Beaches of Normandy still as clear as yesterday

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The nightmare haunts Frank Amalfetano.

“I can’t get the boat off the beach. I wake up and my heart beats,” he says.

That never happened on D-Day or the weeks to follow, when Amalfetano, then 18 years old and a coxswain of a Higgins amphibious landing craft, made countless trips ferrying 35 to 40 soldiers from an America troop ship to Normandy beaches.

On June 6, 1944, Amalfetano made about 25 trips between troop ships and Gold and Juno beaches. He would get the LST to a point where the water was knee-deep before lowering the lowering the gangway so they could race ashore in the face of German gunfire. While there was a lot of shooting from the ground and the air, the LST didn’t sustain a hit.

Amalfetano was armed. He carried a .45 in a holster strapped to his leg. He didn’t carry it expecting to go into combat. Rather, he had been instructed to brandish the weapon as a threat should troops refuse to disembark once they hit the beach. He never used the gun and he had a strong aversion to it.

“We never had a gun in the house, not even a BB gun. No guns,” Amalfetano said of his years growing up in Providence. Some weeks after the invasion, when Amalfetano was making runs between temporary docks built from large floating blocks [“we called them ice cubes”] one night he went on deck and tossed the gun into the sea. He wasn’t going to come home with a gun.

But by no means was it clear sailing.

Soon after D-Day he remembers looking out at the horizon to spot a German fighter. He realized it was locked on the boat. His crew and the soldiers he was transporting saw it, too. He yelled for everyone to hold on, and more instinctively than a thought out plan, suddenly as the airplane came into range turned hard to starboard. Flying low, the airplane couldn’t turn as abruptly and flew off. It didn’t return.

Then there were the American planes, the B-29 bombers that flew in waves over the armada to bomb the German war machine. Amalfetano remembers seeing them high in the sky, having taken off in the early hours from bases in England. Often he’d count the planes in a squadron. An hour later he would hear the roar of engines as the B-29s returned from the missions, now flying much lower and at a height where Amalfetano could see the outlines of pilots.

“They would wave their wings,” Amalfetano said moving his hand to mimic the up and down motion. The men on the boats, the docks and the beach would cheer, especially when the lead pilot fluttered a white handkerchief from the cockpit window, a signal that the mission was a success. It gave Amalfetano added satisfaction when his earlier count of the squadron matched that of the returning planes.

These were stories Amalfetano had not shared in prior interviews with the Beacon, the most recent being when he was featured in the documentary, “D-Day: Over Normandy,” narrated by New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick whose father, Steve, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. In that Beacon interview, Amalfetrano recounted how on the first days of the invasion they would find the floating bodies of American soldiers and shoved the dog tags they wore around their necks into their mouths so they could be later identified.

Amalfetano was on the phone Tuesday afternoon. He was calling to see if we knew that Thursday was D-Day and how might the paper observe the day when some 156,000 American, British, and Canadian forces landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the heavily fortified coast of France’s Normandy region in what was dubbed “the beginning of the end of the war.”

No interview was scheduled, but no time seemed better than the moment.

“I’ll be here,” said Amalfetano, who is 95 and lives alone, “the back door will be open.”

Amalfetano praises his doctors and his children, especially his son Bobby, for his good health and watching over him. He questioned whether the VA would buy him a powered chair to ride, but his doctor ruled that out on the basis he’s quite capable of getting around. Amalfetano said with a laugh he then asked if the doctor would give him a prescription for Viagra.

The doctor told him that was possible if he passed a test. He would have to run up a flight of stairs.

Sometime later, as Amalfetano tells the story, he was in the cellar with his son. He climbed the stairs using the handrail and then asked if he’d passed the test.

“Bobby said ‘no, you have to run.’” Amalfetano laughs again, but now he’s interrupted by a phone call. He takes out his hearing aid and holds the receiver to his ear.

“Hello.” Amalfetano gives it four seconds. “Goodbye,” he says replacing the receiver, the telemarketing call barely interrupting the interview.

Amalfetano fondly remembers running Jennie’s Ice Cream in Conimicut and how he would cook up dog dogs and serve ice cream to those volunteering for the Conimicut Beach cleanup. Jennie’s was also the sponsor of several baseball teams and naturally a place where teams would congregate after games.

The conversation came back to the war and how he lost his brother, Anthony, who was in the Army, to a sniper’s bullet during the Battle of the Bulge. As the only living child of his parents, he was concerned what would become of them should he be killed. He wasn’t sent stateside as often the case in such situations, however, he was assigned to a job that kept him in England for the remainder of the war.

Amalfetano hasn’t been back to Normandy. He contemplated making the trip, but instead he took his wife, Victoria, to visit her native Italy. A faithful buyer of lottery tickets, Amalfetano said if he hits it big time he’s going to take the whole family to Italy.

Amalfetano likes visiting Twin River on occasion, not so much to gamble but to meet and talk with people. He was a regular at an informal weekly breakfast club, but most of those members have died.

He’s hopeful of reconnecting with John Flanagan, who served as a radio operator on one of the ships, lived in Rhode Island and worked for the phone company after the war. Last he heard, Flanagan lives in North Carolina and owns a steak house.

D-Day may be only a date for many. For Amalfetano it’s as vivid as yesterday.

Asked how he fells about the day, Amalfetano doesn’t pause.

“I’m proud to have been there.”

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JoJo

Thank you Frank for your service.

Friday, June 7