By WILLIAM K. ALCORN
June 6, 1944: D-Day.
They are in their 90s now, those once-young men from the Mahoning Valley who landed on Normandy’s beaches in France 70 years ago and who helped change the course of World War II in Europe.
Facing zeroed-in German artillery, mortars, and small-arms fire, they overcame gut-wrenching fear of injury and death and the horror of seeing their fellow soldiers bleeding and dying all around them, to establish a toe-hold in German-held France that was the first step in the Allies’ drive across Europe to the German homeland.
It is unlikely many of those young men had any sense of the history of the bloody amphibious assault, dubbed Operation Overlord, that left more than 3,000 American military dead or missing on French beaches code-named Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah and Sword.
The Battle of Normandy is generally considered the turning point for the Allies in Europe.
“We just wanted to survive,” said Felix Bevilacqua of Boardman, one of four Mahoning Valley men who participated in that massive operation.
With Memorial Day events this weekend, they reflected on their experiences 70 years ago and on those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Felix Bevilacqua, Boardman
Bevilacqua, 92, who lived most of his life in Girard, was 18 when he was drafted into the Army in 1943. He had migrated from Italy to Youngstown in 1937, but was not yet an American citizen.
He said he was given a choice: Go into the Army or go back to Italy, part of the Axis powers and where his mother, sister and brother still lived.
He chose the Army.
After training for several months in England, Bevilacqua, a member of the 453rd Amphibious truck company (DUKW), headed for Omaha Beach, landing at 8:30 a.m. June 6 aboard the USS LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) 93, an amphibious assault ship.
He said the ship ran aground and took several hits from German artillery that killed many of the 200 on board and forced the rest into the water.
While Bevilacqua was not injured, he still had a major problem: He couldn’t swim.
He said he kept his head above water by placing his gas mask under his chin and made it to the beach unscathed.
“The word was, hug the dirt as much as you can unless you want your head blown off.”
He recalled being in a foxhole talking with someone and then he fell asleep. When he awoke, his foxhole buddy was dead, shot in the head.
Once the beach was secure, his unit moved inland toward Saint-Lo, France.
Before his discharge in 1945 as a technical sergeant 4th grade, he had seen combat in three other major battles: Ardennes Forest, Crossing of the Rhine as part of Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army and the Battle of the Bulge.
“I saw Patton pissing in the Rhine,” Bevilacqua said with a laugh.
He was decorated with five Battle Star Medals and a Bronze Arrowhead Medal; and is in a famous WWII photo of soldiers sitting on a captured German railway gun.
Bevilacqua, who came home on his birthday, Sept. 2, 1945, went back to his job at Youngstown Foundry and Machine until it closed. He then worked at Wean Engineering, but later quit to start his own business with a partner, Northeast Fabricators.
He is involved in several professional organizations, and for many years was a leader for many years for the Air Force Civil Air Patrol at Youngstown Air Reserve Station in Vienna.
Gideon A. Fetterolf, Newton Falls
“We fixed them up on the battlefield and took care of them in the hospital wards,” said Fetterolf, 93, a member of 261st Medical Battalion.
He enlisted in the Army in November 1940.
“It was during the Depression, and $21 a month plus medical care and food and a place to stay, was more than I could find anyplace in Pennsylvania,” he said of his decision to enlist.
He and his younger brothers, Clair and Russell, served together in Africa and were involved in the invasions of Italy and Sicily before he was transferred to England as part of the 1st Engineer Brigade amphibious assault unit.
Both of his brothers were wounded, but Fetterolf got through the war “without a scratch.”
He spent the night of June 5 in a LCT (landing craft, tank) in the rain before landing on Utah Beach in the first wave June 6 with the infantry.
He said they did not encounter a lot of resistance because air support planes had knocked out a lot of the German artillery aimed at Utah.
Also, he said, “We learned that the German guns could not traverse back and forth, so we went between their lines of fire.”
“Except for getting strafed by German planes, our outfit never got hit hard. We were lucky. We had 13 wounded and two dead.
“We set up about one-quarter of a mile from the beach. Six hours after landing we were doing major surgery,” he said.
His unit reached Sainte-Mere-Eglise and Saint-Lo by July 4 and set up a hospital in La Hearne in France when he contracted malaria for the second time and was sent to London to recuperate.
Fetterolf, who admitted to having a few parties while in Europe, said he made staff sergeant five different times but kept getting busted down. He was 20 when he enlisted in 1940, and was discharged in 1945.
In 1949, he moved to Trumbull County from Pennsylvania’s coal country and settled in Newton Falls. He worked at Republic Steel in Warren, then for 28 years at Rockwell-Standard in Newton Falls.
A member of several veterans organizations in Newton Falls, he is credited with forming the Newton Falls Honor Guard, which performs at military funerals.
“I did military funerals for 50 years, from 1950 to 2000,” he said.
Tom P. Vouvounas, Warren
Vouvounas, 98, who still fits into his Army uniform, landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day plus four (days).
“We were not under fire, but we had to advance in a hurry because the Germans were still bombing only six miles away,” he said.
“There was blood and guts mixed up with the sand. We could smell the dead bodies. It would stay in your nose. It was bad.”
Vouvounas was a member of C Co., 2nd Battalion, 334th Regiment, 83rd Division of the 1st Army, commanded by Gen. Omar Bradley.
“As we advanced, we saw our paratroopers hanging dead in trees with signs in German on them that said ‘What happened to them will happen to you. Go home,’” Vouvounas said.
“Doughboys [infantry] like me, we followed the tanks for protection.”
A technical sergeant by the time his unit advanced on Carentan, France, and a platoon leader because their officer was put out of action, Vouvounas said when they advanced on Carentan the platoon had 42 men.
“By morning, we had six left who could fight. We had orders to destroy the whole city,” he said.
His unit encountered heavy resistance at Saint-Lo, where he was bayoneted in the foot and suffered shrapnel wounds to his leg on July 25 from friendly fire.
During one battle shortly after Normandy, Vouvounas, a small man, said he hid inside of a cow that had been blown apart to avoid the Germans.
He grew up in Greece and moved to the U.S. in 1936. He received a Purple Heart and two Bronze Stars.
After he was discharged Feb. 11, 1945, he came back to Youngstown, but he and his wife-to-be Helen Sarandos, moved to her hometown of Warren.
After the war, Vouvounas drove a bus and delivered produce to restaurants and stores for many years. He also owned a restaurant in downtown Warren and was a cook for the Warren City Jail.
Frank A. DeCenso Sr., Girard
DeCenso, 95, drafted into the Army in February 1942, and went to England in 1943, where he trained for several months for the Normandy Invasion.
“We were told one day to gather up our stuff. The invasion was all that was on my mind. We knew what we were there for. We knew we had to go someday. It wasn’t like going to a ball game,” he said.
His unit, the 634th Tank Destroyer Battalion, which supported the 1st Infantry Division, was in the first wave to hit Utah Beach on D-Day, and encountered no opposition in the morning but some artillery fire in the afternoon.
“It wasn’t too bad, but we knew we had to keep moving. By night, we were dug in to fortified positions,” said DeCenso, who was on the colonel’s staff, charged with running messages.
While he was not wounded, DeCenso said the German artillery fire was “really something. You never knew where you would be safest — in a foxhole or under a weapons carrier.”
Like many of the others who survived Normandy, DeCenso participated in other European battles, including the Battle of the Bulge, a major German offensive campaign in December 1944 to try to turn the tide of the war in Adolf Hitler’s favor.
“It was cold and lasted a long time. We did our duty. We had a lot that didn’t make it.
“The war was the biggest event of my life. It is always on my mind, night and day. When I got home, in my sleep I would see planes and see myself under the porch.”
DeCenso, discharged from the Army in October 1945, grew up in Youngstown on Federal Street in the Brier Hill area and played fast-pitch softball in the Youngstown and Girard city leagues as a catcher and infielder.