Dick Duchossois shares lessons learned under fire in WWII

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The memories come back to Dick Duchossois from time to time. 

Stories about World War II he doesn’t necessarily want to hear, to think about — or even remember. 

“But I think, if you’re going to go through life, you have to look at the future,” Duchossois said. “And remember what you learned.”

The chairman of Arlington Park and the Duchossois Group sat in a conference room Sunday as a large Memorial Day weekend crowd filed into the northwest suburban race track he has led since 1985. There he reflected on lessons he learned preparing for, and fighting on, European battlefields 70 years ago. 

When he learned there is no second place. 

About the “etiquette of trust.” 

And how to react quickly — and correctly. 

“Under fire is when you learn,” said Duchossois, 92. “You don’t have time to think. If you have to stop and think if you’re going to shoot that guy or move it, you’re dead before you get an answer. So you have to do it. And you have to train your mind to react. But you have to know how to react. So that’s where the training comes in.”

It was only recently that Duchossois said he began to think about those lessons, and how they’ve affected him decades after his release from active service as a major in 1946. On Wednesday, he plans to join other veterans traveling to France to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

“Some of my men who were under my command are in the cemetery over there in Normandy,” Duchossois said. “And I would like, if it’s not going to be too crowded, I would like to visit their graves.”

Duchossois graduated from Morgan Park Military Academy and attended Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., until he was called to active military service in 1942 and became a company commander in a tank-destroyer battalion. 

He served in five European campaigns, some under Gen. George S. Patton Jr. And while he did not participate in the D-Day invasion, he said he landed at Normandy some time later, when signs of the invasion could still be seen. 

“That’s sort of hard to describe,” Duchossois said. “Most of the towns that we went through were pretty well leveled. There was a lot of equipment scattered all over — tanks, infantry equipment and regular fighting equipment — it was just scattered. You knew there had been a strong battle there.”

Duchossois said he was shot in his side by a German soldier while fighting along the Moselle River in France. 

“I saw the guy,” Duchossois said. “He was faster than I was, so he shot me. Went through my side and came out my back.”

Serving under Patton, though, Duchossois noted that “the faster we moved and the harder we hit and the more surprising we hit, the fewer casualties we had. You push on as fast and as hard as you can.”

“You do the same thing in business,” Duchossois said. “If you’re going after something, you go after it. And you go after it strong and hard. The longer you delay, the more problems you’re going to have later on getting over the same ground.”

Duchossois said his military career taught him discipline, focus, responsibility and competition. Washington and Lee operated on an honor system run by the students, he said, and that taught him to respect others around him.

“You learned how to think and take care of the fellow next to you,” he said, “because you all work together as sort of a team.”

Finally, he said he learned how to make “the right decision in a hurry without having to fumble around.”

“We weren’t talking about dollars and cents and profitability,” Duchossois said. “We were talking about human lives.”

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