As Memorial Day approaches, a D-Day veteran remembers his time in battle and those who fell for our freedom
By Aimee O’Grady
“Live each day to its fullest, because once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.” At 93 years old, Vito Monteleone offers sage advice that he has taken to heart. No matter how challenging the days may seem, or how relentless the memories of the past—the wounded, the horrible injuries, the amputations he performed, and the deaths he witnessed on the front lines of World War II—Vito has lived each day to its fullest.
Monteleone, a World War II Army medic, only began sharing his experiences during World War II three years ago when Tim Nosal, Commander (VFW Post 9835), encouraged him to speak at Taylor Middle School. Kelly Smith at St. John the Evangelist School then invited Monteleone and former POW, the now late John Urban, to speak to students in her third-grade class. The St. John’s students were part of a nationwide history competition to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the war. After their encounter with Monteleone and Urban, their project won first place.
Monteleone was living on Long Island, New York, working as a truck driver when he turned 18 in 1942 and received his draft notice, and says, “If I wasn’t drafted, I would have enlisted. I wanted to fight.” Monteleone, who thought he was going to go overseas to drive a truck, was assigned to the Army medics. “They needed medics, they didn’t need truck drivers at the time.”
After completing basic training at Camp Pickett, Fort Bragg, and Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he boarded the Queen Elizabeth bound for England. “We had no escort,” he recalls, “and moved in a zigzag pattern to evade German submarines.” After five and a half days they arrived in Glasgow, and then moved on to Salisbury, England where hospital tents and Quonset huts were set up. He was there in England on D-Day when the Americans landed on the beaches of Normandy.
Monteleone doesn’t hide his emotions as he tells his story. He doesn’t shield the listener from what he witnessed. Tears roll down his cheeks as he recalls his buddy, Bob, who died in his arms after stepping on a land mine. Monteleone believes the younger generations need to know what happened. Monteleone is aware that when all the World War II veterans have died, the first
hand knowledge of the war will die with them. Through the telling of his story, the phrase most often repeated was, “It was a horrible war.”
On the morning of June 6, 1944, Monteleone was stationed in England. He walked out of his hut to the distinct sound of airplanes transporting paratroopers headed for Normandy. When he looked to the sky, the sight was stunning and unforgettable. The sky was teeming with aircrafts, a swarm of planes and gliders [engineless planes which were towed by planes and released near the planned landing location] flying in unison, so tightly together there wasn’t any room for more aircrafts to join. “Even if I had had access to a glider or plane, I wouldn’t have been able to fit it up in there, they were packed so closely together.”
He spoke of what the pilots faced when they arrived on the beaches. The Germans, who were aware of D-Day, flooded the fields where the gliders were scheduled to land. “The gliders would usually flip over when they hit the flooded field; the paratroopers and crew were in great danger of drowning. They had four clips to open to get out of their harness, if they didn’t unclip in time, they drowned.”
So Monteleone remained in England and cared for the wounded when they were brought back. After eight weeks, he requested to be reassigned to combat, where he cared for injured soldiers on the front lines. Medics were just as much at risk of injury as soldiers. “We only had a small cross on our sleeve and the Germans couldn’t see it,” he says. Medics, who didn’t carry weapons, were being shot. “We painted a red cross on our helmets to better identify ourselves.” Monteleone was assigned to the 103rd Medical Battalion of the 28th Infantry Division. He would stay with them until the end of the war. “We would look for a schoolhouse to use as an aid station, or if we couldn’t find that, we would use a bar and grill. That’s how I became hooked on cognac,” he says with a smile.
With the 28th Division, Monteleone cared for the wounded at the Normandy Breakout, the Liberation of Paris, the drive into Belgium, the fighting in the Hurtgen Forest, the Battle of the Bulge, the fighting in the Rhineland, and the surrender of Germany. He offered aid to concentration camp victims. “We tried to help them in any way we could; they were so sick we could count their bones. We treated as many people as we could.”
As a medic, he carried two pouches; his left pouch was filled with bandages, in the right pouch he carried morphine, needles, sulfathiazole, iodine, and tags. “I would write whatever was wrong with the victim on the tag, but for amputees. I would put iodine on their forehead. The tourniquets needed to be opened every few minutes to let the wound bleed or gangrene would set in,” he says of amputations. “There was no time to read the tags. The iodine would let the next medic know what to do.” Although it was unusual for a medic, Monteleone performed amputations when the need became great. “Amputations were very simple. Amputations were so heavy the Captain pulled me off the line and said, ‘you see that table over there? It’s yours.’ When I did my first amputation, I used iodine to mark where I was going to make my incision, cut the bone, and sewed the patient up. Captain looked at my work and said ‘you’re on your own.’ I did what I did. We did that and then went right into combat to take care of the wounded.” Amputees would often have to wait three days to reach England for treatment: the day they were wounded, one day in the field tent, and then one day for transportation to England.
In the field, Monteleone worked with a team of five other soldiers. “We were like brothers. Whatever I said, they did.” One soldier in his litter squad, Robert, was shot through the muscle of one arm. “I told Robert to get to an aid station and he told me, ‘I ain’t going back there, I’m staying right here with you guys, I still have one good arm.’ And he stayed and continued working on the wounded.”
The casualties at the Battle of the Bulge were very heavy on both sides. “The German medical officer came over with a white flag,” says Monteleone. “He asked for a two-hour cease fire so both sides could care for their wounded. After the two hours, the combat ensued.”
While most of his experiences convey the brutality of the war, Monteleone does have some light-hearted memories of his time overseas. “Everyone had their Fräulein,” he says with a sly smile, “and I had two, Esther and Frieda.” Monteleone also recalls the swimming pool in the German town of Kaiserslautern. The soldiers repaired the pool for the villagers and then swam several times each week while they were stationed there.
He remembers the Liberation of Paris like it was yesterday. The intense joy and relief of the Parisians was profound, and they celebrated accordingly. “After the liberation, the wine, champagne, and cognac flowed in the streets [were consumed liberally],” he recalls. The iconic moment of the American soldiers marching down the Champs Elysees was captured by a photographer and ultimately used on a commemorative 3-cent stamp 50 years after the August 29, 1944, liberation. Monteleone can be seen on the right-hand side of the first line of soldiers walking in front of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. He is the soldier with two arm bands.
When he returned to the United States in September, 1944, Monteleone, who didn’t have the money to pursue a medical degree, returned to Long Island where he worked as a teamster and joined the union. His war days behind him, he focused on the future. He met his wife, Mahala, in 1948 on a blind date at a Corn Party at the Elmont Fire Department where he was a volunteer fireman. The two would go on to have four sons, and today have ten grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. A bookcase in their home lined with family albums from RV trips taken over the years stands as a testament to the full life Monteleone went on to lead. “Vito is one of the few World War II veterans that you can thank today,” Mahala says, “many others have gone before him.”
After the war, Monteleone collected new stories, such as the one about Jimmy Hoffa, who he knew. “I told Jimmy ‘you listen to your father,’ and when I saw him a few years later, he told me that he was doing just that.” Like many combat soldiers, Monteleone kept his war experiences to himself, choosing to focus on the present rather than relive the past. Monteleone now believes that today’s youth need to know the truth about the war and is sharing his stories.
For three years, Monteleone fought for freedoms enjoyed today in the United States; he is aware of how the world would be different if the United States had not entered the war after Pearl Harbor. He shakes his head at today’s youth being sent overseas to fight for other nations. “Where were they when we were fighting?” he asks rhetorically.
Inspired by his sense of selflessness and dedication to service, his sons all became part of the brotherhood of firemen, three as volunteers and one as a career fighter. His grandson, Douglas Jr., is a volunteer fireman in Manassas working on becoming a career fireman. “I heard enough from him to know I didn’t want to join the Army, but wanted to serve somehow,” he says of his grandfather’s influence on him.
Today, Vito and Mahala live quietly in Warrenton with their son, Douglas Sr., a retired Fauquier County Sheriff, daughter-in-law Joann, and grandchildren Douglas Jr. and Jessica, a senior at Kettle Run High School. Vito enjoys woodworking in a shed behind his house. The day we met for our interview, Mahala was preparing corned beef and cabbage for St. Patrick’s Day for an unknown number of guests, explaining, “I never know who is coming with my grandchildren bringing their friends over!” The food bubbled on the stove and the kitchen door stood ajar to let in the cool early-spring air. Vito sat at the kitchen table with his 28th Division album, assembled by the military, in front of him, as well as several other photos and documents from his wartime years. The dichotomy of the life as an old man with decades of memories and experiences behind him versus the lives of so many cut short is never far from his mind. In his heart, he carries the memories of all his fallen brothers, like Bob, who made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom during World War II and changed history.
The writers, editors, and publisher of the Piedmont Lifestyle Magazines offer their deepest appreciation to the men and women who have served in the name of freedom and for those men and women currently serving overseas.