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June 4, 2011

Some war vets' experiences too harrowing to retell


Daily Star

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The Little League season was winding down and it hadn't been a great year for my American Legion team. After practice, my father, the coach, stopped by the Legion for a glass of beer and said I could go in with him. It was June 6.

Some of the guys, probably those who had already had a few, started talking about D-Day, about which I had only a child's notion, maybe from watching war movies.

Somebody told of a high school buddy who was a paratrooper and was dead before he made it to the ground.

Other names were mentioned, other friends and acquaintances who died on Omaha Beach or Utah Beach.

Back in the car on the way home, my father, who served in the Navy in the South Pacific, said a few of the guys back at the bar survived the D-Day invasion but didn't like to talk about it. As a kid, I couldn't really understand why.

In the years and decades since, however, I have learned that "difficulty talking about it" was common for many survivors of that June 6, 1944, assault on the Normandy beaches.

Known officially as Operation Overlord, the invasion, postponed from June 5 because of stormy weather, included more than 300,000 troops and sailors.

The D-Day cost was high with more than 9,000 Allied soldiers killed or wounded, but swarms of troops began the march across Europe to help defeat Nazi Germany.

After I became city editor for The Daily Star in 1985, more years than not, on June 6, I would get a phone call from an Oneonta man who would remind me it was D-Day.

For years, I asked him if he would like to talk to a reporter for a story.

For years, he would reply that he couldn't talk about it.

His name was Marino Scorzafava, who passed away at 91 about six months ago. One time when he called, he became distraught, and his wife, Jean, came on the line to explain that he always had a tough time of it on the anniversary of D-Day.

Eventually, 47 years after the invasion, Scorzafava was able to recount his experiences of that day and became involved in several Daily Star stories that tried to keep D-Day alive through the eyes of the dwindling number of World War II veterans who participated.

Scorzafava, who was 22 when he invaded Omaha Beach, was in a demolition unit charged with blowing 50-yard gaps through the obstacles that blocked the approaches to the landing beaches.

Each frogman landed on the beaches carrying 40 pounds of TNT and plastic explosives around his chest, he told The Daily Star.

The demolition units suffered a 52 percent casualty rate, he said, adding, "The real heroes are the guys lying over in the cemetery."

Before the invasion, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's message to troops outlined the importance of their mission, but also cautioned that their "task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped and battle-hardened, he will fight savagely."

And he was right.

Marshall Smith, of Oneonta, spoke to The Daily Star decades after his D-Day experience and recounted how the "initial waves of men were raked with machine gun, mortar and artillery fire from the hardened German positions."

Now it is easier to understand why it was always so difficult, if not impossible, for D-Day veterans to talk about what they went through.

But, with tears forming, Smith shakily was able to tell The Star of "the horrific casualties he said he knew were being taken on the beach. You cannot understand the feeling of something like that. It was not nice."

Eisenhower's message harkened soldiers and sailors to know that "the hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.

"In company with our brave allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world."

Another Oneonta man, Ernest Goodman, was an infantryman fighting with the elite British Coldstream Guards.

Not part of the initial invasion, he was involved in "secret work" in Newhaven, England, he told The Star, and landed at Normandy later.

As a Jewish German native who escaped just before the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, Goodman knew how important it was for D-Day to succeed.

"We fought for the redemption of civilization," he told The Star. "We wanted to give history another chance."

Cary Brunswick of Oneonta, a former managing editor of The Daily Star, can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net.