At 15 years old, Walter N. Suchowiecki joined the New York State Army National Guard.
The youngest of six children in a family on hard times, Suchowiecki claimed he was 18 years old in order to earn a dollar a night for participating in military drills at the local armory in Binghamton.
"We all lied about our age, and no one checked. We were mostly from poor families, and I used the money to buy clothing," Suchowiecki said.
But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Guard unit he served in was activated and sent to Alabama.
"I was 17 and given an honorable discharge because I had one more year of high school, and I wanted to graduate. About a year and a half later, I was drafted," he said. "We were happy to be drafted. The ones left behind felt like misfits."
By the winter of 1944, he was in Scotland, heading south with the 3rd Army to a staging area in Southampton, England, in preparation for the Normandy Invasion.
When that monumental day arrived on June 6, Suchowiecki said, the landing craft he was aboard stopped in waist-high waters off Omaha Beach, aka Bloody Omaha.
"Once the ramp came down, you were ordered to go in the water. I was glad the water wasn't deep. Some guys on other craft were drowning in deeper water with all their gear on them."
As he made his way to the beach, Suchowiecki said, all he could think about was staying alive.
"If you were fortunate, you made it onto the beach."
Once they got past the carnage of D-Day, Suchowiecki said, resistance from the Germans was light. But that would change in the coming months.
Assigned to the 26th "Yankee" Division from New England, he and his fellow soldiers were moved up to the Battle of the Bulge.
"We went by truck, but the final five miles we walked in the snow, and it was cold."
On Christmas Eve, he participated in what was called "marching fire" -- infantry members slogging alongside a column of U.S. tanks.
"We took over a small town, and I set up my machine gun in an empty house on a table. On Christmas Day, the Germans counterattacked. I got one burst off with my machine gun, and then a German tank came over, and we were no challenge. We scurried into the basement, and the tank leveled the section of the house where my machine gun was."
He and three or four other soldiers spent Christmas in the basement listening to the sounds of war out in the streets.
"There was one incident where the tank pointed its gun at the basement window. We said, 'Well, this is it.' But for some reason, the tank turned and went away. When it got dark out, we crawled out of the basement in the snow and joined the rest of the unit."
On Dec. 26, a day late, a grateful Suchowiecki and his comrades enjoyed Christmas dinner, turkey and all the trimmings. His belly full, he snuggled up to a snowbank and slept.
On Jan. 9, in a wooded area, as his unit was being shelled by heavy artillery known as "screaming meemies," Suchowiecki was struck by shrapnel in the left knee.
After three weeks in the hospital, his still-open wound was bandaged, and he was shipped back to the front lines for the final push into Germany.
"We were approaching the Rhine River, and there was no resistance, but all of sudden there were mortar shells and machine gun fire. I got shot in the right leg. The bullet went right through. I also had broken ribs from shrapnel, and there were little pieces of shrapnel through my nose and arms. I didn't get to fire my machine gun."
He was taken to a first-aid station and placed on a jeep with two other wounded soldiers. While recuperating at a hospital in Southampton, word was received the Germans had surrendered.
"Instead of having to go back to my outfit, I was on the first hospital ship back to the United States and landed in Boston," he said.
After his discharge, Suchowiecki discovered that the Army was nothing compared with the discipline at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts.
"You couldn't get married, you had to be in bed by 10 o'clock, and on Saturdays you were allowed out until 11 p.m. That was kind of tough on us older GIs."
Suchowiecki transferred to Fordham University and graduated in 1949 with a bachelor's degree in psychology.
"I was on the baseball team there, and we played Yale, and guess who was the first baseman? George Bush," he said of the first Bush to become president. "Of course, we didn't know who he was, but he did get shot down in the war."
Suchowiecki later enrolled at the University of Buffalo and earned a master's degree in human services before beginning a 41-year career in social work. He has been married to the former Stella Surowka for 65 years, and they raised five children.
"Now I just sit around in retirement and watch the squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits run around the grass," Suchowiecki said. "It suits me OK."
Walter N. Suchowiecki, age 88
Rank: private 1st class
War zone: European Theater
Years of service: 1943-1945
Most prominent honors: 2 Purple Hearts, European Theater Medal
Specialty: light machine gunner, .30 caliber