D is for Day

To mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day this week, Daily Nutmeg is publishing a four-part series examining New Haven’s impact on World War II—and vice versa.

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Sergeant Anthony D. Brangi of New Haven called D-Day on Omaha Beach “the one I’ll remember the rest of my days as the roughest of my 27 months overseas.”

“Ten minutes after H-Hour on D-Day at Normandy was the start of the worst combat action I ever saw in my 25 months overseas,” First Sergeant Stearns B. Root of West Haven agreed.

Corporal William Pacelli of New Haven recalled the battle as his “baptism of fire.” He landed on the beach at “D plus 9 [nine days later] to haul infantry up forward. There was still plenty of shells landing on the beach when we came in and I thought that every shell had my name on it.”

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Today marks the 75th anniversary of the colossal battle that, in hindsight, is seen as the beginning of the end of World War II. “FRANCE INVADED / BEACHHEAD WON,” the New Haven Evening Register proclaimed in a giant banner headline that consumed the top third of the front page on June 6, 1944. News of the long-awaited invasion was first broadcast at 3:32 a.m. Eastern time, according to a CBS radio recording, and reached New Haven in time to make the evening newspaper. The operation, named Overlord, was “the largest air, land and sea operation undertaken before or since,” according to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation. It required more than 5,000 ships, 11,000 airplanes and over 150,000 troops. While the newspaper’s “beachhead won” claim was a bit premature, ultimately the Allies prevailed.

At home in New Haven, mayor John W. Murphy implored New Haveners to “go quietly about their duties, redoubling their efforts to speed the goods of war to our fighting men” and called for “periods of quiet prayer for the safety of our men and the success of Allied arms” rather than any “mass gathering or hastily devised group action” to mark the long-awaited invasion, as reported by the Evening Register.

Meanwhile, many New Haveners were overseas in the thick of the action. Some of those who survived later told their stories for a series of commemorative booklets released by the Office of the Governor in 1945-46, an effort to collect veterans’ stories before they faded. “To record here and now the mood, impressions, the exciting events, of the worse [sic] days and of the best days, is the purpose of these stories,” reads an Editor’s Note on the first page of every booklet.

First Sergeant Root recalled, “Within 12 hours [of the start of D-Day] we lost our CO, our division engineer captain, our recon­naissance officer and 20 per cent of our en­listed strength. All of it was due to mortars, mines and artillery. I laid on the beach with the rest of my outfit for six straight hours pinned down under the heaviest enemy fire possible. The worst part of it all was you couldn’t see one German who was firing at you.”

Air Force photographer Fleming Vigorito of New Haven felt the news media “played the whole show up mildly. There was no turning back for those boys once they hit the shore.” As a photographer, it was his job to record the action. “I’ll never forget the bulldozer below us making a long common grave for our dead,” he later reported.

Staff Sergeant John Brenner of New Haven was among the first to arrive on the battlefield in Normandy, three days before the offensive began. “I landed with five other guys in a glider at Carentan, France,” he recounted. “The glider dropped into a treetop and the six of us had to slide out and drop to the ground. A hot reception was waiting for us but plenty of fighter planes helped us out. And there were plenty of guys to be helped out, too. The sky was all but black with invasion gliders. I never got hit although I fought on behind the German lines for 48 hours before we made contact with the first patrol from the beach.”

William G. Bachinski of West Haven arrived nine hours after the fighting began. “The invasion of Normandy was the most exciting adventure I had in the war,” he recalled. “We were the first LST [landing ship tank] ordered to hit the beach but we had to wait until evening because the waters were well mined and the sweepers had to clear them. We landed the troops okay and took back 306 German prisoners. Many of the prisoners were wounded and I, as a pharmacist mate, had to treat them. We suffered many air attacks on the way back across but Lady Luck was with us and we made it back to England in perfect shape.” His story reveals a glimmer of the humanity of the enemy: “I often wonder how some of the prisoners we took back were expected to fight for some of them were badly underfed and others were just kids.”

One unexpected barrier met by American invaders was the French hedgerows, which Staff Sergeant James J. Coyle of New Haven described as “thick and knotted.” When he arrived on Omaha Beach on June 7, “The fur was still flying… and we lost heavily on the beach before we could work our way inland.” His machine gun squad found the hedges “so thick that it was tough to direct the fire of our heavy 50s [50-caliber guns] through the growth. We soon developed some tactics and would follow the tanks through a hole in the rows and take up positions on the flanks. We used this stunt until we broke out below Saint-Lô.”

When Private First Class Peter M. Vitelli of West Haven arrived 21 days after the start of the invasion, “there wasn’t much action, just some shellfire and light enemy air bombings.” It was his job to rebuild train tracks and bridges. “It was rough sleeping on the ground. The cigarette shortage there was also tough.”

According to research done by the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, 2,499 American troops and 1,914 troops from other Allied nations were killed on D-Day, but the exact number may never be known. “Too many of the invaders went missing, and too many other priorities on the chaotic French beaches that day crowded out the task of recording casualties,” writes data-crunching website FiveThirtyEight in an interview with Carol Tuckwiller, the research librarian who took on the Herculean task of attempting to document every D-Day loss for the foundation.

The term “D-Day” is a generic military term used to conceal specific details; D is for Day, as in the day on which an operation is slated to begin. There were many D-Days before the invasion of Normandy and there have been many since. But in the annals of history, June 6, 1944, is the D-Day—the one that turned the tide of a world war, and of a world.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, a “bird’s-eye view of landing craft, barrage balloons, and allied troops landing in Normandy, France on D-Day,” photographed for the US Maritime Commission and retrieved from the Library of Congress. Image 2, of books in Ives Main Library’s local history room, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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