Seventy-two years had passed before the song lyrics written by John Chrenka Jr. were heard again. The words were penned when, as a 22-year-old from Berwyn, Illinois, he was waiting to cross the English Channel while trying to encourage himself before clambering into a boat aimed at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, during the Second World War.
“The Navy will bring us in
but some of us will have to swim
Once on that beach; We’ll dig and dig right in
There’ll be shrapnel flying and doggies dying
Tomorrow when the world is free”
Many of his compatriots were killed as they stormed the shoreline. Chrenka exposed himself to throw a grenade into a machine gun emplacement, disrupting German fire sufficient to allow his comrades to move forward. He was wounded in the hip but applied clotting powder to reduce the bleeding and pressed on, collapsing eight hours later from loss of blood.
Those actions earned him the Silver Star medal. He was wounded again in the Battle of the Bulge, and yet again and earned a Purple Heart and three Bronze Stars.
“If you say you weren’t scared, you’re a liar because I was scared stiff,” Chrenka told the Tribune newspaper in 2010 about the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.
Chrenka, 94, a longtime resident of Riverside, died in September at Hines VA Hospital with complications related to a bacterial infection.
In July he was awarded France’s Legion of Honor, that nation’s highest mark of distinction, during a ceremony in Wheaton at the First Division Museum.
The museum’s research historian, Andrew Woods, sang a cappella the song that Chrenka wrote more than seventy years before, set to the tune of The White Cliffs of Dover made popular during the war.
As Chrenka sang, Woods looked at John and saw him singing. “What a moving experience that was for me,” Woods recalled. Not long ago he sang the national anthem at a ballgame, but that was nothing compared to what he felt that day, singing that song with John. “It was such an honor,” he said.
French Consul General Vincent Floreani, who presented the Legion of Honor award to Chrenka, said it was an unforgettable memory, Chicago Tribune reported.
It was a beautiful ceremony, but what he’ll always remember was watching John sing his song, Floreani said. There was a man, a hero being honored for what he did those many years ago, for risking his life to save France from tyranny. France will never forget what he did for our country.
In addition to his daughter, Chrenka is survived by Dorothy, his wife of 70 years.