MIDDLETOWN — Seventy-five years ago, on June 6, 1944, more than 150,000 soldiers from the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada stormed the Nazi-occupied beaches of Normandy, France, in a bold strategy to push the Nazis out of Western Europe.
“D-Day” is credited with being the largest amphibian invasion in history, one of the major turning points of World War II. Troops came by air, land and sea. Allied soldiers, sailors airmen and coast guardsmen who died that day numbered 4,414. Thousands of others were wounded.
World War II U.S. Coast Guard combat veteran Andrew “Andy” Schiavone, a current resident of Middletown who will turn 98 years old on July 28, was there, on Utah Beach in Normandy, France, on that fateful day.
“You never heard so much noise in your life,” Schiavone said, placing his hands over his ears, wincing his eyes, as he remembered. “I try to forget about it, not think of it much. You never heard so much explosion or saw such confusion, any time or anywhere. It was just a barrage of loud noise. It was so deafeningly loud - it busted my ear drum.”
Schiavone has suffered from hearing loss since that day 75 years ago. According to the veteran, although he admits that he is chronically hard of hearing, he has never gone to a veterans hospital to get the partial deafness evaluated. He says that he has “learned to live with it.” This week, he sat beside his wife, Cellerina, for an interview about his role in D-Day, reflecting how the course of his life took him to the beaches of France seven and a half decades ago, and how it affected his life, and the lives of everyone around the world.
Schiavone’s journey to Normandy began after graduation from high school. He grew up in Bangor, Pa. He had just started mortuary school when World War II broke out. He decided to enlist and on Sept. 26, 1942, at age 21, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard in Philadelphia.
“I felt it was my patriotic duty,” he said. “That’s why they call us ‘The Greatest Generation.’ It’s because we knew it was our duty and we served, willingly and without reservation.”
“I tried out for the Marines, but they were a little too strict for me,” he continued as he thought back to his younger years. “It was ironic, because I ended up on a ship, working side by side with Marines throughout my service years anyway. I was on a transport ship that doubled as a hospital ship. Its main purpose was to transport Marines from one battle theater to the next.”
After completing boot camp in Curtis Bay, Md., Schiavone was sent to Pharmacist Mate School in Groton, Conn. He thinks the Coast Guard selected him for a medical role because of his mortuary school background. There, he received a rating of Seaman 2nd Class. From there, Schiavone was assigned to a Coast Guard Cutter for three months and patrolled the coast off of Florida, on the lookout for German U-Boats.
In November of 1943, the young Coast Guardsman was assigned to the Attack Transport, U.S.S. Bayfield at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. There, he was promoted to Petty Officer, Pharmacist Mate 3rd Class.
In February 1944, the U.S.S. Bayfield set sail for The European Theater battle zone. First stop was Scotland, and then on to England, to pick up Admiral Moon and plan for the Normandy invasion.
On June 5, troops were on board, heading for Utah Beach in France, to carry out the Allied mission of the D-Day invasion on June 6. The USS Bayfield was not only an attack transport, but a hospital ship as well. As a Pharmacist Mate, Schiavone had one basic task to do, he said.
“My job was to find the wounded and stop the bleeding,” he explained. “I used tourniquets and bandages — whatever I had to do to stop the bleeding until we could get the soldiers back to our ship for the doctors to treat them. With all the injuries from bullets and shrapnel, my job seemed to never be done. There was shooting shooting, and more shooting, all day long. That’s probably how I got this busted ear drum.”
Schiavone said there was a ration of five corpsmen, like him, to every medical doctor. The ship, which would also pick up and transport the war’s fatalities, was set up for emergency surgeries. The crew did the best that they could, according to Schiavone, until they could transport the wounded back to mainland hospitals, in safe zones, for better medical care.
“They did more than just a good job,” Cellerina chimed in. “They did a terrific job, considering that they were just young boys over there, no more than their early 20s in age.”
“All I remember seeing were casualties,” Schiavone elaborated, as he thought back to the war zone. “I’d hear ‘Corpsman, I’ve been hit,’ or ‘Over here, corpsman.’ I went from one to the other to get them help. I just tried to take one day at a time and do the best that I could under those circumstances.”
He says that he brought home a mangled-up metal canteen, with a large hole in it from the bullet it took, after missing Schiavone. The canteen was hanging from his waist when it was hit.
“I try to blot all this stuff from my mind, most times,” Schiavone continued, looking sadly as he stared down at his clasped hands. “About one-third of those on my ship did not make it back home. I used to dream about it, but as I got older, the dreams faded. All I can say, is it’s just something that had to be done.”
Schiavone recounted that not all his memories of WWII were ones that he has tried all through life to forget. He has fond memories, too.
“When we had down time, we would go to islands that we had already captured and hold beer parties,” Schiavone chuckled.
Baseball legend Yogi Berra was one of Schiavone’s ship mates. He would bring bats and balls to the islands and the Marines and Coast Guardsmen would all play, remembered Schiavone.
“He was a really nice guy, a fun guy,” commented Schiavone. “When we got out of the service, many of us followed his career, rooting for him from afar.”
By August, the USS Bayfield headed for assault on the Southern Coast of France with troops from the 36th Division. The ship returned to the United States for overhaul the following month.
In November, the Bayfield was assigned to the Pacific Theatre battle zone as the flagship of an attack unit. By February 1945, Schiavone was a Pharmacist Mate 1st Class when he arrived at two Jima, the WWII battle in which the U.S. Marine Corps landed on and eventually captured the island from the Imperial Japanese Army. Once again Schiavone, just as he had done on the beaches of Normandy, set out to “stop the bleeding,” this time walking through black volcanic ash, checking soldiers’ bodies to see if they were dead or alive. If they were alive, Schiavone recounted, he gave them first aid and sent them back to the ship. The Coast Guardsman said that his commanding officer ordered him to remove the red cross that he had painted on his helmet during the D-Day mission in France because on Iwo Jima, the Japanese forces would target the medics first.
The Bayfield remained in Iwo Jima for 10 days, picking up battle casualties from the 4th Division Marines and prisoners of war and then proceeding to Saipan to drop them off.
As a diversionary strategy, the ship attacked the southeastern coast of Okinawa in an operation to fool the Japanese, on both April 1 and 2. During the last four months of WWII, the Bayfield supported the occupation of Japan and Korea, and then brought American soldiers back home in an operation called “Magic Carpet.”
Pharmacist Mate 1st Class Andy Schiavone was honorably discharged on May 31, 1946, after serving his country for almost four years. For his service, he was awarded with the American Campaign Medal, the AsiaTIT Pacific Theater Medal with two Bronze Battle Stars, the European African Middle Eastern Medal with two Bronze Battle Stars, World War II Victory Medal, the Navy Occupation Service Medal with Asian Clasp and the World War II Honorable Discharge Ruptured Duck Pin.
After the service, Schiavone finished mortuary school and became a mortician in his hometown of Bangor for 36 years. Schiavone met his wife at a wedding where they were both guests. He asked her to dance. The couple married and had four sons; two are living and two are now deceased. All their children became professionals – a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and an engineer.
After retiring, Andy and Cellerina decided to move to Delaware County to be closer to Cellerina’s brother and one of their sons who lived in Concord at the time. The couple has resided in Middletown for the past 32 years. This year, they will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary.
Schiavone has never been to an official reunion of his shipmates of the USS Bayfield, but he did stay in touch with a few friends through the years.
“They’re all gone now,” he said, wringing his hands, with his eyes cast downward. “Seventy-five years later and my buddies are all gone.”