Greenville man remembers storming the beach on D-Day
06/05/2013 8:07 PM
03/14/2015 5:47 PM
Tony Scachetti lives the retirement-home life of so many still living among the Greatest Generation, where the veil of age and infirmity obscures tales of suffering and triumph that defy the imagination.
Hawaiian music plays in the hallway outside the 91-year-old widower’s apartment.
Posted in the elevator is a calendar detailing the activities available to the residents of Haywood Estates today, June 6.
The morning will start with “Move It or Lose It” exercise, Tai Chi Chih and “Dining Room Trivia,” followed in the afternoon by Mexican Train Dominoes, “Dog Therapy,” the “Happy Stitchers” group and a daily walk before supper.
Bingo brings it to a close.
For Tony, today is much more.
This is D-Day.
On this day 69 years ago, Tony –– elderly, bespectacled, his golf shirt tightly buttoned to the top, sharp both in his recollections and in his philosophies on the nature of humanity and war — led an Army platoon that stormed the shores of Normandy.
He fought alongside friends. He saw their bodies torn apart. He rescued some left behind enemy lines. And, near the end, he prayed that someone would have the fortitude to rescue him.
The fate of World War II and the course of modern history depended upon the actions of men born into his time.
The New England native is among about one-sixteenth of America’s World War II veterans who are still alive today — 16 million who served, the federal government says, have dwindled to an estimated 1.7 million.
There are no reliable figures for how many veterans of the D-Day invasion are alive today.
First-hand accounts are swept away daily in the tide of time’s passage.
You can’t ask a dead soldier if he considers himself a hero.
But, as Tony Scachetti sees it, they are the only ones who exist.
Despite the three Purple Hearts and two Bronze Star medals the military awarded him for his actions in the battles following the D-Day invasion, Tony got to keep his life. From the time he stormed the beach until war’s end, he lost the equivalent of a 30-man platoon.
“To me, the ones that are heroes are the ones that died, not us guys that made it,” he says. “They’re the ones who should be eulogized — not us guys, decrepit, walking around.”
Tony agrees to share his story only because there are beginning to be so few left to tell them.
From his bedroom, Tony pulls out a collection of loose-leaf notebook paper and writings scribbled on the back of a flyer for Catholic radio — all held together by a single paperclip with nearly as many blank pages as those filled with the abbreviated accounts of the first half of his life.
The first page reads only: “Hitler Wanted: Lebensraum (Living Space).”
The pages that follow are abstracts — both prosaic and absorbing — of the part he played as leader of an Army platoon on a day when no one knew for sure how much a free world relied on their success as the landing craft came to shore and the doors flung open toward an enemy waiting on high ground with machine guns and artillery shells.
Tony says he put the details into writing for his two daughters or anyone else who might care once he’s gone.
The life he describes — in writing and in conversation — is one not of a hero but of a person born into a specific time with a clear purpose and events that offered crystal clear choices.
Tony was born in a rural area of Leominster, Mass., two months premature and weighing only two pounds, to Italian immigrant parents, his mother from Naples, his father from Rome.
The Great Depression left the family struggling to get by. Jobs were hard to come by. Through government assistance, his father worked for three days a week, sharing the remaining three days with another worker as part of the employment program.
At the same time across the Atlantic, Hitler was inflaming the passions of a country suffering the same economic catastrophe.
In June 1940, Tony graduated high school and went to work for a construction company before joining the National Guard four months later. The Guard brought work on the weekends, and he sent the money home.
Two months later, following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the guardsmen were told they were in the Army now.
Tony’s first service in the war was guarding the coast of Saco, Maine, (the namesake of Saco Lowell, the textile company that brought him to Easley in 1958 as an accountant and kept him in the Upstate).
The government feared German spies and saboteurs could land ashore at night, so an order was issued that all lights were to be blacked out from the beaches to six miles inland.
Tony says his patrol spotted a U-boat off the coast of Maine. An attack was launched, but the shells merely bounced off the metal frame. Otherwise, his group found young couples making out on the forbidden beach and took them to the FBI to be cleared.
During that time, he was in charge of invoices for maintenance supplies. At the inland hardware store, he met a fellow Italian bookkeeper, Florence. The two were engaged on New Year’s Day 1943 and married the following September.
Florence passed away in 2003.
During their engagement, Florence’s father asked Tony why he would want to marry his daughter with the possibility of dying in battle and leaving her a widow. Tony says he checked with his colonel, who told him he expected Tony’s division to stay at home.
Five days into the couple’s honeymoon in New York, Tony was told to return to service and was shipped to New Jersey to train new soldiers arriving from Texas and Oklahoma. Though he was only hours away from Maine, he couldn't see his wife.
In March 1944, Tony was shipped to Liverpool, England. There he was told he couldn't leave and was training for an invasion into France.
Waiting to attack
The Allies had spent great effort deceiving the Germans into believing they would invade the Pas de Calais, the shortest distance across the English Channel, north of Normandy.
To protect the date of the invasion, the Allies called it D-Day, which official Army historical documents say “carried no implications of any sort.”
Tony was a platoon sergeant assigned to the 4th Infantry Division under the leadership of Brigadier Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr.
The 4th Infantry’s job would be to land on “Utah Beach,” the farthest west beach of Normandy and next to “Omaha Beach,” the subject of “Saving Private Ryan” and the scene of the heaviest U.S. casualties.
The objective was to take Utah and meet airborne troops inland who had dropped down earlier in the night to take on the Germans from behind.
They would then march to the port city of Cherbourg where the Allies would clear booby traps and create a landing point to support the campaign across France.
In the dark of June 4, Tony and his men were loaded into assault boats and headed across the English Channel to Normandy, but Gen. Dwight Eisenhower called off the attack because of poor weather.
The men were required to stay on the boat until the weather cleared. The men were sick, toilets overflowed.
“If they had to, they were glad to walk across the channel just to make the invasion,” Tony says. “That’s how bad it was. We were not concentrating on what we’re going to feel or what we’re going to be up against. None of us knew — until the day that front ramp dropped and we jumped into the water.”
The early morning of June 6, the attack was launched. Tony and his men crawled down nets into landing craft, wearing heavy equipment.
The landing was off the mark, by about 1¼ miles to the south of the original plan and into a marshy area. However, the landing point proved to be navigable for soldiers, Tony says.
The efforts of airborne troops during the night had taken its toll on the Germans and hurt the enemy’s ability to hold the beach. The landing at Utah suffered relatively light casualties, about 200 compared to thousands the government estimates on Omaha.
One particular image Tony remembers is that of a German artillery shell landing in a nearby American craft, blowing it and its occupants to pieces.
Nevertheless, by nightfall the Utah force had advanced five miles inland.
The rest of the battle on the march to Cherbourg would continue for weeks through the troublesome hedgerows.
“From that moment on, it was a day-by-day thing,” Tony says.
Tony says he didn't have much time to think about getting home to the wife he had barely seen, like so many of his men.
“They were fleeting moments because other things took over,” Tony says. “They had their fear, but they had a job to do and they did it. There’s something to do more than worrying about being scared. We felt that we had a purpose.”
The matter of his survival is, ironically, he says, being in the right place at the right time — and the right time in terms of life and death for a soldier could be the difference between five and 10 seconds.
Over the two days after taking the beach, Tony and his men repulsed a German attack on their perimeter (Tony drew a sketch of the attack in his writings).
A number of men were wounded and were left behind because they couldn't walk. They were left in a ditch next to a hedgerow and hidden beneath brush and leaves. Later that night, Tony was among 10 soldiers who volunteered to go behind enemy lines and rescue the men on stretchers.
A month into fighting, Tony suffered a small gash on his cheek, then two weeks later, he was returned to the hospital after shrapnel lodged in his ankle and kept to have his tonsils taken out.
Tony’s closest brush with death came that winter.
In December 1944, Tony and a group of his men found themselves cut off in a German bunker. A fog settled in that morning when the soldiers heard a noise in the brush.
They turned their guns toward the sound. Tony then saw a silhouette through the fog, of a person raising his hand.
“I thought, ‘This looks like somebody throwing a Coke bottle,” he says.
The grenade landed in the bunker and Tony ducked. Two men near him were killed. The shrapnel lodged in his back and jaw and split his lip (the shrapnel was removed in 1975).
He was loaded into an ambulance under heavy fire.
Tony says he heard the driver tell another soldier to drop the wounded and leave them, “because they’re going to die anyway and no one will know.”
The soldier responded by telling the driver that he would “drop you with my gun if you do that,” Tony says.
Tony had survived what would be the last of his close calls with death.
The timing of the grenade attack had fallen three days before the famed Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s failed desperate counter-attack that inflicted the heaviest U.S. casualties of the war.
As the ambulance drove him to the hospital, Tony says he looked through the back window and caught a glimpse of the Arc de Triomphe — the landmark in Paris where all military victories both French and foreign invader have been celebrated throughout history.
Five months later, Tony was stationed in Prague, Czechoslovakia, when news of Germany’s defeat spread.
There, the specter of the Cold War loomed: Tony remembers an arch in Prague that welcomed Americans on one side in English and the Soviets on the other side in Russian, with military police blocking passage on either side between the two.
However, Tony would fight no more wars. The next day, he was sent home, traveling on a destroyer across the Atlantic to New Jersey, accepting a discharge to be home with his wife for the first time.
For 60 years they remained together.
It’s a story Tony would much rather tell.
On some other day, as he helps handle finances for Prince of Peace Catholic Church where he and his wife attended daily mass together (and he still does today).
How his wife cared for him, gave him generations of children and battled valiantly against cancer before succumbing.
Another hero in his midst.
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