With time and biology accomplishing what German howitzers and panzers could not seven decades ago, the number of veterans still alive to recall the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, has become an exceedingly small and exclusive club.
One of those is Michael Vernillo, a 96-year-old Burgettstown native now living in Pittsburgh. On Tuesday, he was named a chevalier in the French Legion of Honor at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh as part of 70th anniversary commemorations of the D-Day liberation of France during World War II. Vernillo came ashore in the second wave of Allied troops participating in the invasion and still recalls grisly scenes of dead bodies being swept aside and blood in the water.
“And I couldn’t swim,” he said. “None of us could swim.”
Was he frightened? That goes without saying.
“You had to be, or you wouldn’t make it.”
The number of living witnesses to D-Day, like Vernillo, has dwindled precipitously over the last two decades. But one only has to look through copies of The Washington Observer from the spring of 1944 to understand how all-consuming America’s involvement in World War II had become in the 30 months since Pearl Harbor thrust the country into the conflict.
There are advertisements on how households and merchants should use ration stamps and a rationing calendar is a permanent feature, like the radio schedule and the comics. There are stories on war loan drives and pleas that residents donate blood.
Local moviehouses are screening wartime thrillers like “Days of Glory” and “Escape to Danger,” and daily editions of the newspaper are dotted with photos of fresh-faced veterans, and updates on where they are stationed and if they have been on furlough. Less happily, there are also some stories about families who have received telegrams informing them that their sons or husbands are missing in action or have been killed in battle.
A big local story in early June also revolves around the war – Marco Furcini, 68, ended up being gunned down in the midst of an argument with two miners who were boarders in his Bentleyville home. The exchange started after Furcini complained that America was “no good” following the capture of Rome by Allied forces. When the enraged Furcini began waving a hatchet at his tenants, one of whom was a veteran and both of whom disagreed vehemently with his views on America, he was shot four times.
The headlines on the Observer’s front page that spring kept readers abreast in close detail on the skirmishes that were happening five or six time zones away: “Reds tighten their grip on Sevastapol”; “Allies keep up merciless air pounding; “Gustav Line flank ‘torn to shreds’”; “Nazis retreating on Italian fronts”; “Nazis desperate, but Allies gain.”
And then there’s the headline on the June 6, 1944, extra edition. Displayed in the sort of colossal typeface usually reserved for the most consequential of events, it contained just one word.
The dispatch stated that the Allies forces began landing on the northern coast of France.
“In a special order of the day issued to all soldiers, sailors and airmen under his command, Gen. (Dwight) Eisenhower said: ‘We will accept nothing except full victory,’” the story reported. “Eisenhower told his men they were ‘embarking on a great crusade toward which we have striven these many months’ and warned them that they were facing a tough, well-prepared enemy.”
Considered to be perhaps the most crucial juncture in the European war, D-Day marked the moment when the Allies put their feet on the ground on the continent, freeing France from the stranglehold of the Nazis and starting the inexorable, 10-month march into Berlin that ended Adolf Hitler’s dream of establishing a German dominion from Reykjavik to Vladivostok. Within a month, one million Allied troops landed on the continent.
Though estimates are still inexact and subject to dispute, the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C., says 6,036 Americans were either killed, wounded or vanished during the D-Day onslaught, with the entire Allied death toll hovering around 6,000.
Though it was a time packed with momentous days, D-Day stands out among them. Despite unfolding on a Tuesday, in the heart of the work week, residents in Washington and Greene counties and around the country stopped what they were doing and kept their ears open for radio updates and their eyes fixed to newspapers for the latest word. In Washington, churches threw their doors open so residents could stop by and pray for the success of the operation and loved ones who were taking part.
As vividly depicted in Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan,” the landing was harrowing.
“If being scared made you a good soldier, then I was the best damn soldier in the U.S. Army,” said Tom Miller, a Washington resident, in a 1999 interview with the Observer-Reporter. “I never thought I would survive the war.”
When D-Day unfolded, Miller was a 22-year-old tail gunner on a B-26 bomber. When Miller and his crewmates were in the midst of their second bombing run over Utah Beach, their plane was shot down. It was one of 93 missions he flew in the war, on his way to receiving both a Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. He died in 2007.
Perry Bavera, a 20-year-old from Waynesburg who went on to become Greene County’s chief assessor before dying in 1996, parachuted onto Normandy Beach during D-Day, with orders to clear the ground for the troops that would be following. “We were told, if you hear someone, sound the ‘cricket.’ If you heard one back, it was an American. If you heard nothing, it was (a) German.”
As the casualties mounted around him, Bavera was told by his superiors to stay focused on his own well-being.
In a 1999 interview, Leonard Sanpietro, a North Franklin Township resident who died in 2009, was part of a cadre of troops who landed on Omaha Beach three days after the invasion got under way. Up to his neck in water, he and his fellow soldiers had to sweep aside floating corpses in order to get the beach, where he witnessed yet more carnage.
“The American people don’t know how lucky they are the war didn’t come to America,” he said. “It’s an experience I didn’t want to miss, and it’s an experience that stays in your mind.”