Wick Column: June 6, 1944 was an extraordinary day

June 6, 1944, D-Day, is a day that fundamentally changed history and pointed America, and all of Europe, in an entirely new direction. World War II had gone on for nearly five years prior to that day. Because of the massive events orchestrated on that day, the war in Europe came to a close 11 months later. 

That morning, along a 50-mile stretch of beach in northwest France, all heavily fortified by the Germans, Allied troops landed to begin the invasion of Europe. Under the direction of the Allied Supreme Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the D-Day landing was one of the largest military actions in history.

Because of its success, it was the beginning of the end for the Nazi regime in Berlin. It was Gen. Eisenhower’s finest achievement in a stellar military career. In 1952, seven years after the war ended, he would be elected president of the United States, bringing character, decency and real accomplishment to the White House.

There are, of course, other days in our history that loom large — Sept. 11, 2001, will always be acknowledged and those who lost their lives that day honored. But in the 20th century, there is nothing that compares to D-Day, and on Thursday, June 6, 2019, its 75th anniversary is being celebrated with events in the United States, on the beaches of Normandy and in a number of European capitals.

President Trump began his state visit to London Monday morning on a low note: he referred to the city’s mayor as a “stone cold loser.” Seems like an odd way to begin a somber memorial for the thousands of Allied soldiers who gave their lives on the Normandy beaches as the sun rose on the morning of June 6.

I reached out to a number of organizations in preparation for writing this column to see if there was a D-Day veteran among us. I had no luck. World War II veterans nationwide are said to be fewer than 450,000, with perhaps 30,000 in New York State.

I interviewed two men — Irving Pittman of Southold and Albert Vicarelli of Cutchogue — who served in World War II and saw considerable action. Mr. Pittman is 102; Mr. Vicarelli is 93. Mr. Pittman fought with the U.S. Army in Italy; Mr. Vicarelli served on the USS Indiana in the Pacific Theater.

In the final year of the war with Japan, Mr. Vicarelli witnessed ships ablaze after kamikaze strikes. One Japanese pilot crashed just before hitting the Indiana, but came so close that Mr. Vicarelli could see his face. Both men are living quiet lives on the North Fork, and both have impressive stories to tell that should be remembered as we celebrate the D-Day anniversary and the extraordinary contributions of what has been called the greatest generation.

Mr. Vicarelli was 17 when he enlisted. He did not finish high school. By 1944 he was aboard the battleship Indiana leaving safe harbor in Washington State for the fighting in the South Pacific as American troops fought, island to island, making their way closer to Japan. The Indiana arrived in Pearl Harbor at the end of 1944, where it joined a battle group to protect America’s aircraft carriers and set out to engage the Japanese.

“Almost from day one we were under attack,” he said. “We’d see 30 to 40 Japanese planes attacking our ships. Always low in the water, full speed, trying to hit our ships and sink them. There was always the cry onboard the ship of ‘battle stations’ and ‘general quarters’ as kamikaze planes were sighted coming in.

“One day two destroyers got hit,” he remembered. “One was sunk. I remember one kamikaze came in so close I could see his face and his white scarf. He hit the water right next to us.”

Albert Vaicarelli in 2017 sharing a picture of troops from his time in the service. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

He remembers the day in March 1945 when an aircraft carrier, the USS Franklin, was struck by Japanese planes 1,000 yards from the Indiana. More than 800 Americans lost their lives. “I am standing on the Indiana crying my eyes out,” he said. “So many of our guys died.”

Mr. Pittman is a soft-spoken, engaged man whose memories of serving in the U.S. Army in Italy remain strong. He grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Tufts University’s dental school. From there, he joined the Army. He landed in Naples in July 1944, a month after the D-Day invasion, a newly minted Army captain.

He set up a dental clinic for soldiers in Florence in a railroad station built by Mussolini. On Memorial Day this year, Mr. Pittman proudly participated in the Southold Town parade in Greenport.

“Remembering our soldiers and what they have done is very, very important,” he said one afternoon in his Southold apartment.

In his talks to the soldiers who would land at Normandy, Gen. Eisenhower told them the eyes of the world were upon them. He told them they had to succeed — a failed invasion would have extended the war in Europe by at least another year, perhaps longer.

He had organized a massive effort: some 5,000 ships and landing craft, supported by 11,000 aircraft. Approximately 156,000 Allied soldiers landed at Gold, Juno, Sword, Utah and Omaha beaches at Normandy.

Four thousand died. That first wave of soldiers arriving on the beaches was extremely costly in human lives. These men of course knew this would be the case. No one stepped off those landing craft without knowing what lay ahead.

Just five days later, 326,000 troops had landed, along with 50,000 vehicles and 100,000 tons of equipment.

In that first wave of American soldiers landing at Utah Beach was Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the Long Island-born son of the former president. He was among the very first to step onto the beach. He died a month later, in July, of an apparent heart attack.

There is much to be remembered on this 75th anniversary, and the selfless actions of those soldiers who landed at Normandy that morning is among the most heroic stories in our history. They also speak to leadership, honor and courage, something we all need to be reminded of at this time in our experiment in democratic government.

Top caption: Troops land at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Steve Wick is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected]