Charles Durning tucked away his D-Day memories 50 years ago. They were so painful he's rarely unpacked them since.

Durning is the only survivor of a unit that landed on Omaha Beach that June 6 in 1944. He holds the Silver Star for valor and three Purple Hearts for wounds he suffered. He was an infantryman, only 17. But so were the German soldiers on the bluffs above, strafing the Normandy beach from concrete bunkers that are still there.

Durning survived the invasion -- he had to kill seven German gunners to do it -- and suffered serious machine gun wounds to his right leg and shrapnel wounds over his body. Later, he was stabbed eight times by another bayonet-wielding German teenager. He killed that soldier with a rock. A few months after that, he was taken prisoner at the Battle of the Bulge, survived a massacre of other prisoners, then had to return to help identify the bodies. A bullet in the chest finally ended his wartime duty.

Durning endured four years of hospitalizations for his physical and psychological wounds. "I'd like to have a decade of my life back," he said. "I dropped into a void for almost a decade. It's your mind that's hard to heal. There are many horrifying secrets in the depths of our souls that we don't want anyone to know about."

Later, Durning found that his brother in the Navy also had been part of the landing.

Operation Overlord deployed the largest naval armada ever assembled: 6,000 ships in a fleet that stretched 20 miles wide carrying troops from the United States, Britain and Canada across the English Channel to five invasion sites at Normandy. The invasion of Omaha Beach was assigned to the United States' 1st Infantry Division, to which Durning belonged, and the untested 29th Division from Maryland and Virginia. More than 70,000 men went ashore on D-Day, 15,000 of them to their deaths.

In recent weeks, Durning has been unpacking his D-Day recollections. During a spring visit to Washington, he discussed his experiences guardedly. Those experiences, along with his familiar television presence, made him an ideal choice to take part in a Memorial Day event and two productions pegged to the 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion.

Sunday evening, Durning will appear at the National Memorial Day Concert to read a letter written by a 19-year-old American soldier describing the horror of that day. Monday at 9, on The Discovery Channel's "Normandy: The Great Crusade," he does the narration and reads a poem written by a 22-year-old paratrooper.

Durning has also taped an account of the invasion by Ernest Hemingway for inclusion in a "CBS Reports" special on D-Day airing Thursday at 9 and hosted by Dan Rather and retired general H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

Durning's colleague from CBS's "Evening Shade," Ossie Davis, will host the 90-minute Memorial Day concert (7:30 on PBS), the fifth produced for that holiday by Jerry Colbert of Pathmakers, Inc., and WETA. This one focuses not only on the soldiers of D-Day but also on the American nurses who served in Vietnam.

In addition to Durning, concert headliners include Grammy-winning country singer Clint Black, who has written a song, "American Soldier," for the occasion; musician Doc Severinsen; actresses Mary McDonnell and Jill Clayburgh, who will read letters written by nurses; singers Harolyn Blackwell and Maureen McGovern; and the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Kunzel with a military chorus doing selections that will include Beethoven's powerful "Ode to Joy."

Brass on board are to include Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; his predecessor, retired general Colin Powell; and the chiefs of each service.

Durning choked up a little while taping his narration for the Discovery documentary. His recitation before thousands of people at the Memorial Day concert could be an emotional challenge. He'll be looking into television cameras, but he asked Colbert not to require him to face the war footage to be shown behind him.

Concert host Ossie Davis will understand. An Army medic stationed in Liberia, he was manning the base radio station in early June 1944 when he faced a military news blackout. He learned about the D-Day landing from the BBC and announced it to the local troops.

It was Davis who was instrumental in securing Durning's appearance at the concert. Reminded over a lunch in April with his wife, actress Ruby Dee, and Colbert that Durning was part of the first wave into Omaha Beach, Davis suddenly realized that his friend would be ideal to read the letter and leaped up to call the sitcom's production office.

Two weeks later, Colbert was in Los Angeles talking with Durning, who had read the script for the concert and agreed to appear. Plans call for him to leave the stage briefly to shake hands with other D-Day veterans in the audience.

"It is a gift he's giving the country," said Colbert. But he also said that Durning admitted recently he was having recurring nightmares about the war.

Like Davis and Colbert, Susan and Christopher Koch, producers of the Discovery documentary, and executive producer Tim F. Cowling thought the same thing: Durning would be perfect. But they nearly missed him. They had contacted his agent, but heard nothing.

"We thought, 'He just doesn't want to have anything to do with it,'" said Susan Koch. "We were into casting the {voices} and his agent called and said, 'Charlie wants to do anything. He'll read one line.' We felt it was meant to be."

It seems that Durning's stepdaughter, as aspiring actress, had seen a copy of the script that had somehow never reached Durning and insisted he read it. After 50 years of suppressed memories, he decided it was what he wanted to do.

"We didn't get an actor, we got a Normandy veteran who happens to be an actor, and that was precisely what the film called for," said Chris Koch.

Two million men fought for more than 12 weeks that summer on the beaches and fields of Normandy, trying to stop Hitler's massive "Atlantic Wall" and drive the Germans out of France. Four hundred thousand combatants died, some in hand-to-hand fighting.

For the actor, doing the narration stirred emotions. A careful listener may catch a tremor in Durning's voice at times during the program.

Durning and Chris Koch talked for several hours beforehand about Durning's experiences. "He said, 'You know, everybody who was there is in some state of denial. There are things I'll take to my grave.'"

Durning was with "The Big Red One," the 1st Division, which went into Omaha Beach with the 29th Division from Maryland and Virginia.

Units that ultimately formed the 29th fought in the American Revolution and both sides of the Civil War (hence its nickname, "The Blue and the Gray"), but unlike most infantry divisions, it was -- and is -- part of the National Guard.

"We picked the 29th because they had never been in combat before," said Chris Koch. "They were trained and selected to go in first."

Durning had the bad luck to go in with them because, said Koch, "he was a real troublemaker in basic training, he said. His CO said, 'Durning, you're going in on the first wave.'"

Among the voices in "Normandy: The Great Crusade" are those of actor Robert Sean Leonard as a Virginia corporal, Robert Sales; Leslie Caron as Marie-Louise Osmont, a widow whose chateau became a German barracks and who kept a diary; Mariel Hemingway as American photojournalist Martha Gellhorn (an ex-wife of Ernest Hemingway, Mariel's grandfather), who landed at Omaha Beach to cover the story and ended up caring for wounded soldiers; and Joanna Pacula as Ursula von Karkoff, an anti-Nazi German whose brothers were required to serve in Hitler's army.

Susan Koch had a special interest in the documentary: Her father, an aerial gunner shot down over Germany, was a prisoner for two years at Stalag 17. The stage and film production of that title was written by men he knew, she said.

"He told me they picked up news of the {Normandy} invasion on crystal sets and they thought their freedom was coming," she said. But it didn't come fast enough. In March 1945, Koch's father finally escaped. Susan was born after his return.

"I remember very clearly being fascinated by his bullet wounds, and I knew he had a Purple Heart," she said. "But I'm from the Vietnam generation, and I think I didn't understand what it meant to go through the war."

Chris Koch was 9 years old in June 1944. "We all sat around and listened to the radio news. My father would move the pins on his map of the battlefield."

In 1955, Koch was biking through Normandy and decided to visit Omaha Beach early one morning. "Then I walked up the hill and it was very foggy and very misty, and I came across this huge cemetery of 19-year-old kids, 20-year-old kids, and I was overwhelmed."

Cowling and Chris Koch visited the American Cemetery again for this film and found the grave of Cowling's uncle, who died at St. Lo and whose widow had never known where he was buried.

Durning went to Normandy once after the war, but didn't want to visit the place where so many of his comrades lay.

"We've had at least five wars since World War II -- Korea, Desert Storm, Panama, Grenada, Vietnam -- and each war is pertinent to only the individual who was there," he said. "I don't know what they went through; they don't know what I went through. Each person fights his own war. Each person is on a one-to-one basis with whoever's opposite him.

"The Normandy invasion was a major part of that war. That war changed history as we knew it. It was the greatest armada that ever hit any country, anywhere, anytime in the history of mankind. No one will ever see anything that enormous again, I don't think."

Durning grew up in Highland Falls, N.Y., near the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His father, an Irish immigrant who had joined the Army to gain U.S. citizenship, lost a leg during World War I and died when Charles was 12. His widow supported her five children by working as a laundress at West Point.

"I never went to college, barely got out of high school," said Durning. "I finished high school when I came out of the Army."

All along, what Durning really wanted to do was act. "I was enamored of acting from the first time I saw 'King Kong,' " he said. "When I saw Cagney, I just went crazy."

At 16, he was working as an usher at a Buffalo burlesque house that featured bawdy comics. "They chose to believe I was 21," he said of the management.

After the war, Durning used dancing as physical therapy to strengthen his badly injured leg and speech therapy to smooth a stutter that had developed. He began training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but was told he lacked talent. So he worked as a dancer and played small roles with Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Company.

A role in Papp's "That Championship Season" on Broadway in 1973 led to one in a film, "The Sting." Durning went on to do more than 70 movies. Nominated for two Oscars and eight Emmys, and the recipient of Golden Globe and Drama Desk awards, he won a Tony as Big Daddy in a 1990 Broadway revival of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Durning views World War II as America's last clear-cut war. "We knew who the bad guy was," he said. "We knew who the black hats were and who the white hats were."

He is concerned about World War II revisionists and about young Americans who are ignorant of the country's history.

"I'm afraid that most of the country doesn't even care," he said. "You start telling war stories and people start looking at their watches and glancing at each other, and nobody really wants to know."

Sometimes he thinks about the loss to the country wrought by war. "Only the flower of our youth, only the best -- the most healthy, the brightest -- are allowed to go," he said. "Think of all the poets, the playwrights, the philosophers, the scientists, the statesman that were lost."