May 8, 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe. This Saturday, June 6, marks another important WWII anniversary: D-Day, the beginning of the Battle of Normandy which is considered by many to have been the start of the end of the war in Europe. Men from the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion, consisting entirely of New Yorkers, participated in the opening battle on June 6, 1944, and were some of the first American soldiers to set foot on Omaha beach.
The Battle of Normandy lasted from June to August 1944, and resulted in the Allied liberation of Western Europe from Nazi Germany’s control. The battle began with D-Day, when American, British, and Canadian forces landed on five beaches along the coast of France. The invasion was one of the largest amphibious military assaults in history, and had included a large-scale deception campaign beforehand to disguise the true site of the invasion from the Germans. By late August 1944, all of northern France had been liberated and by the next spring the Allies had defeated the Germans.
299th Engineer Combat Battalion
The 299th Engineer Combat Battalion was activated on March 3, 1943 in Camp White, Oregon. The men were all New Yorkers, and many grew up with their fellow soldiers and knew each other for years. Of these men, 63 were from Auburn, dubbed the “Auburn Boys.”
Their training began at the end of March. The schedule included use and types of engineer tools, rigging, bridge construction, and basic demolition. After basic training was completed in June, they traveled to Fort Lewis, Washington for additional training in firearms and further practice in bridge and road construction. The 299th were next sent to Fort Pierce, Florida.
Training at Fort Pierce is best described by Auburnian Sam Trinca:
“Mostly it was all underwater demolition. We used to go out with the Navy way over our heads, and mind you, I didn’t even know how to swim. I was no swimmer at all. But hey, I came out of the water. Even if it was over our heads, I’d say “feet, let’s go,” and I made it. What we used to do was go underwater with so many blocks of explosives on our backs, so many pounds, 30-40 pounds of explosives…”
On April 4, 1944 Company A left Camp Kilmer and arrived at the New York Port of Embarkation, where they boarded the S.S. Exchequer which left the New York Harbor and joined a large convoy of other troop ships and destroyers. The troops were not informed of their destination until they were issued a booklet on “Life in the British Isles.”
The 299th went to Dorchester, where they were finally informed of their mission; the invasion of Normandy. They would provide eight assault teams who would cut a path through the German beach obstacles. Each troop was going to carry fifty to sixty pounds of explosives on his back, a cartridge belt, a rifle, and two Bangalor torpedoes, in all about ninety pounds of gear in addition to his own weight.
The men were awakened around 3:00 in the morning on June 6, 1944, and the order came to come on deck. They climbed over a railing and down a cargo net into their assault craft, known as LCVPs. In each LCVP was a rubber raft that contained explosives and the men were lined up around them. The assault crafts formed a line, the engines began to rev, and they headed towards the Normandy coastline with the thundering booms of Navy battleships opening up behind them.
The 299th was scheduled to hit the beaches at 0633 on June 6th. Company B would assault Utah Beach and Companies A and C would assault Omaha Beach. At 0633, eight assault teams of the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion landed on Omaha Beach with the task of clearing fifty-yard gaps in the beach obstacles to allow the invasion to advance on the beach.
There is no better way to describe the events that unfolded than through the words of the men themselves. Here are parts of their accounts:
Anthony “Tony” DeTomaso – Company B, Utah Beach:
“I still didn’t know what I was getting into until I found out when we hit the beach. When we hit the beach and the waters rolled back and forth the first thing I saw was one of our dead GIs, and he had a hole in his head, three or four inches in diameter. I saw that poor guy, and then I got scared.”
Frank Morabito – Company C, Omaha Beach:
“As the ramp went down, I went to the right and Sam Vella went to the left, Sam got shot. We were in deep water and I had to cut my pack off so that I could make it back above water. I was carrying primer cord and detonators, and we were always taught in training never to drop or let go of these… so I threw my rifle and hung on to the primer cords and detonators.”
Chuck Hurlbut – Company C, Omaha Beach:
“Everything’s nice and quiet, then all of a sudden, ping, ping, ping, brrr, on the ramp, we could hear the machine guns hitting. Something’s going wrong. We dropped the ramp. To my knowledge we all got off the craft okay. But thereafter it was devastation. Jesus, guys started dropping and screaming all around you.”
William “Billy” Secaur – Company C, Omaha Beach:
“Vince DeAngelis got shot, so we put him on the boat (with the explosives) to get him in. They hit it with a bomb, and everyone on that boat went with it. That’s when Vince DeAngelis and Johnny Spinelli got killed. They were good friends of mine.”
Saverio “Sam” Trinca – Company C, Omaha Beach:
“The boats came in, it was just a miracle, the boats that came in. As we got closer more boats were getting hit. When the ramp opened guys started pouring out. Of course the Germans had them zeroed in, they were picking them off like flies. Myself, I said the hell with it, I ain’t gonna wait. I jumped off the side; the water was over my head. I had about 100 pounds of stuff on my back, plus my own weight – over my head, I didn’t know how to swim. But I didn’t give a damn. I held my breath, I said feets, lets go. My feet went, until I finally started seeing what I was seeing. Thank God, I must of had my good Guardian Angel watching me. Hey, I didn’t get hit.“
“It was a good thing we were in the water, because I was so scared that I wet my pants. I’m not ashamed to admit it.”
By 0715 on June 6th, the 299th successfully cleared five gaps within the beach obstacles while under heavy mortar and artillery fire. The 299th suffered extremely high casualties, nearly one-third of the battalion was either killed, missing, or wounded. Among these casualties were six of the Auburn Boys: Claude D. Brown, Jr., Nicholas V. DeAngelis, Leo A. Indelicato, Thomas J. Phillips, Lawrence A. Roberts, and John R. Spinelli.
Once the beaches had been taken, the Battalion was called together, and the officers began handing out medals to individual members of the 299th. Tony DeTomaso recalled that they “didn’t want any medals, because either we all got them, or we didn’t want them. So they wound up giving us the Presidential Citation.”
Through June and July, the 299th moved through France, building and repairing bridges and roads.
In December 1944, the 299th fought in the Battle of the Bulge, engaging in bridge demolition and defending barrier lines from German attack. On Christmas Eve they were attacked by German aircraft, and afterwards moved to Spa, Belgium. By February 1945, the town of St. Vilth, Belgium had been liberated and the last German offensive was repulsed. After these events the 299th moved into Germany, where they constructed bridges necessary for the infantry to advance into the country.
Besides the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion, Cayuga County residents served in other units during the war including the First Marine Division, Fifth Company, and the 108th Infantry Regiment, which was made up of twelve companies all recruited from western New York.
The Auburn Boys
Drafted March 1943 for service in the U.S. Army
Anthony J. Butera
Anthony T. Contrara
Joseph M. Costello
Joseph H. Coyle
Daniel G. Cristodero
Nicholas V. DeAngelis
Dominick A. DeBenedetto
Anthony N. DeTomaso
Chester W. DiBari
Sam J. DiFabio
Byron E. Dustman
Nicola A. Falcicchio
Wallace F. Filkins
Anthony N. Gasparo
John H. Gleason
Harold E. Green
Charles W. Hawelka
Charles W. Hurlbut, Jr.
Leo A. Indelicato
Joseph C. Leonti
Harry L. Lull
Frank J. Morabito
Joseph J. Morabito
Richard L. Nash
Wilson J. Near, Jr.
Thomas J. Netti
William L. O’Brien
James F. O’Byrne
Thomas G. O’Connell
Carmen D. Ottaviano
Raymond C. Painter
Henry J. Pearson, Jr.
Anthony A. Petrosino
James B. Ramage
Carl H. Reese
Lawrence A. Roberts
Sam V. Scolaro
William J. Secaur
Charles W. Smith
Dominic A. Spano
Herbert M. Steigerwald
Bruce A. Stigner
William J. Titus
Saverio G. Trinca
Samuel J. Vella
Francis C. Weinch
George J. Wilson, Jr.