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Updated: July 7, 2014 6:03AM
The men considered their battle plan.
They passed the time playing poker.
And they wrote their wills.
Soon every soldier riding with 23-year-old 2nd Lt. George Klein of Chicago through choppy seas on a British troop ship toward the coast of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, would play his role in a massive Allied invasion that turned the tide of World War II.
The men knew their orders. Klein and 224 others had their sights set on Pointe Du Hoc — and the 100-foot cliff they would scale by rope and ladder under enemy fire before taking out six large German guns.
Klein made it to the top. He battled on. He killed a German soldier who attacked with a rifle and bayonet, wounding Klein in the leg. And after two days on the battlefield without a working radio, Klein would live to realize Allied forces were firmly in control of Pointe Du Hoc.
He lived to fight another day, to see the end of the war, to marry his wife, Barbara, to build a decades-long career, to become a father and a grandfather.
But not every soldier riding with Klein on that British troop ship was so lucky. And as the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion approached last week, Klein told the Chicago Sun-Times one question lingered with him after the key battle that changed the war — and took many lives.
“Having seen people that I’ve known killed, blown up, the only question that I did ask myself at that time is, ‘Why not me?’” said Klein, a two-time Purple Heart recipient.
Klein, now 93, said he never found his answer.
“I never thought I would live to be 93, let’s put it that way,” Klein said. “And I hope I live to be 94. But as long as I’ve got my marbles … I’ll be happy.”
Klein had hoped to join other veterans in France this week to commemorate the anniversary of the invasion. After a bout with pneumonia, he said he planned instead to speak Friday during a program at Chestnut Square at the Glen, the retirement community in Glenview where he lives. His daughter is also visiting from out of town.
It wouldn’t have been Klein’s first visit to Normandy since the war. He said he visited once with his wife in the 1960s — and stumbled upon Pointe Du Hoc almost by accident.
“I saw it, and I really couldn’t stay up there too long,” Klein said.
The visit may have been brief, but Klein said the battle is never far from his mind. Another aspect of the war — the Holocaust — haunts him, as well.
“It took me a long time to get over my hatred of anything and everything German, which still plagues me these days,” Klein said. “I’m constantly struck by man’s inhumanity to man, and how civilized people can reduce themselves to such basic feelings.”
Five years ago, Klein began to write down his memories of his military career. He’s since given a thick scrapbook full of written recollections, photographs, battle plans and military records to his son, daughter and brother-in-law.
It’s titled, “As Told To My Children: How the War Was Won.”
One memory chronicled within its pages is his confrontation with the German soldier on D-Day. Someone yelled to warn him the soldier was running toward him with a rifle and bayonet. He said he quickly turned and shot the German, who fell to the ground dead.
But the rifle and bayonet kept coming and wounded Klein in the thigh.
“You sometimes wonder why people do what they do,” Klein wrote in his scrapbook. “We found out that the rifle was loaded and all the poor dumb son of a bitch had to do was pull the trigger and he would have gotten his American!”
Klein said it’s difficult to know whether generations of Americans born after D-Day fully comprehend the experiences of World War II veterans. But time and again, when adversity looms, he said America’s youth have risen to the occasion.
He said freedom is not free — “There’s a bill to be paid.”
“And unfortunately,” Klein said, “the people who pay it are the real heroes of any war.”