Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, over 400,000 did not return home, but Vincent Cerniglia did.
More than 4,400 men died during the D-Day invasion, or the first day the Allies invaded Normandy, but Cerniglia lived.
Around 29,000 American men died in the Normandy invasion, but Cerniglia wasn’t one of them.
The average life expectancy for American men was 76.4 years in 2014, but on Sunday, Cerniglia defied the odds once again and celebrated his 100th birthday.
Cerniglia was born in Schenectady on Dec. 6, 1915 and was drafted into active service in the United States Army on June 27, 1943 at the age of 27.
Cerniglia said he never served as a private, and was the acting corporal of 69 “selectees.”
“I was their leader,” he said. “I climbed up the ranks. I was acting first sergeant. I earned the stripes I wear on my arm.”
The local World War II veteran is decorated with several awards, including the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, the Bronze Star and the Presidential Unit Citation with three service stars.
To recognize his bravery and to celebrate his centennial, the state Assembly gave Cerniglia an American flag that was flown over the state Capitol and a citation to officially honor his service.
Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, gave Cerniglia the flag and citation on behalf of the state Assembly in his room at the Glendale Nursing Home in Glenville on Sunday afternoon.
“It’s an honor to have a hero like you in the county,” Santabarbara told him.
“Happy birthday — we are so happy to have shared it with you and are so proud to give you this,” the assemblyman added while shaking Cerniglia’s hand.
“You are being honored as the greatest generation,” Robert Shave, the commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars for Schenectady-Schoharie Counties, told Cerniglia.
James “Jim” Wilson, the former district commander for VFW Post 357, has a connection with Cerniglia through marriage, and shares a birthday with his fellow veteran.
Cerniglia’s sister married Wilson’s brother, who also fought in D-Day and lived.
“We’re veterans-in-law,” Wilson said with a chuckle. “Here is a man who lived through what so many did not, and led a great life afterward taking care of people.”
While stroking the embroidered stars on the nation’s flag and with his citation in his lap, Cerniglia’s eyes welled with tears.
“I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this,” Cerniglia said. “You have made a new veteran out of me.”
Cerniglia was honorably discharged from the service Dec. 19, 1946, and after returning home to Schenectady, he worked as an engineer for General Electric for decades and says he was chief of auxiliary police in the city for over 30 years.
“I’ve known Vince for 50 years, and he was a fine police chief and worker,” Shave said. “He was a good friend and citizen, but an even better veteran. He was always there for you.”
Cerniglia has lived at the local facility for the past year and a half and his daughters, Janet and Marilyn, take turns visiting and caring for him every day.
The family held a birthday celebration Saturday night for Cerniglia together with his seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
“Dad didn’t talk about the war much growing up,” said Janet Shave, who was with her father on Sunday. “He’s started to share more as the years have gone on, and it has meant so much knowing he was one of so many in World War II to sacrifice for all of us.”
Cerniglia said he was injured in the service twice, has now suffered two heart attacks and strokes, is legally blind and is hard of hearing, but his milestone birthday doesn’t make him feel differently.
“Being 100 feels the same,” he said before enjoying his favorite lunch of spaghetti and meatballs. “I don’t know why, but the good Lord has kept me alive.”
Cerniglia said he was married to the love of his life, June Fitzpatrick Cerniglia, for 73 years before she died in 2013.
“She would have turned 100 too, in June, if she were living — God bless her soul,” Cerniglia said. “She took such good care of me all my life.”
If it wasn’t for his wife, Cerniglia said he wouldn’t be the person he is today.
“I struggled with my memories of the war for a long time,” Cerniglia said. “I often had spells from the combat. They put veterans like me on medication for that in those days, but my wife took care of me through it all. I loved her so much.”
Cerniglia said he hopes the flag he was given will fly outside the Glendale nursing home.
“When we moved to this new building a year and a half ago, it was Flag Day, and I noticed there was no flag up,” Cerniglia recalled. “That made me mad, so I called my local assemblyman and he said it would be addressed at the next meeting.”
Of the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack on Monday, Cerniglia said he hopes people don’t blame certain racial groups.
“It’s wrong to blame the Japanese people or the German people for what happened,” Cerniglia said Sunday. “They’re good people, and a lot weren’t treated nicely for things that weren’t their fault.
“I hope the United States would be alert to not do that again,” he added.
Cerniglia said he has a deep love for the nation he fought for 70 years ago.
“I love my country,” Cerniglia said. “I fought for the USA, and if I was young enough, I’d do it again.”