World War II veterans reflect on the 75th anniversary of D-Day
By Joe Piasecki
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find living World War II veterans who participated in the Allied invasion of Normandy and the grueling military campaigns that followed to liberate occupied Europe from Nazi control. About 7,000 ships landed 150,000 Allied troops amid a hail of enemy gunfire on June 6, 1944 — the largest amphibious assault in history, forever known as D-Day — with casualties of some 4,400 dead and 9,000 wounded or missing. A soldier who was 18 on D-Day would be 93 years old today.
It’s even harder to find veterans of the European campaign who are willing or able to discuss their experiences on the battlefield. Many are in poor health. Others would rather not relive the horrors of war. Most are simply predisposed to not talk about things like that.
“They’re the Silent Generation: They silently served, silently suffered and silently came home because that’s what men did. But if they don’t talk about their service now, no one’s going to know their stories,” said Mikey Strand, a retired Navy photo chief who has been taking portraits of World War II veterans and recording snippets of oral history at Veterans Home of California facilities in West L.A., Ventura County, the Inland Empire and San Diego for the past few years. Strand’s fourth print show is currently on display at the Veterans Home of California in Ventura, and he’s currently fundraising to be able to stage another in West L.A. later this year.
“My dad never talked much about the war,” recalled Lynne Adelman, a board member for the LAX Flight Path Museum, which is currently hosting a World War II-era aviation exhibit. “As a paratrooper and demolitions expert, he jumped into areas and blew up bridges [and other targets]. He was a five-star sergeant. I know that when my mom tried to get him to go to church, he would say: ‘I already know The Man. I’ve seen him personally.’ That’s because the men who were jumping out of planes were being shot at, and many did get shot during those jumps. One time the chute didn’t open until Dad was fairly close to the ground, but he made it.”
From 1 to 6 p.m. Thursday (June 6), the Los Angeles County Department of Military and Veterans Affairs will commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day at Bob Hope Patriotic Hall in Downtown Los Angeles. The Consulate General of France in Los Angeles will present Legion of Honor medals to World War II veterans who fought to liberate France from Axis control, followed by performances of 1940s music and a screening of the 1962 war epic “The Longest Day.”
What follows are excerpts of conversations with three veterans of the European theater, located with the help of Strand, CalVet public information officer Ron Brand, and Retired USAF Lt. Col. Robert (Bob) Johnson, who is the Legion of Honor medal program liaison for the French consulate.
Leonard “Jerry” King, Army Air Corps
West Los Angeles resident Jerry King, 97, chased Nazi tanks across the North African desert before landing a glider on Omaha Beach about 48 hours after the invasion of Normandy began. He declined to describe what he found on arrival, except to say he was stuck in a foxhole for 18 hours and didn’t think he’d make it out alive.
“I’m not going to tell you,” he said. “Let me put it this way: Death isn’t pretty. … Military veterans don’t usually like to talk about where they were on the front lines. As somebody once said jokingly, ‘This is a place you can get killed!’”
King, who spent 50 years as a construction contractor, is currently commander of Jewish War Veterans of America Post 617 in Los Angeles and has been decorated with 10 battle stars, two presidential unit citations, the Army of Occupation medal, the World War II Victory medal, and the French consulate’s Legion of Honor medal.
A native of New York City, King enlisted at age 19 with a sense of purpose: “I wanted to get rid of Hitler — that was for sure,” he said. “There was a determination [among American troops] to get rid of Mussolini and get rid of Hitler.”
King met his late wife in England and married her during the war. His oldest son, born overseas, is 74 years old.
“The younger generation — they don’t remember; they don’t want to know. That generation is busy trying to survive two different jobs,” King said. “Every generation is different. In the 1800s we had the Wild West; in the early 1900s we had speakeasies; in the middle 1900s we had gangsters … but there’s always a war. It doesn’t settle anything. Doesn’t settle anything at all.”
Nicholas Scordino, Army Air Corps
A resident of the Veterans Home of California in West Los Angeles, 97-year-old Nicholas Scordino enlisted in the Army on Oct. 10, 1942. He initially served as an MP (which he hated) and a barber before training to become a P-38 gunner in the Army Air Corps, but due to a leg injury was assigned to repair fighter squadron planes and equip them with ammunition and bombs for combat missions.
Scordino was stationed along the south coast of England in the run-up to D-Day.
“They say it started June 6, but I can argue with that. It started the night before. We saw thousands of airplanes — it sounded like a flock of geese. We couldn’t count them. One airplane after another. They wouldn’t stop coming after that. Pretty wide formation. … That went on all night.” he recalled. “We knew something was coming up, but we didn’t know what was happening. But they were headed toward France — no question about that.
“It finally got dark and the planes were still coming over. Next thing you know, our planes were taking off too. Our planes were already loaded, waiting for our mission to start. And there it was.”
About 10 days later, Scordino and his outfit landed on the beach at Normandy to set up tents and prefabricated structures for makeshift military outposts, starting with the hills above the beach that had been defended by German troops.
“[Enemy troops] were still shooting down when we got there, but they were shooting at the Navy — boom, boom, boom. They weren’t firing at us. We expected to be crawling up the beach on our bellies, but we managed to walk up on our own two legs. They’d cleaned up the beach really fast. They had a dirt trail going up the hill, and they managed to widen it when we got there,” he recalled.
“When we landed there were about a dozen paratroopers lounging on the beach. They’d already seen their action. They were telling us to go back home, they didn’t need us anymore. They were making fun of us, but we had guys who could make fun back at ’em, you know. ‘Hey, you guys wouldn’t be sitting on this beach if it wasn’t for us.’ We were flying planes night and day. … We had a job to do.”
Noboru “Don” Seki, Army Infantry
A few days before the attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into World War II, Noboru “Don” Seki was a high school senior facing a monumental choice: remain in Hawaii, where he was born and raised, or follow his parents back to their native Japan. His life was here. He stayed.
“That was the greatest decision I ever made,” declares Seki, now 95 and a resident of the Veterans Home of California in West Los Angeles. “I would have been forced into their military!”
In 1943, Seki and hundreds of other Japanese-American men who volunteered for the Army formed its 442nd Infantry Regiment, which would become the most decorated unit in American military history while many of its members’ families were held in Japanese-American internment camps back home. Its motto, “Go for Broke,” has become synonymous with military valor, and the entire unit has been awarded the Legion of Honor.
“We were born together; we would fight together. We all had that in our mind,” he said of the regiment.
Seki was a scout and rifleman for his unit as they fought their way up from North Africa through Italy and later into the South of France. He fondly recalls making chicken soup in an abandoned farmhouse outside Florence during a break from the fighting — “we were hungry for fresh food … onions, squash, tomato” — and later catching fresh fish tossing grenades into a lake.
He doesn’t say much about the fighting, though he speaks proudly of the regiment’s heroic rescue of the “Lost Battalion” of American soldiers surrounded by German soldiers in the Vosges Mountains of northeastern France in October 1944, just a few months after D-Day.
“It was heavy forest. Big pine trees — dark, rainy, muddy” and nothing like Italy, he recalled. “We lost a lot of men. … Four days later, I got caught by machine gun fire. Took my arm off. Just skin left.”
Seki was treated at a field hospital before being sent to San Francisco to recover. He eventually found work in Los Angeles, where he got married and started a family.
Asked how he and members of his unit overcame wartime discrimination against Japanese-Americans, he said none of that was a factor when they reached the battlefield.
“Couldn’t care less,” he said. “We’re American, and we fought together. Everybody fought together.”
Contact Mickey Strand about his work at mickeystrand.com.
Visit mva.lacounty.gov for information about the D-Day commemoration at Bob Hope Patriotic Hall.
To seek a Legion of Honor medal for an American military veteran who helped to liberate occupied France, visit losangeles.consulfrance.org.