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World War II

D-Day veteran: 'We went so many places'

American D-Day veteran Daniel DeFrancisco's WWII experiences went well beyond Operation Overlord. The 89-year-old tells DW about England, France and Germany as he saw them on his only trip to Europe - 70 years ago.

Daniel DeFrancisco's battle experience began at age 19 on Utah beach in Normandy on the morning of June 6, 1944. Over the next few months, he and his unit, the 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion, would continue through France, cross the border into Germany and fight numerous battles that later became known as the Battle of Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge.

Hürtgen Forest, Westwall

A German bunker in Hürtgen Forest, the site of the longest single battle fought by American forces in history

"We just happened to be among the trees," DeFrancisco recalled of the Hürtgen Forest. "And as the Germans were firing at us, there happened to be a little log cabin. You know, a small cabin, a homemade one."

With shells bursting in the treetops, DeFrancisco and a half-dozen artillery men took shelter in the cabin.

"[The shrapnel] hit the log and went into my leg, in the back. Otherwise, if the log wasn't there, it probably would've gone through my whole leg. So that protected me from really having a bad accident."

'All by myself'

The cabin incident in Hürtgen Forest was just one of many where Daniel came close to dying. On Utah beach, a shell struck his friend's foxhole six feet away. "Yeah, he got killed, he got hit by a shell."

In another near-miss, Daniel was alone in a US army vehicle in France when an American P-47 fighter plane flew overhead.

In a black-and-white photograph, US soldiers carry exhausted comrades up the beach.

Daniel's task was to provide mortar cover for infantry soldiers as they pushed into German-held territories

"They shot at me with those 50-caliber bullets," he said, "and boy was I scared." He then scrambled out and placed an orange flare atop the canopy - a sign to the pilot that he was American. "Maybe there were Germans around, but I don't know. I was there all by myself."

As American forces pushed into Germany's Rhineland, two extra artillery squads joined Daniel's own, along with an ammunition truck. When a shell detonated inside the truck, the nearby soldiers - "our boys, our friends" - were sprayed with burning white phosphorous, a chemical agent used for smokescreens.

"I ran over to them, and I looked on the ground. There they were, about 10 guys. They were all burnt, all in the face. All they were saying was, 'Mama, mama, mama.' That's all they were saying. I felt so sorry for them, you know."

Beautiful places

World War II was Daniel DeFrancisco's only trip to Europe. In France, he and other soldiers were granted three days' leave to visit Paris. "It was beautiful there. We went into the Eiffel Tower. We went up there. And it was wonderful, wonderful."

While training for the D-Day invasion in Plymouth, he was also able to visit London. "Beautiful place, beautiful. You know, they really bombed England, they made a mess out of it. It's a shame."

Between the fighting, the parts of Germany he was able to see were nearly deserted.

"I don't know where they went to, the Germans, the people themselves. The homes were beautiful over there. But we had to wreck them."

Legion of Honor

When Germany and then Japan surrendered, Daniel went back to New York, where he'd grown up and where he'd departed two years before. He remembers being packed inside the Queen Mary ocean liner with 15,000 other soldiers. Back at home, he took up his old job at a clothing company, where he worked a sewing machine.

One by one, his three brothers also returned home from the war. "We were all happy to be alive, you know?" One had been wounded at the Anzio beachhead, just south of Rome. Daniel, the youngest, is the lone survivor among his immediate family. He lives in Riverhead, New York.

In May, he was awarded the French Legion of Honor during a ceremony held at the prestigious West Point military academy. "The French embassy officials were there - they're the ones who gave us the medal." Daniel pauses. "They gave us this cheek-to-cheek hug."

And as for whether he plans to go back to France?

"I can't afford it," he laughs. "But they said they'd take care of our cemetery over there, where the boys are laid out. They say they take care of it beautiful over there. They say, Danny, you gotta go see it."

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