Daniel De Francisco doesn’t talk much about what he experienced during the Second World War, but at 89, the memories are still there and still vivid enough to bring tears to his eyes.
De Francisco, a Reeves Park resident for more than 30 years, is one of three surviving WWII veterans who are members of Riverhead’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2476. He, Tony Witetk and Nick DeGrotelle are the last participants there who can share the story of being an individual swept up in an episode of global warfare that each year becomes ever-more-distant history.
De Francisco was 19 when he joined the U.S. military in 1943. He lived in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn at the time. He and his unit, the 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion, were part of the second wave of the assault on Utah Beach during D-Day, June 6, 1944.
“The waters – forget about it. The waters were rough,” he remembered.
The unit was tasked with supporting the infantry. The Germans mounted a counterattack after the battalion hit the beach but were pushed back. De Francisco’s entire battalion was awarded the Silver Star for its part in that effort.
The landing at Utah wasn’t the chaotic scene of carnage that was Omaha Beach, but the memory is painful for De Francisco. It’s where he saw his friend and squad mate, Smitty, killed six feet from him.
He made it through the assault and across France. One memory stands out from that period as particularly haunting. De Francisco’s platoon was moving to another spot on the battlefield when a shell fell off an ammunition truck near him and exploded.
“It was white phosphorous – it burns. So when I reached there I see everybody and their faces were black,” he said. A squad of a half-dozen men had been next to the truck, men from his platoon who he’d slept in the same barracks with, ate with and fought alongside. None survived.
“All the guys were saying, ‘Mama, mama, help me, mama,’ and I felt so bad, you know. Even when I think about it, I get tears.”
The unit pushed into Germany. He paused as he began to describe sporadic fighting throughout the country.
“I get nervous,” he said.
He took shrapnel in the leg during the Battle of Hürtgen Forest in Germany, a long and vicious fight that lost some historical prominence in the shadow of the Battle of the Bulge. De Francisco participated in that contest too. The Germans pushed back a section of American troops who were mostly green recruits, and his unit was again called to stop the enemy advance.
“We went to help ‘em, and we helped ‘em pretty good,” he said.
After the German surrender, his unit had orders to ship to Japan, but that country surrendered before they had a chance to.
DeFrancisco will be honored by the French government for his service there, in a ceremony scheduled for January. In the meantime, he’s looking forward to getting another pin for his VFW hat, one that commemorates the Battle of the Bulge.
As for sharing his memories of one of modern warfare’s most storied struggles, it’s something he prefers to leave in the past.
“We don’t talk about the war,” he said.
RiverheadLOCAL photos by Micah Danney
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