IMPRINTS THAT TIME CAN'T DIM

AP Was There D-Day
Seventy-one years ago, U.S. troops crouch down in a landing craft as they approach Omaha Beach. These troops came from everywhere — from farmlands to factories to banks.

The blast of the mortar shell threw Marine Lance Cpl. Joe Yonan six feet in the air and should have killed him. But the largest piece of shrapnel cut through his backpack and passed through the New Testament, stopping at Revelation.

At his Huntingdon Valley home, Yonan, 91, still treasures the book that saved him 70 years ago on Okinawa and gives "thanks to God."

Along the coast of France, Navy machinist mate James Gullborg manned an antiaircraft gun on a ship that delivered tanks as shells shrieked overhead during the D-Day Normandy invasion.

At his Broomall home, Gullborg, 90, still fits into his uniform and recalls a time when he "had to do a job . . . and hopefully make it back."

Peter Fantacone, a Navy radioman whose landing vessel carried 200 soldiers to "bloody Omaha Beach" on D-Day, recalls the "slaughter, smoke, noise - and the tide that took out bodies."

At his Mays Landing home, Fantacone, 89, cherishes sand from the beach and waits to receive France's highest decoration - the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor - at a July 3 ceremony in New York for his role in the country's liberation.

Fantacone, Gullborg, and Yonan are part of a direct, first-person link to World War II that's quickly disappearing. Nearly 500 veterans of that conflict die each day. Only about 850,000 of the 16 million who served still remain.

But the memories of the survivors remain undimmed by time, as if indelibly imprinted on them.

"Those guys were absolutely amazing," said Bill Detweiler, a consultant for military and veterans affairs for the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, and past national commander of the American Legion. "What they went through was so traumatic it became imprinted on their minds.

"They can't remember certain things" about recent everyday events, he said, "but when it comes to telling you about what happened to them [in the war], their descriptions are vivid."

Yonan's introduction to the military began at age 17. He left his North Philadelphia home for training at the Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, S.C., and eventually ended up fighting on Guadalcanal, Guam, and Okinawa, where he seemed to live a charmed life.

During one scouting patrol, an enemy bullet missed him but struck his rifle. That close call was followed later by the mortar explosion and shrapnel, which doctors said would have severed his spine if not for the New Testament.

Yonan was wounded in five places - on the neck, back, arms, shoulder, and hip. "I asked, 'Am I dying?' " he said. "The corpsmen looked at each other and showed me the New Testament.

"They said, 'You got a million-dollar wound; you're going home,' " he recalled. "It left me feeling an obligation to my creator. He saved my life and I should be standing on a street corner praising Him."

Death seemed to be lurking around every corner during the war. On his ship just before D-Day, Gullborg heard a chaplain saying, "Half of you will not come back."

The message left an impression, but "at age 18, you just do what you're told," he said.

His landing ship - with 20 tanks - sailed directly onto Utah Beach on June 6, 1944, as the 16-inch guns of nearby battleships blazed over them. "It was like the Fourth of July," he said. "Very noisy."

The same day, Fantacone's flat-bottomed troop landing ship splashed onto Omaha Beach, where many disembarking "soldiers were killed almost immediately," he said. "Others tried to make it to a seawall under the bluff to take cover."

"Out of twelve LCIs [Landing Craft Infantry], we lost about four," said Fantacone, who went on to become a First Class Petty Officer. "Ours didn't get hit."

Escaping enemy fire was not easy - especially during more than 20 bomber missions near and over Japan. Staff Sgt. David Lemal, 93, of Rockledge, Montgomery County, recalls his B-29 getting caught in spotlights while dropping mines over a strait leading to Japan.

The flak cut two big holes - one beside tail-gunner Lemal and another behind him. "They were big enough to fall through," he said. The damage "knocked out the connection to my headset and I could smell the smoke from the shells, but I wasn't wounded. We were darned lucky."

Lemal, who regularly wrote letters to his mother, Lida, penned a few words about one of his bombing runs. Lemal's 150 wartime letters were later assembled by his daughter Charlene Briggs and reprinted in a book called Letters to Lida.

"We hit Kobe," he wrote in a June 9, 1945, missive. "I guess you will have read about it in the papers by the time you get this letter."

Lemal later received the Distinguished Flying Cross for the mission, during which his aircraft flew through antiaircraft fire, fended off Japanese fighters, and flew through severe turbulence.

"On night missions, we didn't fire on fighters because the tracers would give you away," he said. The Japanese, he continued, "flew right alongside of us and I could see them but didn't fire unless they fired on us."

The victory over Germany, the dropping of the atomic bombs, and the surrender of Japan came as a tremendous relief to the veterans.

Parties broke out on ships and in tents and huts. There were celebratory gunfire, dancing, and drinking. Returning service members were greeted as heroes.

At San Francisco, Yonan and other wounded soldiers arrived on a hospital ship and were welcomed by Hollywood stars and socialites whose chauffeured limousines drove them to their lavish homes.

At Marian, Ohio, where he found out the Japanese had surrendered, his troop train stopped and the town people met them with food and other refreshments.

Later at Quantico, Va., there was a parade for Yonan and other veterans. Marines marched by, saluting them and dipping flags.

"I couldn't walk at the time," Yonan said. "I'm moved to tears whenever I tell the story."


ecolimore@phillynews.com

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