D-Day at 75: ‘You Wanted to Serve’
World War II veteran Charley Pritchett served in the Battle of Okinawa before helping raise two U.S. Air Force officers, including a general.
As Allied Forces began the D-Day invasion to liberate Europe on June 6, 1944, Charley Pritchett was preparing to make some history of his own.
“Everybody – from children to grandparents – you had this feeling of country and the feeling that you wanted to serve,” the 92-year-old World War II veteran told The Stream.
That’s exactly what the young University of Iowa student did. In fact, Charley’s biggest fear at the time was becoming ill or injured before getting his chance to join the fight.
“I would go over to the sick bay and make sure I was okay, because the one thing I was worried about was not being able to get in,” Pritchett said.
Less than a year after D-Day, Charley’s biggest concern became Japanese bombs, attack submarines and Kamikaze pilots as he served in the Pacific as a radio man aboard a Navy warship.
“I was back in emergency radio, my battle station, and I heard a bomb drop, then another, then the third I thought good Lord, why couldn’t go into the Army? At least I could have run,” Charley said. “You can’t run on water.”
Pritchett wound up serving during the historic Battle of Okinawa, which started on April 1, 1945. Many historians refer to Okinawa as the last major battle of World War II.
“I was 18 years old; my frontal lobe hasn’t even developed,” Charley said with a laugh. “You have a bunch of young people there and you don’t think of being killed, which sounds funny.”
As Pritchett and his fellow young sailors quickly learned, combat was no joke.
“You hear the Kamikazes dropping all around you,” Charley recalled. “I believe 12 to 15 ships were hit or sunk by Japanese Kamikazes.”
As recently immortalized in the film Hacksaw Ridge, the battle was bloody and brutal. Over 12,000 Americans – more than the death toll in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts combined – were killed in action at Okinawa. Somehow, Charley and his shipmates emerged unscathed.
“Our ship wasn’t hit at all,” he said.
After surviving Okinawa, Charley was back in the United States by early September 1945. He was walking around San Francisco when he stumbled on a historic moment that no one alive that day would ever forget: V-J Day.
“I remember being at a bar and walking to Market Street with no knowledge at all that the war was over,” Charley recalled. “I walked around the corner and saw thousands and thousands of people yelling, shouting, and even breaking store windows.”
In the years after World War II, Charley had a successful career in the magazine publishing business, including almost three decades at TV Guide. Charley also helped raise four children, including two U.S. Air Force officers. One recently became a general.
“They’re so patriotic, that would be the best way to say it,” Charley said of his Air Force daughters. “Just a pleasure.”
Charley, who will celebrate his 93rd birthday later this month, lives with his wife of 55 years at Azalea Trace, an Acts Retirement-Life Community in Pensacola, Florida. The Pritchetts spend much of their free time at the nearby University of West Florida, where they recently finished their 41st college course.
“We’ve always liked learning,” Charley said. “They have treated us very nicely.”
While Charley and Sheila make a point to keep quiet in class, they love when their fellow students want to hear about World War II.
“Quite often, we are asked what happened in Okinawa,” Charley said. “We think very, very highly of the young people today.”
As of last year, only about 496,000 of the approximately 16 million Americans who served in World War II were still alive. In every sense, Charley and his fellow WWII veterans are national treasures.
“I chose the Navy and just really wanted to,” Charley said. “This was the kind of feeling that we all had.”
Like the brave men at Normandy, Charley Pritchett served in a historic battle that helped liberate millions from tyranny. After being fortunate enough to make it home, he went onto live a life of character and consequence, as evidenced by two of his children becoming military leaders.
If you ever get a chance to sit down and talk to a World War II veteran, be sure to do so. If you listen closely, you might be able to hear the sound of freedom. These extraordinary Americans are the heroes who saved the world.
Tom Sileo is a contributing senior editor of The Stream. He is co-author of 8 Seconds of Courage, Brothers Forever and Fire in My Eyes. Follow Tom on Twitter @TSileo and The Stream at @Streamdotorg.