s 17-year-old mind the war was a more distant concept than an immediate reality.
“We never thought about going off and getting into the war. We were too busy training and having fun down in Florida,” he said.
But the call came. When he and his fellow sailors were taken to New York harbor and loaded onto a ship, the reality of war began to strike Polgar.
“We started worrying a little bit and thinking, ‘What the hell did we get into?’ We soon found out,” he said.
In late 1943, Polgar and his shipmates were training in England, using landing crafts to practice taking soldiers between ships on the water and fighting at the shore.
They didn’t realize it at the time, but they were training for the invasion of France, also known as D-Day.
“We knew there was going to be a big invasion. It looked like the whole United States Navy was there. I never saw so many ships as I did when all those ships were going across the channel that morning,” Polgar said, recalling the invasion.
About 6 a.m. June 6, 1944, Polgar and other troops piled into a landing craft headed for the beaches at Normandy.
It wasn’t long until he could see the shore and the violence playing out on the banks in what Polgar remembers as a “noisy mess.”
“I see all these bodies lying around on the beach and I think, ‘I don’t want to join them guys.’ I tell you, it was scary,” he said.
Polgar spent the day manning the engines on his boat and trying to keep water from seeping into their leaking boats as they brought troops to the beaches.
“Most of the troops were doomed,” Polgar said, recalling how many soldiers were shot and killed as soon as they exited the boat for shore. “Half of them never touched dry land.”
Even though he was in the thick of war and often in the line of fire, Polgar survived D-Day and made his way back to Elyria several years later. Now, seven decades since WWII, Polgar said most of the men he fought beside are gone. He remains one of the few servicemen left who is able to tell the story of the destruction he witnessed during one of the most famous battles in U.S. history.