Capital Region

Veterans recall D-Day experiences: ‘You had to keep going’

World War II veteran Joseph Ross, who survived deployment at Omaha beach during the D-Day invasion, is reflected in a display.
World War II veteran Joseph Ross, who survived deployment at Omaha beach during the D-Day invasion, is reflected in a display.

Editor’s note: Julius Boreali of Rotterdam and Joseph Ross of Colonie recalled their D-Day experiences during interviews conducted in spring 2014. This article was published on June 6, 2014, the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

Rotterdam’s Julius Boreali will always remember the big guns at Normandy.

“The Germans were firing at us with the 88s; those were the most fearful guns they had, from pillboxes,” Boreali said of the booming 88 mm anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery weapons. “They fired all day long. Then, the cliffs off Omaha Beach, they had tunnels and they were shooting at us from those tunnels. . . . They had 88s and snipers shooting down on us.”

Boreali was part of D-Day, June 6, 1944 — the bold military action taken by Allied forces on the Normandy coast of France 70 years ago today. Joseph Ross of Colonie was also part of the operation. Both men can tell tales about their roles in history.

The World War II story has been told in books and movies. According to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va., 150,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of fortified French coastline to combat forces from Nazi Germany. More than 5,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft supported the invasion on five code-named beach zones — Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.

By the end of the day, the Allies had gained a foothold in France. But the cost had been high. According to the D-Day Memorial, more than 9,000 Allied soldiers had been killed or wounded in fierce fighting.

Howes Cave native Boreali, now 92, was with the U.S. Coast Guard. He was a ship’s baker, second class, on LST 27 — a “landing ship, tank” that carried a 119-man crew. On June 6, the flat-bottomed ship nicknamed a “floating bath tub” was filled with tanks and men. The destination was Omaha beach, where the first soldiers began fighting at 6:30 a.m.

“We carried the 29th Infantry, the blue and gray division,” Boreali said Thursday. “Plus, we had Army tanks to unload. We couldn’t land on the beach until it was secured, so we laid off the beach probably 500 to 1,000 yards, until the beach was more or less cleared.”

While the ship’s baker spent most of his time making bread and making pies, he also knew about artillery.

“No matter what position you had on the ship, whether you were an electrician or in communications, you all had a battle station,” Boreali said. “I was on a 40 millimeter. So whenever anything went off, you had to go to your gun.”

Ross was with the Army’s 79th Infantry Division, 313th Regiment. His battle station was a spot on Omaha, as a replacement soldier.

Ross, now 88, thinks he was in the second wave of attackers. He remembers the rough waters of the English Channel.

“I’ll tell you how bad that water was,” Ross said. “I was on an English ship and we were eating, about halfway through the channel. Well, the water was so rough that our food slid from one end of the table to the other. That’s how bad it was. We couldn’t even eat.”

On the beach, Ross said, soldiers took their positions.

“I was scared,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I’m laying down at one point and there was a lot of firing going on. An 88 was fired and cut down a tree about 4 inches from my head.”

Soldiers saw the dead and wounded. “You didn’t have much time to think,” Ross said. “You had to keep going — you’ve got to look out for yourself.”

A day to remember

Ross had other frights.

“This is the honest truth, the Germans strafed with small bombs, maybe this big,” he said, holding his hands out wide to hold an imaginary bread box. “An artillery shell came down at my feet and it was a dud. We were all lying down in a ditch because planes were strafing our troops, a bomb came down and it was a dud. The Germans were making a lot of duds.”

Ross saw action in other parts of Normandy. He’s glad D-Day is still remembered.

“I think we did a job on the Nazis, we really did a job on them,” he said. He also reflected on the Allied commanders’ decision to move forward at Normandy.

“It was a good move from Eisenhower,” Ross said of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe. “And getting a date to have it done at the right time and the right place. It’s just too bad the weather was like it was.”

“I think our troops did a wonderful thing,” he added. “It wasn’t easy.”

Ross, who later worked for the former Mica Co. and then as a clerk for the state Department of Taxation and Finance, returned to Normandy for the 60th anniversary of the invasion in 2004.

“It brought back memories,” he said. “I looked in the cemetery and saw some names that I knew there.”

Boreali also remembers the choppy waters of the channel, as small boats from LSTs transported infantry soldiers to land. “Later that day, we landed on the beach with the LST,” he said.

The first soldiers suffered heavy casualties. “The guys that were actually on the beach got slaughtered,” Boreali said. “They were young kids, 18, 19 years old. A lot of our ships got hit.”

There was danger on the water, too. German mines — some hidden underwater — were a great concern.

“I used to walk tippy-toe lots of nights,” Boreali said.

And while Boreali later was close to the action, like Ross he said there wasn’t any time to react to sights and sounds on the beach.

“When you’re in the thick of it, you just go about your business, I guess,” he said. “You were scared — no doubt about it — but somehow you seemed to go along with it. After a while, three or four days later, it kind of affected me. You got kind of nervous all the time.”

Familiar face

Ship crews later picked up dead and wounded soldiers from the beach. Boreali remembers one wounded man who spoke.

“There were four sailors to a stretcher and I was picking this fella up — he was all sandy and stubble — and it was a kid I went to school with. His name was Freddy Wetzel,” Boreali said. “He was from Howes Cave and he recognized me. He said, ‘Hi Julie.’ We graduated from school together. Isn’t that something?”

Once in a while, Boreali said he thinks back to wartime days in the Coast Guard. “Once in a while, I think about it,” he said. “Sometimes with my children — they want to hear war stories.”

Boreali left the Coast Guard in 1946 and worked at the American Locomotive Co. in Schenectady as a repairman. He later held jobs with the Consolidated Cigar Co. and state Department of Agriculture before retiring in 1988.

He stressed he was not a hero during the D-Day operation.

“The heroes are all buried,” he said.

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected]

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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