Service to Country, and Now to His Wife of 70 Years
Henry Pelak won’t go into too much detail, except to acknowledge that one of the fallen that day died in his very arms, and that he witnessed untold others meet a similar fate on the same beach that historic morning.
It was June 6, 1944, and Henry, just 19, was among the first ashore as part of the largest amphibious assault ever conducted. Along with some 156,000 other Allied forces, he was storming a 50-mile-wide section of Normandy, France, in what will be remembered as one of the bloodiest campaigns during World War II – D-Day.
“We hit the shore at exactly 6:30 a.m.,” Henry recalled. “There was no one in front of us. Only two of our boats survived, five sailors in each boat, so just 10 of us.”
“A lot of action…yes…and it’s tough to even talk about. So very sad and terrible.”
More than 4,400 Allied troops died in the attack on five German-fortified beaches, and estimates of enemy casualties ranges between 4,000 and more than 9,000. The invasion included some 13,000 Allied aircraft supported by more than 5,000 seagoing vessels.
Henry grew up on Grand Rapids’ West Side, attending Sacred Heart Catholic Elementary School before graduating in 1942 from Union High School. After being drafted into the Navy, where he served three years, he re-enlisted for another two. While stationed in Europe, he met wife Erna in Vienna, and they had four children together – Joan, Bill, Doris and Ken.
The family lived in Grand Rapids, where Henry put in the better part of four decades in the tool & die trade. He worked at Jarecki Corporation, Reynolds Metals, and concluded his career teaching apprentices at the General Motors plant on 36th Street SW.
He and Erna recently celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary, and for more than two years, Henry has dedicated his Encore to caring for her as she has become more and more homebound. Daughter Joan lives with her parents and pitches in as well.
The trio makes their home on a quiet street corner on the Upper West Side, where in warm months Henry sets out a sign announcing golf balls for sale. He’s been doing it for more years than he can count.
The balls come to him from friends who frequent the game, and know that he enjoys making a few bucks here and there on the re-sale. He used to charge $2.50 a dozen, but just reduced the price to $2, because, in his words, “I wanted to make sure they would go.”
He offers the balls in recycled egg cartons, and trusts buyers to put money into a small metal box that is not tethered down in any way. Henry says he’s never been stiffed, and in fact, more often than not realizes that buyers are tipping him more than what he asks.
“If somebody needed golf balls that badly and just took ‘em, that wouldn’t bother me one bit,” says Henry, “because it’s more the case that people will leave a little more. If they know you’re doing something they think is fair, they’re more likely to be fair with you.”
Daughter Joan calls her father “one of a kind…a jewel,” describing him as “always upbeat and always with a positive attitude. He still drives, and in fact does all of our shopping at Aldi’s and Walgreens.”
When asked what the secret is to his long life – Henry turned 93 on July 24, 2017 – he thinks for a moment and then answers that “Being thankful for what you have,” noting that “Going through the Depression, you learn to be grateful for whatever comes your way. Eight years of tough times makes you a better person, hopefully. At least it did for me. I’ve never been fussy about the food I’m eating, or anything else, for that matter.”
His purpose in life is faith-driven, and considers others at its core: “For me, it’s all about helping others,” says Henry. “Take care of yourself, and if you’re blessed and fortunate enough to be able to do things, then the first thing to consider is how you can make other people happy.”
Then with a smile, he adds this: “And don’t sweat the small stuff.”