Friday, June 06, 2008

d-day old man story

D-Day Vet: Tales of Heroism Often Forget Terrifying, Ugly Side of War
(The Day is not good at headlines. At least this is no "EL Committee Decides Not To Decide on a New Principal")

New London - Joseph Gorra was quite clear: When war is woven as a tale of glorious heroics, that picture is missing large swatches of the story.

”Infantry fighting is beyond comprehension,” Gorra, 82, said Thursday. “You live like an animal. You fight to the death.”

Gorra should know. Then 18, he spent June 6, 1944, fighting his way off Omaha Beach in Normandy with the 18th Regiment of the 1st U.S. Infantry Division.

The New London native and longtime area businessman, who owned N.J. Gorra and Brother clothing store on State Street until it closed in 1982, was an infantry soldier in the D-Day fighting that would help loosen the German hold on France in the summer of 1944.

The soldiers that day were ordered to fight their way off the beach and to the top of a bluff whose only access routes were two alleyways farmers used to collect seaweed for crop fertilization, he said.

”If you want to cross the Thames River and just imagine climbing the hill to the Groton monument, that's what it looked like,” he said of the steep grade of the terrain that day.

Troops traveled across the English Channel on ships that anchored 12 to 14 miles offshore, Gorra said, and soldiers were ferried the remaining distance via landing craft, which carried about 40 soldiers at a time. When the landing craft's ramp extended toward the beach, a gunfire assault began - “the men up front were slaughtered,” Gorra said - so he jumped over the side of the small craft instead and was submerged by the weight of his gun and ammunition belt.

He was under constant enemy fire, damp, seasick and wearing a uniform saturated with a greasy-feeling chemical warfare repellent. He cried while reminiscing. But Gorra survived the day, and the troops won the tiny village of Colleville-sur-Mer.

His ammunition-bearer, a fellow infantryman, was not so lucky. He thought the man survived and returned home, Gorra said, until he stumbled upon the grave at the American cemetery above the beach in 1969.

Gorra has returned to Colleville for nearly all D-Day anniversaries since its quarter-century commemoration. He was made an honorary citizen there on the 60th anniversary in 2004.

The famous day played a big role in Gorra's life, but he remains humbly realistic about his role in making history.

”All I did was survive from the water's edge to the base of the hill,” he said.

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