Thursday, June 6th marked the 75th Anniversary of D-Day (June 6, 1944). The Allied invasion of Normandy, opened up the “Second Front” the Russians had been desperately waiting for before launching their western offensive, thereby catching Fortress Europe in a colossal pincer that would ultimately bring the War to an end in Europe.
The Second World War, like others, often saw brothers risking their lives against a common foe, except in the case of the US Civil War where brothers (usually from “border states”) sometimes wound up fighting against each other, so strong and divisive a force had sectionalism become.
In WW II everyone has heard about the cruel fate of the five Sullivan brothers who lost their lives because all were sailors serving on board the same ship, the USS Juneau, a light cruiser sunk on November 13, 1942.
What to say about the four Ryan brothers: three had already been killed during the War, when D-Day would see a fourth Ryan brother destined for action on the beaches of Normandy. To avoid an American Mother the pain of losing all of her boys in the War, Army Brass sends eight US Rangers on a mission to seek and extract Pvt. James Ryan from the beaches of Normandy before something terrible happens to him. In a magnificent film directed by Stephen Spielberg, we relive the inner struggles of those eight Army Rangers as they track down an unwilling and uncooperative James Ryan amidst the background of the Normandy invasion and heavy German resistance.
Wars are won not only by warriors that die but also by warriors that survive. On this particular D-Day, I wish to remember my step Father and his three brothers all of whom survived D-Day, WW II and in the end returned home safe and sound.
My Dad, Dominic Iezzi, served with distinction as a Sgt. in the US Army Air Force and was sent to England early in the War. The youngest of the four “Iezzi brothers”, he was born in Mamaroneck, New York on February 17, 1921, and was stationed in England near Coventry. Earmarked to become a B-17 gunner, he received training as an airplane mechanic and was assigned to the bomber’s ground crew. Dominic participated in the Air Offensive Europe; Ardennes; Central Europe; Normandy; Northern France; and Rhineland. His awards included a Distinguished Unit Badge; European – African – Middle Eastern Service Medal and Good Conduct Medal. He spent a total of three years plus in the Air Force before returning to civilian life in 1945.
Dad’s older brothers Angelo, Vince and Vito would see action in different theaters of War. Uncle Angelo was in the Army and served with General Patton’s 7th Army from Algeria to Sicily, Anzio, Rome, and North Italy. After the Italian campaign, General Patton would be given command of the US Third Army in France. Naturally, Patton took with him battle-hardened veterans like Uncle Angelo who fought his way across France and Germany. Uncle Vince was in the Navy and on D-Day piloted a landing craft ferrying GIs from his ship to the beaches of Normandy. Towards the end of the day, his landing craft would be blown out of the water and Uncle Vince found himself hurt but alive in the cold icy waters of the English Channel. He somehow managed to survive the night thanks to his life vest which kept him afloat. The following morning he was fished out of the Channel by the Brits nearly frozen, but alive. Uncle Vito was also in the Navy but served in the Pacific.
While my step Father and his brothers did their duty as Americans during WW II and D-Day, my American-born, biological Father, Guido, who happened to be in Italy on June 10, 1940, was recalled and sent to North Africa. My Mother’s brothers Luciano and Nino also saw frontline action. Both were captured and made prisoners of war. Uncle Luciano who served in Germany with the Italian Army was interned after the Italian armistice of 8 September 1943 and spent the rest of the War at Buchenwald the infamous German concentration camp before returning to Italy. His brother Nino was more fortunate. Captured by the Brits somewhere in Africa, he spent the rest of the war in a South African prison camp.
My maternal Grandfather, Giuseppe, was one of those lucky bastards that were of draft age in WW I and still young enough in 1940 to serve again. Grandfather saw action in the high Alps along the Italo-Austrian border in WW I (but that time he was on the “right side”) and again in WW II (where due to his age he was spared frontline action and assigned to the “Home Guard”). Of course, the Home Guard would soon find themselves on the frontlines as Italy became the first Axis power to suffer invasion and defeat by the fall of 1943. To make matters worse, for Italians, the second time around carried the additional stigma of knowing their suffering would be for naught because they were on the “wrong side”!
Circumstance and opportunity sometimes intervene to help decide a man’s destiny. For example, when Germany invaded Poland, my Uncle Primo who spoke five languages was in the Italian Merchant Marine on board the famous Italian Transatlantic Liner, “Rex”. Despite Germany’s invasion of Poland, Italy had remained neutral and the Rex continued to ply the Atlantic and Med back and forth between Genoa and New York well into the spring of 1940. During one of those last Atlantic crossings, Uncle Primo who like my Father Guido was born in the USA decided to claim his native American birthrights. When the Rex left New York for Genoa again on the return leg of Uncle Primo’s last transatlantic crossing, my Uncle was not among the crewmembers. I never asked him how it all panned out but in the end, he wound up staying in New York, where he would meet my Aunt Gaby a beautiful young woman from Hungary and, like him, a multilingual. Uncle Primo enlisted in the US Navy and served in the Pacific during the War.
Now, for those who may not know, the “right” and “wrong” side of Wars is a relatively recent concept. It actually begins with WW I because of the senseless, mass slaughtering of young lives, the flower of European youth. The death toll had been enormous: 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians lost their lives in WW I. European nations would never recover from the huge loss of life and consequently, politicians started looking around for someone to blame. The “right side” naturally blamed the Germans and Austro-Hungarians for starting the War. Unfortunately, something similar would happen on the “wrong side” too.