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Column: Tony Vickio
On the 76th anniversary of D-Day, Watkins Glen's Tony Vickio provides us with a look at that day, and the role of his uncle, 24-year-old Ernest Fillipetti, who died in battle on Aug. 1, 1944 in France after surviving the Allied military landing.
“The Bravest Man I Never Knew”
WATKINS GLEN, June 6, 2020 -- Thoughts of home and family were surely whirling around in his head. So many thoughts, changing so fast they became intermixed and became a blur. Shutting his eyes trying to concentrate on just one was not working. It did not make anything any clearer.
There was the constant droning of a loud diesel engine. It had a harmonizing pitch to it that went up and down, up and down, never changing. Sort of mesmerizing. The diesel fuel smell was so strong it stuck to his clothes. Reminded him of the tractor back home on the farm, plowing fields and the hot, sunny days bailing hay until dark. How far away that was now. Only memories could bring him back there.
The floor that he was standing on was rocking side to side and up and down. Looking down, the construction reminded him of wood pallets. Maybe that was what it was, just wood pallets on a steel floor. The rocking motion of the craft caused the water beneath the pallets to splash up through the slats and soak his feet. No waterproof boots back then. Every so often, water would splash over the six foot high steel walls that surrounded him and about fifty other men, all wearing back packs, helmets and holding rifles, all of which were pointing straight up; no room to point them in another direction. They were in a literal sardine can. The water was oh so cold, but I’m sure he and the other men did not notice or care about the water that much. Each man was lost in his own thoughts. So intense were the thoughts, unimaginable if you were not in their position. If it was another day, in another time, the sound of waves splashing and the rocking motion of the wet, wood floor he was standing on, the constant drone of the diesel engine and the rocking motion would have put him to sleep. But it was this day! This day was so different. It would live on in the history books forever! No sleep today.
Everything seemed, not real, he must have thought. Fifty men packed like sardines in this steel box with an open top. All were facing forward looking at a heavy steel door, hinged at the bottom. The top had two heavy latches. Looking at the latches, they must have thought, What happens when they open? I am thinking most had a strong premonition of what was coming. So strong, panic started to creep into their being. That dark gray steel door! What was in front of it?
The sky above was cloudy. It seemed like days ago from when they climbed over the side of the ship onto this “sardine can” type vessel, but it was only a couple of hours. Taking away the diesel engine sound, it was still loud in there as most were talking about what lay ahead for them. Then there was the constant sound of someone suffering sea sickness or the premonition in their mind. Looking up at the sky, he noticed a light wisp of smoke. As they droned on, the smoke got much heavier. The talk also grew louder. Much louder. What was on fire? Everyone was looking up.
There was so much talking, you could not make out a complete sentence. Then! A single, loud “PLINK” on the gray steel door! Instant, dead silence! Everyone snapped around, facing straight ahead, looking at the same thing. That big gray steel door, hinged at the bottom with the big steel latches on top. A bullet? No one said a word!. The craft droned ahead. That diesel engine was humming along, not changing its tone since they started. Silence. No one was even seasick.
A few stared nervously around, looking at others, saying nothing. Then, Plink, Plink, Plink!. The craft started to bounce around much more noticeably now. Plink, Plink, Plink, Plink, Plink, Plink! The crescendo of distant gunfire could now be heard as the Plinks now turned into a nonstop hail of bullets pounding on the steel, gray door as if saying “let us in!” The smoke above was darker and thick as fog. It was panic time!
Over the sound of the bullets hitting the steel door, men were screaming, drowning out the sound of the diesel engine. Some were calling out for their mother, others throwing up -- but I’m sure there was one soldier who was praying, that was the way he was brought up. Anyone who was not there cannot imagine, as hard as you try, what it was like being in that situation. I have tried and failed.
For the first time since that smelly, diesel engine started up, it changed its tone. It started revving up and the forward motion made everyone lurch back. Just then, the craft ran aground, creating a muffled thud that could be heard over the sound of hundreds of bullets pelting the gray, steel door with the large steel latches on top. The sudden stop threw everyone forward into the man in front of him. Some were screaming, some silent. No time to think! Then! A loud clunk as the two large latches on top of the gray, steel door unlatched. It dropped away with a creaking, groaning sound, as if in slow motion. The “Gate to Hell” had opened!
As the large, gray, steel door slammed onto the water with a loud, unfamiliar sound, the front row of men never made it off the craft as the hail of bullets never stopped. The men behind did not cower, but instead ran straight into hell on a beach in Normandy on D-Day. The courage by everyone that day is beyond imagination. Bravery beyond belief.
I'm sure he -- my uncle, Ernest Fillipetti, the bravest man I never knew -- thought of family and God as he joined his fellow soldiers in leaving that landing craft. And maybe that's what brought him through that day. Who can say? With thousands of bullets in the air, he surged ahead, off the craft, into the shallow water, toward land, hell all around him. But somehow -- and he must have been surprised at this -- he was not hit. He, along with many other brave souls, made it to that beach and beyond. But for my uncle, it was a charmed life with a wartime expiration date. He never made it home alive.
A much respected leader of an 11-man squad, they met the Germans on land in France as the Allies advanced. A friend of his in that unit said the men loved him, that he was "a friend to everyone, always with a smile" -- but not to the enemy. "We will give them hell," he told his men, and they did through June, through July, and were engaging "the Jerries" when he went down, fighting, on August 1st. To the end, he kept his belief in family, home and God. Said that friend in his unit: "He had faith."
Photo in text: Ernest Fillipetti (Photo provided)