It was 3:30 p.m. on a summer Saturday afternoon a few years ago at the Gateway Theater in Austin, and an almost full auditorium watched spellbound as the dramatic beach battle scene of "Saving Private Ryan" portrayed the most famous military operation in Europe during World War II.
For most, it was an image of war they could only imagine.
Little could they have known that sitting in their midst was one of the 10 most decorated veterans of World War II--a man who fought in every battle in Europe, was awarded the Silver Star with four clusters, as well as France's highest honor given to a non-Frenchman--the Croix de Guerre.
The accuracy of the movie has been heralded. The passion of the film is immense. The awesome sound of the battle is real.
Frank Denius knows.
He was there.
Denius, who is chairman of the Veterans' Stadium Committee which is charged with the preservation of the reason Texas Memorial Stadium was dedicated and rededicated, was a senior staff sergeant on June 6, 1944, when he landed on Omaha Beach. He was a field artillery forward observer, which meant he was out there in front. It was his job to find the highest point, direct artillery shells, and verify the hits.
It was not your summer vacation to France.
On the beach at Normandy, Denius' unit was rushed into action after the 116th regiment of the 29th infantry landed and took 80 percent casualties. Of the 91 men under Denius' charge, 40 percent would not survive the war.
But that was only the beginning.
Denius would earn five battle stars, fighting in every battle in Europe. He was part of the 30th Infantry, the 120th regimental combat team and the 230th Field Artillery Battalion.
Hooking up with troops that landed on Utah Beach, Denius' unit moved inland, and on the 25th day of July they broke through the German lines at St. Lo. Through the hole that they blasted, Gen. George Patton's Third Army came charging, and made the legendary "end run" to Paris.
The success would be short lived though.
"War is like football," said Denius, whose generosity has provided the Longhorn practice fields and numerous awards to high school scholars--both athletically and academically. "You may have a good game plan, but you have to be ready to adjust."
Still, adjusting alignments and blocking schemes are much simpler than the task Denius and the 120th regiment faced at a town called Mortain. On August 6, 1944, 700 American soldiers were surrounded by five German divisions--roughly 70,000 men.
"We were to hold at all costs," said Denius, whose Texas roots made it easy. "It was World War II's version of the Alamo."
For six days, the Germans pounded the town. Denius' artillery, just 10 miles away, was set to fire artillery shells into the Germans to advise their surrender. Now it was the Germans who were demanding surrender from the Americans. They were out of medical supplies. People were dying. Denius changed the game plan.
He ordered his artillery shells reloaded with cotton and gauze and medical supplies, and then--for the first time in the history of war--he directed the shelling on himself. It worked. By the sixth day of the siege, Eisenhower sent air support and the battalion was freed.
Of the 700, only 155 survived.
Denius would go on to earn two more of his Silver Star clusters--one when he was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, and another in Germany.
After the war in Europe ended, Denius rushed back to Texas. He had left Athens only two years, thousands of miles and millions of memories before. He had been trained at the Citadel, where he was a punter on the football team when freshman became eligible, and had enrolled at The University of Texas for three weeks before his unit was shipped overseas.
On October 31, 1945, he was back in school in Austin.
He became a tremendous Longhorn football fan, and hasn't missed a home game since coming back. He spent many games on the Longhorn bench cheering for his team from the sidelines when Darrell Royal was head coach, and is at almost every Longhorn practice on the fields which bear his name today.
An attorney by trade, he has dedicated a great portion of his life to young people with the many scholarships he has created. He is also dedicating another part of his life to the memory of the Veterans of all wars who will be honored this Veterans Day, and will be recognized Saturday in the stadium.
His dream is a memorial park on the north side of the stadium, honoring those who fought in all wars as United States soldiers.
Almost 60 years since those days that changed the world forever, Frank Denius watches young people playing a game and fans cheering them on. Perhaps the greatest irony comes when he listens to the experts talk about how difficult it is for a freshman to play this game of college football.
For as he sat alone in that theater, with the sound of the shells from 1,000 battle ships and 2,500 airplanes, Frank Denius was young again.
In fact, he was 18--which is exactly how old he was when he earned those medals as a Senior Staff Sergeant in the Army of The United States of America.