In 1998, North Riverside celebrated the 75th anniversary of its incorporation as a municipality. It was a big deal for the village, which published a commemorative diamond anniversary booklet that chronicled its history and lauded local organizations and important citizens.
One of those citizens, 76-year-old Bill Svrluga Sr., whose family had lived in town since before North Riverside officially existed, was crowned the village’s “king” and received a key to the village from Village Clerk Charmaine Kutt and Mayor Richard Scheck.
There’s a photo of Svrluga and the village’s “queen,” Violet Greco, both sporting crowns befitting their temporary royal status on the final page of the commemorative book. But there was more to Svrluga than just being a longtime member of the North Riverside community. Something only a few of the people closest to him knew.
Six years earlier, Svrluga had bowled over his sons and grandchildren by his response to a breezy question posed to him at his 70th birthday party: “What are you most proud of in your life?”
They weren’t expecting his reply, “D-Day,” referring to the Allied invasion of France on June 6, 1944.
Svrluga had a ringside seat for the invasion as a sailor aboard the USS PC-568, a submarine chaser that sped along the Normandy coast, just yards from the invasion beaches, drawing fire away from the assault troops and evacuating the dead and wounded.
His ship would remain on the waters around Normandy for the next month, withstanding German air attacks that killed dozens of shipmates and a mine explosion that hurled him into the English Channel and put the ship out of commission for a time.
The story, “My Grandfather’s Secret D-Day Journal,” was recounted by Svrluga’s grandson, Barry Svrluga, in great detail in the Sunday, June 2 edition of the Washington Post Magazine and published online by the Post late last week.
Barry, a Washington Post sports columnist, said the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion on June 6 drove him to complete the story now, though it’s been something he’s wanted to tackle since accompanying his grandfather to Omaha Beach in 2003.
Even then, he didn’t know that his grandfather had written down an account of his month-long experience off the Normandy coast on July 11, 1944 while the ship’s crew was recuperating in England.
It wasn’t until Bill Svrluga Sr. died in 2006 that Barry’s father, William Svrluga Jr., discovered the 16-page memoir in a drawer inside the family’s North Riverside house on 30th Street.
“I was struck by how good a writer he was,” said Barry, whose Washington Post piece includes large chunks of the memoir, which describes the exhaustion, exhilaration and trauma William Sr. suffered during that month off the coast of France. “He definitely had an awareness that what he saw was going to affect him for the rest of his life.”
Bill Sr. was just 23 when the war ended. His son, Bill Jr. was born June 29, 1944 – the same day Bill Sr.’s ship struck the mine – and the family settled in the family’s longtime home on 30th Street.
The modest one-and-half story brick house, now demolished, was built by Bill’s Sr.’s father, Joseph Svrluga, a Croatian immigrant who was hired to supervise the expansion of the Riverside Golf Club to 18 holes prior to 1920.
Later Joseph Svrluga would be hired as the golf club’s groundskeeper and lived in a house on the golf course grounds. It was in that house Bill Sr. was born; the house on 30th Street was built a few years later.
“My dad caddied there and was an extraordinary golfer,” said Bill Jr. of his father.
While his war experience profoundly affected him, as his family would later find out, Bill Sr. didn’t talk much about it. And until he was 70, they didn’t know anything about the impact witnessing the invasion of France had on him.
When Barry and his father, Bill Jr., accompanied Bill Sr. to Normandy in 2003, they got a better sense of just how heavy that experience weighed on him.
“It became clearer to us that he had a powerful sense of obligation to the people who didn’t make it,” Barry said. “He clearly dealt with it for a long time.”
Barry’s retelling of that story was in some ways a gift to his dad, Bill Jr., and his uncle, Dick, who didn’t know what their father had endured for so many years. Seeing it in print provoked a strong reaction.
“It was very emotional,” said Bill Jr., now 74 himself. “I cried any number of times while reading it. I’m delighted to have both now – the 16 pages my dad wrote and the article. They are two great pieces of work to have.”