On June 6, 1944, William O'Malley waded into the surf on Omaha Beach, part of the first wave of troops in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France.
O'Malley said he remembers the flat beach that seemed to stretch for miles, and the wall of bluffs topped by German guns trained on him and the men around him.
"I don't know how many hundreds were killed in those first five minutes," said O'Malley, 92, of Orland Park, then five days shy of his 23rd birthday.
"I think about that day a lot, and I cry about that day a lot. It's hard to be with your buddies, then turn around and realize they're not there," he said.
D-Day, a surprise attack designed to push occupying German forces out of France, was a key point in the course of World War II. But the sense of being part of history didn't sink in until much later, O'Malley said. Gathered on the ship's deck the night before, they were told to prepare for standard maneuvers, he said.
O'Malley, who said he joined the Navy in August 1942 and served until August 1945, spoke about his memories of the war after a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day at the Orland Park Veterans' Memorial on Friday.
The village celebrates D-Day on every major anniversary, but this one was special, said Phil Bell, chairman of Orland Park Veterans Commission.
"It's probably the last one a lot will see," Bell said. "We tried to make sure it happened during the evening so people can come with their families and recognize what their fathers and grandfathers were involved with."
If O'Malley remembers the horrors of World War II, he's also proud of the sense of duty and family that bound the men he served with, and what they achieved. "We were all in the same boat, all living day to day and we all helped each other," he said. He said he tried to share those values with the kids he worked with as a police officer in Chicago after the war.
"It was really worth it," O'Malley said. "I'd say to every American today, they're living in the greatest country that exists."
During the ceremony, Trustee Jim Dodge thanked the veterans for their service and said there's "no way we can show enough gratitude."
"They fought not only to save America, but the whole world, from tyranny," Dodge said. "The freedoms we have today trace back to them."