From the archives: A soldier's story

From the archives: A soldier's story

Woonsocket's Fazzio recalls his harrowing D-Day landing at Normandy 70 years ago

This column by Tom Ward first appeared in The Breeze five years ago. In the final line, then 89-year-old Richard Fazzio jokes “I’m leaving.” But he hasn’t, thankfully. He’s 94 and healthy today, the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Richard Fazzio greets me warmly to his Woonsocket three-decker, and soon enough, gets around to pouring me a glass of burgundy.

"I've been drinking it since I was a kid," he says, "and I used to help my father make it," he reports with pride.

On this, the anniversary of a day that will forever be with him, and with his grateful country, he again tells the story of his being among the first to land his Higgins boat on the shores of Omaha Beach in Normandy, France.

It has been 70 years since D-Day, June 6, 1944, but Fazzio, now 89, still recalls it clearly.

First though, his story. Fazzio was born in May 1925, and grew up in Woonsocket. At age 6 and with his 9-year-old brother, Frank, he was selling The Woonsocket Call and other newspapers on Main Street, at the corner of Ascension. He recalls the paper cost 2 cents back then, and he got a half-penny each for his efforts. In his family of eight kids, and for so many other children of the Great
Depression, all work was good work. So he polished cars, delivered ice, and worked in the mills after he finished school at age 16.

Frank went off the join the Civilian Conservation Corps, and when World War II broke out, he joined the Army.

In early 1943, Richard joined the Navy, over the protests of his father.

"I kept telling my father: 'I want to go in the Navy! I want to go in the Navy!' So my mother says to my father, 'You sign his papers, because God forbid he dies in the Army, I'll feel guilty.' I can see my father to this day, with tears in his eyes, signing my papers." Richard was only 17 years old. "I remember when I came home from boot camp, I was catching the bus on Providence Street, you know, and

I can still see to this day...I'm in uniform...and a woman sees me and cries 'Oh, no! You're just a baby!"'

Just more than one year later, while other "babies" his age were at other peaceful beaches on the home front, Fazzio, in the first wave of the largest invasion force ever assembled, captained his boat straight into the teeth of Nazi defenders dug in on the coast of France. It was a day the world would never forget.

When Richard entered the Navy in 1943 he was soon assigned to be the coxswain, or "captain," as it were, of a new landing craft, the Higgins boat. On it was a crew of four, with room for 36 soldiers to be brought onshore. A shallow-draft boat, it had the capability of landing on the beach, where its front door - a ramp - swung open and allowed the soldiers to swarm off the boat.

Fazzio's crew of four were Wally Lawton of Cumberland, Gabriel Baylis of Allentown, Pennsylvania, and Bob Brien of Dearborn, Michigan. "We were like brothers," says Fazzio of his crewmates. Only Fazzio remains alive today.

During training stateside, "We just learned how to land the boat. To load it, unload it. They did not tell us about an invasion."

When they finally got to England, on "Easter Sunday, 1944," Fazzio said "We never talked about the war. We didn't read papers, listen to radio. We talked about home. It never entered out minds that we would invade France."

For a moment, Fazzio is 18 again.

"We were having fun. We were wild, I'm telling you. All over England...stopping in ports," he says laughing. That ended suddenly on May 25, when a Nazi air raid hit them hard. Ships were seen blown out of the water as morning arrived. On the next Sunday, the Roman Catholic Mass was full. It had been held in an airplane hangar each week, and was usually nearly empty. On that Sunday, Fazzio says, "It was full."

Said the priest: "I could never get you guys to Mass. It took the Jerrys (Germans) to get you here. I'll give you the last rites."

It was about a month earlier, as he recalls it, that Fazzio and his crew learned an invasion was coming. About a week before D-Day, "all coxswain and signalmen had the layout of Normandy, and the obstacles. I knew my spot. I had to (aim) for a church (above) Omaha Beach. That's when we knew we were going to see action."

As most know by now, a storm forced the postponement of "Operation Overlord," as the invasion was officially known. Twenty-four hours later, D-Day arrived.

"During the night, we left," said Fazzio. "We arrived about 10-11 miles off Normandy at 1 a.m. and anchored. We were the lead ship. It was pitch dark."

"At about 2 a.m. we were told 'Lights out,' but that night, the lights stayed on. Nobody slept. Through the anxiety and everything else, we didn't sleep. Not a wink."

"We took our boats and started loading troops at 4 a.m." His Higgins boat picked up soldiers from the USS Henrico, an attack transport. "We started circling the rendezvous area. At about 6:15 a.m. we left in a line and headed for the beach. We hit beaches at 6:30."

As they arrived, Fazzio says, "Every ship - battleships, cruisers...you name 'em - they were bombing that beach. Airplanes by the hundreds were going over and dropping bombs. I said to my crew: 'There can't be nothing left at that beach. This is going to be a picnic.' I've said it before: It looked like a thousand Fourth of Julys."

He was wrong.

"When Nazi defenders started dropping bombs and you could smell the gunpowder, I thought 'This is it."'

I asked Fazzio what he was hearing from the guys on the boat.

"Not much. They were quiet. Guys making the sign of the cross. There were no atheists on that boat. You could hear bullets hitting water and the side of the ship. I kept yelling, 'Keep your heads down.'"

"As the ramp was going down, I started thinking of my mother." His voice trails off. "It was tough..."

How long, I asked, were you there?

"It seemed like forever," he said. "To tell you the truth, I don't know. One soldier froze. He was right here. He froze. He seen what was going on."
Fazzio says the soldier was scared to death.

"We were instructed to not bring anybody back. I waved for him to move. That's when I got hit."

As far as Fazzio knows, no soldier, including the frightened young soldier from his boat, survived the assault. "I saw several" gunned down, he says, before the ramp was pulled up and he and his crew got off the beach.

Lawton, of Cumberland, was in charge of bringing the ramp up. Says Fazzio, "Wally could never bring that ramp up during training. He always needed help. (But) on that day, I never seen it come up so fast."

"Then I backed the boat off the beach."

"After I left the beach, I started to get woozy. I was shot in the right armpit (while soldiers left his boat). I felt a hot sting. Really hot. But I was so tied up with what I was supposed to do, then I backed the boat out, and then I felt faint. My crew thought I was faking," he says with a laugh.

After recuperating in Scotland for three weeks, Fazzio was again in an invasion of southern France, on Aug. 15, 1944, but "that one was a piece of cake," he says.

I asked him about all those 70 years since, and about newsman and writer Tom Brokaw's labelling of his contemporaries as "The Greatest Generation." His answer was the same as so many others from that era: "We had a job to do and we did it."

Another who "did his job" was his brother, Frank. A world away, Richard's big brother fought in the South Pacific.

"Can you write a little about my brother?" Richard asked me.

He spoke proudly of Frank, and his earning the Bronze Star for bravery in New Guinea. Frank would be killed a few months later in the Philippines.

Do you still think about him, I ask? "All the time," he said through tears. It was the most sorrowful moment of our conversation.

Fazzio's two other brothers served, too. Charlie was in the Seabees, and the youngest, Sam, was in the Navy during the Korean Conflict.

Fazzio has mixed feelings about what is going on today in the United States. While he is amazed at the technological breakthroughs and how they have made our lives better, he wonders if we are "doomed to repeat" our history.

"The only thing I don't like about this country, says Fazzio, "is nobody knows anything about the damned war. When I went back to France (Normandy) little kids were running up to you and kissing you and saying 'Monsieur, monsieur, thank you, thank you.' They were kissing and hugging you. Every year they celebrate at Normandy. But still (young people in) this country don't know anything about it."
Does that worry you, I ask?

"Yes, it does. I think this country is going down the sewer." He expresses no love for the current president.

He worries about our nation's defense, and points to the recent History Channel three-part series "The World Wars." In the show, President Franklin Roosevelt is seen cutting back on the military to save money during the Depression, while Germany and Japan are re-arming.

"The same freaking thing is going on today," says Fazzio. "This guy (President Obama) has cut our defenses, China's building like hell, and you see what Putin's doing."

"And so it worries you," I ask again?

Yes, but "I'm leaving," the 89-year-old says, laughing.