ST. PETERSBURG — Like so many young people who fight in wars in faraway lands, Salvatore Santoro went from living a simple life in the United States to carrying enormous responsibility in places he could have never imagined.
He was a 25-year-old working at a bakery in Queens Village, N.Y., when Hitler invaded Poland. On June 6, 1944, he was on Omaha Beach with the 741st Tank Battalion in Normandy, directing 17 tanks during the first wave of D-day. He would receive four Purple Hearts during the early days of the invasion.
At age 96, he still has a prominent bump on his nose where a bullet grazed it. "Sal" lives at Shore Acres Rehabilitation & Nursing Facility with his wife, Joanne, where he is quick with a smile and can play just about any tune requested on his harmonica.
For the anniversary of D-day, he recently put on his Army uniform, brimming with decorations, to remember the invasion, the comrades lost and all that it meant toward ending World War II.
Did you enlist or were you drafted?
On Sept. 1 (1939), when Hitler invaded Poland, I was listening to the radio and I said: "Mother. Come listen to this." About a year later I enlisted. I didn't tell my mother I enlisted. I told her I was drafted.
When you were preparing for D-day, did you know what was coming?
The way we were training, I knew something big was happening because of all the different weapons (used in training). Then we were practicing on the ship so you knew what to do. The tanks were on the lower deck.
Were you scared?
I was too busy to get scared. I was planning it all in my mind.
Did you think you might die or did you think you were young and invincible?
We were told "10 percent of you will die in the first wave.'' It was a plain fact.
You have five Purple Hearts. Are they all from the D-day operation?
The first four were in Normandy. The last one was in Germany during the Battle of the Bulge.
What was your assignment on D-day?
I was a sergeant. I would give the directions (to the tanks). If the tanks needed cover I would start a smoke screen. I was right out in the open. For one of the Purple Hearts, on June 10 shrapnel hit my leg and I had six stitches. I told the medics: "Send me back in. I'm okay.'' On July 31 a bullet went across my nose. I didn't get a Purple Heart because I didn't report it. I put adhesive tape on it.
Did you have friends who died?
Oh yes. I lost many, many. So many the first day and then (the number of deaths) got smaller.
Where were you when the war was over and how did you feel?
It was a new day. A new day. We were so happy. We ended up in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, and the people there were so happy. We were there about six months. We met a family. A nice family. There was a husband who was a Czech captain. The wife was Lydka. They had two kids. We were walking by and she was at her gate and she invited us in to visit. They had us over for meals. Two or three fellows and me. We would go to the delicatessen and buy cold cuts to bring.
Have you been back to Europe since the war?
I went back to France in 1994 on a tour (with fellow veterans). We went to visit the cemetery in Normandy. We had captured that area on D-plus-1 (June 7). I went up and down looking at the names. I could picture the faces. It was a lot different. Nobody was shooting at you. It was quiet.
What else did you do on the trip?
We got to visit Paris. We went to Notre Dame. … We ate on the Champs-Élysées.
How do you think wars today are different from the war you fought?
Today it is more computerized.
At least today it is easier for soldiers to stay in touch with their families back home. That wasn't the case during World War II, was it?
We got maybe a letter once a month. I wrote my family before D-day when I knew we were going into France and I told them "give my regard to Frances.'' That was how I let them know that we were headed to France.
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or [email protected]