Published on: 6/13/2002
GUILFORD TWP. - The opening sequence of the film "Saving Private Ryan" depicted the events of D-Day, and "it was pretty realistic," said Edward J. Gnatowski.
He should know. He was there.
With the threat of World War II looming, Gnatowski left high school to enlist in the military. He later was decorated with several medals of honor for his good conduct on the battlefields of Normandy, northern France, Rhineland and central Europe.
But he only recently received his diploma from Wadsworth High School. His commencement is Saturday.
The first 20 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" were hard to forget. It was early morning on June 6, 1944. American soldiers were packed in their landing crafts crossing the English Channel to invade Omaha Beach.
"We had to spend the night" in the crafts, Gnatowski said. His superiors postponed the attack 24 hours because of the weather.
Many of the men were shivering - some out of fear, some from the cold. Some were praying. Others were vomiting from seasickness.
"I was sick as a dog," said Gnatowski. "It's funny. I crossed the ocean and I was never seasick. But when I crossed the English Channel, I got sick."
Finally, at 7 a.m., the landing crafts' ramps were lowered and the attack began. Without the protection of the ramp, many soldiers, caught in the German crossfire, fell dead or were wounded before they could make it out of the craft.
"I was lucky," Gnatowski said. He was never injured, although he had several close calls.
Gnatowski said he had to wade through water up to his chin to get to shore. "And I couldn't swim!" he said.
"I was carrying a rifle and I had 25 pounds of TNT at my side. And I was seasick. When I fell onto the beach, I was so heavy I couldn't get up for 15 or 20 minutes. A guy in another squad said, 'Eddy, get your can over here before you get shot!' "
Somehow he managed to continue on.
"There I was, laying there with 25 pounds of TNT. I said, 'God, if you want me, here I am.' I guess he must not have wanted me. I'm still here."
Born in Cleveland on Sept. 5, 1917, Gnatowski was raised in the city's Slavic Village. He went to school until the 11th grade, and then, in 1939, he joined the National Guard.
In January 1942, the Army called him into federal service. He was stationed at Camp Shelby, Miss., and joined the 112th Engineer Combat Battalion.
He noted his battalion's history goes back to the Civil War. "I wasn't there at the time, but almost!" he said, laughing.
In the service, Gnatowski was an air compressor operator. "I operated a jackhammer. We built roads and bridges."
He spent 15 months in Northern Ireland building a camp for future draftees.
Gnatowski said the time he spent in Ireland was fun.
"I met a lot of Irish girls," he said. "I still remember one beautiful blonde from Belfast. I wanted to visit her when my wife passed away (in 1993), but I never had an occasion to go."
The fun stopped on D-Day.
"We were supposed to be the first wave to support the infantry," he related. "We were equipped to take care of the vehicles, and de-waterproof them so they wouldn't sink."
In one of his close calls, he was assigned to blow up a German concrete observation point, a building Gnatowski called a pillbox.
"It was on our lines," he recalled. "The night was absolutely black. No light at all. We took 100 pounds of TNT with us."
When they entered the pillbox, the bunks were empty, so they inserted the TNT and set it to go off at midnight.
Coming out, they set off a German booby trap.
"It was a dud! Nothing happened," said Gnatowski.
The next day, the pillbox was gone. All that was left was a big crater - and a number of holes around the crater.
The holes were created by land mines surrounding the pillbox. That's what Gnatowski meant by a "close call."
"We didn't know there were land mines all around it," he said. "Numb for a long time after that."
Another time, Gnatowski said he and his sergeant went out at night to lay booby traps.
"I was carrying a 20-pound box of TNT on my shoulder," Gnatowski related. "The sergeant told me to wait while he went ahead."
When the sergeant was five feet away, he tripped a booby trap.
"There was a big explosion and the box flew off my shoulder," Gnatowski said. "I couldn't hear for three months afterward. The sergeant's eardrum was perforated and he lost an eye."
It was a trauma that stayed with him after he was discharged on Sept. 7, 1945.
"In 1946, I was on a trolley in Cleveland and a car went by. Its rear end exploded and I thought I was being attacked again," he said.
Gnatowski said not having a high school diploma hurt him.
"Every place I looked for work they asked me if I had a high school education."
However, since he had some vocational training, he said he thought he had more or less the equivalent of a high school diploma.
He accepted a job with John Hancock Life Insurance as an agent and stayed there for 37 years.
"They trained me and over the years I qualified to go to four or five training conferences," he said. "They sent me to Chicago, New York, bunny clubs. They had to put some training in it to make it legit."
He and his wife, Clara, were married for 53 years. They had four children - Lawrence, Jean, Judy and James - three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He has a grandson currently serving in the Air Force.
Gnatowski moved to Medina County six years ago.
Concerning his diploma, Gnatowski said: "This is a miracle! I saw my four kids and my grandkids graduate. Now they'll all see me graduate. It's as if we're going back a half-century. It's astonishing! Miraculous!"
"This diploma is special to me," he said.