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Seventy-five years later, Freeport vets recall D-Day

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D-Day was bloody.

Seventy-five years have passed since 156,000 Allied troops landed on five beaches in Normandy, France. That day, June 6, 1944, marked the largest seaborne military invasion ever executed. American, British and Canadian troops stormed the beaches and parachuted into northern France in an operation that altered the course of World War II. Thousands lost their lives.

Veterans Vincent Greco and Albert Kelpfel, both 93 and both of Freeport, did not take part in the invasion, but they remember it, and both said they were fortunate to come out of the war alive.

Greco was an 18-year-old U.S. Army soldier who was drafted in 1944. As D-Day was unfolding, he was awaiting his orders at Fort Bragg, N.C. He joined the war effort as a motor gunner and rifleman in the 45th Infantry.

Kelpfel, who had joined the Navy at 17 in October 1943, was a seaman in the 135th Seabees Naval Construction Battalion, a group of skilled construction workers whose task was to help build naval bases. Everywhere the Marines went, the Seabees went, too, Kelpfel said.

On D-Day, he was on a ship headed to Tinian on the Mariana Islands, which were the launching points for the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945.

“D-Day was just another day for us on base, because we were training and preparing,” Greco said.

When news broke of the success in Normandy, he didn’t have too much time to think about anything else but where in Europe he would be headed. After D-Day, he heard that more riflemen were needed in France. “That’s what we were trained for,” he said. He was ready.

Months after D-Day, Greco was shipped to Marseille, France, and was part of the effort to push through to the Maginot Line at Alsace Lorraine, between France and Germany. Along the way, he and his fellow soldiers liberated small towns.

“We lived like animals,” Greco said. “Our main goal was to try to keep from freezing and not get killed.”

His time in the war ended on New Year’s Eve 1944, in an attack by the Germans, Unternehmen (Operation) Nordwind. Greco got caught in the middle of an artillery barrage. Two fellow soldiers were shot and killed; he was hit with an artillery shell, developed gangrene and nearly lost his legs.

“I never thought that I would get out of that one,” Greco said. He did, however, and was sent home.

Though he was on the Mariana Islands, Kelpfel said he understood D-Day was pivotal in winning the war.

“When you try to think about it all these years later, there are things you remember and it causes you to . . .” — he trailed off, in tears. “I remember the stench of bodies that had blown up or were rotting. You never forget that. It alters your life. “

Both men agreed that their service in the war was “an absolute necessity.” Greco said he believed that if America hadn’t gotten involved, the atrocities of Europe would have made their way to American soil.

“We had no choice,” he said. “The way I feel about it — my country, right or wrong.”