Unearthing D-Day Stories

Vito Mastrangelo, now 95, was on Omaha Beach 75 years ago when his unit buried 18,000 Allied services members during the Battle of Normandy

@TheSunGazette

VISALIA – Vito Mastrangelo has outlived most of his fellow soldiers from D-Day invasion 75 years ago. Many of them he buried himself and some of them he buried twice.

The 95-year-old Visalian is among less than half a million World War II veterans still alive among the 16 million Americans who served in the war. He recently told his harrowing story of the Battle of Normandy to cable news stations, local television, and at the Veterans Memorial Building in Visalia during a June 8 breakfast commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion of France on June 6, 1944.

Technical Sergeant Mastrangelo, at just 20 years old, was in charge of the 607th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company. He was selected for the position because he was able to observe an autopsy without getting sick.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” he said. “I had no idea what Graves Registration was.”

He and the 25 men in his company were part of the invasion on Omaha Beach in the Normandy region of France. They weren’t supposed to be part of the landing until the following day, but instead were selected to be part of one of the bloodiest battles in American history, taking the lives of 2,500 U.S. servicemen.

When the 607th landed on the beach, Mastrangelo said he and his men nearly drowned getting to the beach before hunkering down in a trench and waited for orders through the night. Soaking from the landing, and under a hail of gunfire, Mastrangelo said the rotting stench of bodies had already filled the air, some of them paratroopers whose chutes never opened and they plummeted to the beach. Nothing in his training had prepared him for what he was about to do.

“It was total chaos,” he said.

When he woke up the next morning, his company went to work burying the dead. They buried 400 men on the beach next to the water’s edge to make room for the next wave of troops.

“I’ll never forget the sight of those young men that died that day,” Mastrangelo said. “I still think about those boys everyday.”

As the Allied Forces pushed further inland, Mastrangelo said he and his men dug up those buried on the beach and reburied them at a cemetery atop the bluffs over the next few days. By the time they were finished, Mastrangelo says that the 607th buried more than 18,000 men at the cemetery.

Two years into his post, Staff Sgt. Mastrangelo had buried 70,000 Americans.

Mastrangelo visited the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach for the 50th anniversary in 1994. He said about half of the soldiers he buried remain there, while the other half were returned to their families to be buried back home. That experience was the first time he opened up about his experiences after years of keeping the gruesome memories to himself.

The Veterans breakfast was hosted by Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) and among hundreds of ceremonies held across the nation to commemorate the anniversary. Senator Grove was joined by other special guests including Tulare County Veteran Service Officer Ken Cruikshank, Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar, Chaplain Clayton B. Diltz from the Fresno Veterans Home, and Veterans Coordinator Ashley Martinez with the College of the Sequoias.

“A lot of people come up to me and ask, ‘Were you there?’ and I say, ‘I’m still there,’” Mastrangelo said.

Just a few days earlier, Grove led the California State Senate in passing Senate Concurrent Resolution 53 recognizing June 6, 2019 as the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, also known as D-Day.

“Our veterans have sacrificed and selflessly served our country for our freedoms. I’m honored to be among so many heroes today, including D-Day veteran Vito Mastrangelo who was only 20-years-old when he landed on the beaches of Normandy. Vito’s story of bravery is incredible, and I am so appreciative of him and all of our veterans for their service to our country,” said Grove.

Elected in November 2018, Senator Grove is the first woman veteran elected to serve in the California Legislature and as the Senate Republican Leader. She also proudly serves as the Vice-Chair for the Senate Committee on Veterans.

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