Friday, September 4, 2015

D-Day: A love story

Remembering one of Philadelphia's Greatest Generation.

D-Day: A love story

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 Paul R. Zimmaro
Paul R. Zimmaro

I'm not sure whether to call June 6 the 70th anniversary of D-Day, or the 10th anniversary of discovering the late Paul Zimmaro, a true Philadelphia gem. In 2004 my editors told me to go out there and find a good story for the 60th anniversary of the landing in Normandy; I honestly don't remember how I found Paul but...what a story.

There's a reason that he and his contemporaries are called the Greatest Generation -- it's not because they were born with any different human qualities than you or me, but they faced challenges that you or I couldn't even imagine -- and they responded with a blend of true grit and American ingenuity. Paul Zimmaro died three years later, but I've tried to keep his story alive. Here it is, in its entirety, from June 6, 2004. (And have a great weekend):

He was an Army draftee out of Frankford High, with Tyrone Power good looks and a Philly can-do attitude, who'd just survived 11 stomach-churning days on the stormy North Atlantic.

She was a head-turner, too _ a high school senior some 40 miles up the Schuylkill River in Pottstown, tending a Victory Garden and contemplating her job in a defense plant on the other side of her graduation later that month.

It was the first week of June 1944.

Paul Zimmaro and Anna Drabinsky didn't know it yet, but the events of that month would send them on life's great odyssey, launched on the shores of Normandy and landing in a Northeast Philly rowhouse _ with an excruciating side trip through Hell along the way.

The one thing they did know for certain that fateful June: Each was a nervous wreck. Especially Zimmaro, confined to barracks in Southampton, England, waiting day after day for the fateful orders to cross the Channel.

"Basically we were just biting our nails _ people were smoking a pack of cigarettes at a time," recalled Zimmaro, now 81. It was the calm before a blizzard _ before trading gunfire with Nazi troops in Normandy's hedgerows and surviving the frigid Battle of the Bulge. Before a German 88mm gun blasted him off the back of a Sherman tank and shattered his right leg just a month before Hitler's Germany fell.

Over the next three years, Zimmaro would lose his leg _ and gain his life's love.

Sunday is the 60th anniversary of D-Day _ the turning point of World War II, when more than 300,000 Allied troops took heavy casualties but established the beachhead in northern France that spelled the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.

The blood-soaked memory of June 6, 1944, is viewed through an ever-changing historical prism, refracted through countless books and movies, from "The Longest Day" to "Saving Private Ryan." This year's anniversary seems magnified, as the number of Normandy survivors like Zimmaro shrinks and as a nation debates the meaning of service and sacrifice in terms of a new conflict in Iraq.

D-Day is arguably defined by ringing noises some 3,500 miles apart _ the eerie plink of machine-gun rounds bouncing off steel on Omaha Beach, and the joyous 12 mallet taps of the Liberty Bell here in Philadelphia by Mayor Bernard Samuel, a sound that NBC Radio carried across the nation.

For people like Philadelphia's Paul and Anna Zimmaro, the echoes that started that month have never truly stopped ringing.

A 'SLIGHT' CHANGE

It was May 1 _ May Day _ when the bad news arrived back home in Philadelphia in 1945 by way of Western Union.

"THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT YOUR SON PFC ZIMMARO PAUL R WAS SEVERELY WOUNDED IN GERMANY 09 APR 45 PERIOD ..."

Except that's not how the telegraph read when Zimmaro's mother, Agatha, an immigrant from Italy whose English was limited, finally picked it up in her home on Church Street in Frankford.

One of Zimmaro's brothers had whited out the word "severely" and typed in _ in a smaller and noticeably different typeface _ the word "slightly."

The transparent ruse worked.

But Zimmaro's family should have realized that Paul was born a survivor. Incredibly, his mother _ the wife of an immigrant stonemason _ had given birth 17 times. Seven children died before the age of 2. Ten lived. Paul was the youngest.

Drafted into the Army in January 1943, Zimmaro ended up in the infantry after his basic training at Tennessee's Fort Tyson and stops on Louisiana and Texas. In spring 1944, he boarded the troop carrier John Ericsson for the trans-Atlantic journey. Designed for 1,800 men, on this journey it carried 3,000.

"There wasn't much room at the rail," said Zimmaro, who was seasick for much of the 11-day crossing. England was only slightly better _ cleaning equipment, endless drilling and waiting around for the orders to move out.

Here at home, the wait for the war's final push was getting nerve-wracking as well. Growing up in Montgomery County, Pa., the future Anna Zimmaro was never far removed from the war. Like millions of others, she tended a garden at home and prepared "care packages" to send to the troops overseas.

Immediately after graduating from Pottstown High School, she was called into the war effort herself, working for the War Department on the second shift in a plant that made bullet casings.

"During that war, everybody was involved," Anna said. "On the homefront the soldiers, I mean you just did it. We used to make things and send packages to soldiers ... came out of high school and went to the defense plants.

"I worked the second shift, which wasn't fun, because I'd get out at midnight, and some of my friends would be coming out of the dance hall. But that's the way it was."

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Paul Zimmaro was getting ready to dodge bullets. His unit _ Second Infantry Division, 23rd Infantry Regiment, Company C _ came ashore on Omaha Beach while the first wave of Allied troop was still seeking a foothold.

Zimmaro's platoon struggled to control the ancient hedgerows, also known as bocage, that were 10 feet high and impervious to tanks. Later, he survived the heavy fighting in the Ardennes in the bitterly cold Battle of the Bulge, when it was too icy to dig a foxhole to dodge splinters from exploding trees.

By spring 1945, the Nazis were in full-fledged retreat, and victory was in plain sight as Zimmaro's unit swept through the German Rhineland.

He turned 22 years old on April 7, 1945. Early that evening, his unit arrived in a small town near the border with Czechoslovakia. There was a large circular trough in the center of the village, and the men of Zimmaro's unit threw off their packs and sat down to eat some rations.

Just then, an old truck rolled up and a squad of German soldiers _ older men and teens with antiquated rifles _ surprised the U.S. troops by offering to surrender. They said other members of their group were fleeing into Czech territory, so Zimmaro was sent with other soldiers to round them up.

He jumped on the rear of a Sherman tank _ and was ambushed as it rolled by a shed on the side of the road. Zimmaro believes that other men died, and as the tank rolled down a ditch, he looked down and saw he was seriously wounded. His right ankle dangled in the wrong direction, and a huge hole was blown in his thigh.

Injected with morphine, he didn't wake up until two days later _ when he was in a hospital back in England. The first thing he asked was: "Did you delouse me? Because I feel really itchy."

He learned that the doctor had intentionally placed white maggots on his wounds to eat the dead flesh. Sometimes after the maggots turned black, Zimmaro would flick them at the nurses.

On July 4, 1945, the Army decided to ship Zimmaro _ who was in a full body cast by now _ stateside. They loaded him and other seriously wounded men onto shelves on the side of a C-147 cargo plane. The worst cases, like Zimmaro, got the top shelf.

"I was just lying there thinking if the planes goes down, with my body cast, I guess I'm going straight to the bottom of the sea."

Instead, Zimmaro made it safely to Atlantic City, where the Army treated him and other wounded soldiers at the Haddon Hall Hotel _ the building that later became the Resorts Casino. He stayed in Room 980, overlooking the Steel Pier, and sometimes the nurses would wheel him out to hear a concert.

Back in Pennsylvania, the young Anna Drabinsky had taken a job at the Army hospital in Valley Forge, working in the administrative office. In late 1945, Paul Zimmaro was moved to the same facility, and Anna used to walk past on her way to the hospital PX. One day, he was chatting with an older vet when he spotted her.

"I said _ and these were my exact words _ 'I'm going to marry her someday.' "

But actually, it was Anna who made the major move. Before Thanksgiving, the hospital asked for volunteers to take patients to their homes for dinner. She remembered Paul stood out for both his handsome looks and the shiny polish of a special rehab shoe designed for him.

"They caught me off guard," he said with a broad smile, recalling the afternoon that Anna, with her sister and a girlfriend, asked him over for the holiday. "I thought, 'Oh, boy!' "

BUILDING A LIFE

Despite his newfound romance, the next few years were not easy for Zimmaro.

Doctors grafted tissue from his stomach in repairing his arm, but multiple operations did little to improve his right leg. In 1948, they sent him to Walter Reed Hospital, where doctors told him the leg would have to be amputated.

They left only a tiny stump, and gave him a heavy prosthetic leg that connected to the stump without a sock. "Boy, did that leg bleed," he said. "I used to come home all bloody."

But the amputation cleared the way for Zimmaro's release from the hospital in December 1948, more than 3 [ years after he was wounded. He married Anna the next month, on a chilly day in her hometown of Pottstown.

They wouldn't tell their friends where they were going on a honeymoon. That's because there was none. Instead, they used their money to buy a brick rowhouse on Robbins Street near Harbison Avenue in Northeast Philly.

Fifty-five years later, they still live there.

The couple raised four boys. Zimmaro drove a car with a special left-foot pedal and went to work at the nearby Naval Supply Center. He also kept his sense of humor. At the Jersey Shore, he'd head to the ocean on his crutches and then swim with his kids. When he came out, he told the gawking younger kids that a shark had bitten him.

He retired from his job when he needed triple-bypass surgery, and a doctor suggested he might have only a few years to live.

That was in 1974.

Zimmaro's extra lease in life allowed him to get some recognition for his war efforts. Already a Bronze Star and Purple Heart winner, he was honored recently by the French consolare for helping to liberate their country. The wall of his cozy family room on Robbins Street includes his medals and certificate, but he knows the Invasion of Normandy led him in the end to something much more important.

He gestured at his now silver-haired wife and said "if it wasn't for this girl here by my side 100 percent of the time ... She's taken care of all of my needs."

Their son Chuck had been listening in a corner of a room, but he suddenly chimed in.

"My mom is my dad's right leg."

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About this blog
Will Bunch, a senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily News, blogs about his obsessions, including national and local politics and world affairs, the media, pop music, the Philadelphia Phillies, soccer and other sports, not necessarily in that order.

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