Louis Graziano rolled out of the landing ship tank and onto Omaha Beach with a truck full of gasoline behind him and historic odds to his front.
Graziano, a then-20-year-old Army soldier, was part of the third wave on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Saturday, he was in Abilene, the home of his former commanding officer Dwight Eisenhower. He sat behind Eisenhower’s old desk and chronicled how he got there, including that day 75 years ago.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not,” he said. “Of course I was afraid, but I had to do it, and I got it done. I jumped out of it quick. I knew if they hit it, they’d blow me up.”
Graziano, now 96, was a keynote speaker at the Eisenhower Foundation’s 75th D-Day anniversary ceremony. He traveled from Georgia with his children and his grandchildren to Abilene where the foundation staged a week-long “five-star commemoration” for a five-star general. Graziano didn’t want to fly, electing to drive 15 hours to the Sunflower State; he said the road trip is half the fun.
Graziano was a hair dresser before he was drafted in the Army and went back after the war ended. He still cuts hair and is in good health, including his mind. In December, he published a 142-page book to preserve his many memories from combat training at Fort Hood in Texas and Camp Shanks in New York to evading German U-boats to get to Europe.
His survival on D-Day stood out.
After successfully getting the gasoline truck inland, he jumped out and laid among a pile of his fallen comrades. He saw a cliff ahead and fought his way to get underneath with the German soldiers above. Graziano said he looked up and saw Germans deploying a machine gun. He ignited his flamethrower and lit the trees from the bottom to flush the Germans out.
He fired a flare to alert the Navy of his target. Many of the Germans were taken out, but Graziano said he wasn’t out. He said he had to sleep under the cliff that night. The next morning, he took about 35 men up the cliff.
Some of the men lost their guns trudging through the water to get ashore. Graziano told them to take one off a fallen soldier. They made it out and traveled more than 250 miles to Reims, France.
“I think the Lord was with me,” he said. “I just kept praying every time I got into a tight spot, and he’d come through.”
Graziano’s survival launched a series of experiences he carried with him into Abilene. He said he dealt with Eisenhower, the future U.S. president, twice. The first was to create a phone line. The second had a bit more importance.
May 7, 1945, Graziano and about 100 other men filed into “the little red schoolhouse,” in Reims, France. He guarded a door called the War Room as Eisenhower and German general Alfred Jodl were among those to sign Germany’s unconditional surrender, ending WWII.
Of all the men there that day, Graziano’s daughter Moira Johnson said her father is believed to be the only one still alive. Another of his daughters Kim Evans said it gives her chills to the day to think about it.
“We are so proud of daddy,” Johnson said. “He deserves all the glory because he’s a hero in our book. I think he knows his place in history, but he’s so humble he would not admit it. ... He’s a treasure of the Knights of Columbus.”
“He witnessed it,” Evans said. “He was standing there and saw them sign this. Wow, I just want to touch him.”
Graziano wasn’t the only man with stories at the anniversary ceremony. Although he is one of the few left from D-Day, Park City resident Edward Arzinger is one of the few left from the Pacific Theater.
Arzinger, now 93, served as a torpedoman in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Wickes and USS Bronson. He went through Pearl Harbor six months after the Japanese attack Dec. 7, 1941. He from Alaska to Korea and ultimately the Phillipines at the battles of Leyte, Luzon and Corregidor.
Although Arzinger wasn’t at the D-Day invasion of France, he said he has the utmost respect for those who were. That was why he made the drive to Abilene for the 75th anniversary.
“That was quite a feat they pulled there,” Arzinger said. “They had it pretty rough on the beach.”
Maria McClough wasn’t on the beach that day either, but she went through the terrors of war, too. McClough, born in Poland, was taken in the middle of the night away from her father to a Russian concentration camp in Siberia. While there, she lost her mother to a list of health concerns because of the living conditions.
After her mother died, she was left to take care of her four siblings. McClough said the Russians were no better than the Germans.
“You cannot apprehend how many people died,” she said. “They just discarded us as pieces of garbage - just threw them in the river or left them laying there. ... Auschwitz was horrible, but so was Siberia.
“I would like the young generation to know that it really, really did happen. It did happen.”
McClough went from Poland to Russia to Iran to Africa. She said only the American soldiers made her feel human.
Graziano served under one of the most decorated commanding officers in U.S. military history in Eisenhower. So the ceremonies in Abilene were a bit of a homecoming for him and survivors like McClough.
Their memories are some of the last first-hand sources from WWII, and all three - Graziano, McClough and Arzinger - said it is important to carry on the stories of men like Eisenhower, one of Kansas’ most beloved figures.
“It’s a big honor for me to be here, in his spot, where he grew up,” Graziano said.