75 years later, Woonsocket’s Fazzio honored with highest French military honor

75 years later, Woonsocket’s Fazzio honored with highest French military honor

Richard Fazzio, center, of Woonsocket and a veteran of the first wave on D-Day in France 75 years ago, salutes as the national anthem is sung last week at the Musuem of Work and Culture. To his left are Dan and Kelly Legendre, with whom Fazzio lives, and Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt. (Breeze photos by Tom Ward)

WOONSOCKET – It’s been 75 years since Richard Fazzio watched the devastation on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion of 1944, but the thought of the lives lost that morning still brings tears to his eyes.

Last Wednesday, June 26, Fazzio received the Legion D’Honneur, France’s highest military honor, for his service in the Allied invasion of Europe during World War II. The award, the result of a long effort by friends and supporters, was presented by Consul General of France Arnaud Mentré during a ceremony at the Museum of Work and Culture that served as a reminder to all present of the sacrifices made by many soldiers 75 years ago.

Fazzio, who grew up on Fountain and Lincoln Streets in Woonsocket before enlisting in the Navy at the age of 17, had few words to say on the occasion. A description of the heroic actions that earned him the recognition came instead from Tim Gray, a South Kingstown-based filmmaker and president of the World War II Foundation who has spent most of his career recording the stories of veterans, including Fazzio’s. Gray described in detail how Fazzio pulled his Higgins boat up to the USS Henrico off the coast of Normandy Tuesday morning to pick up soldiers and carry them in for the Allied invasion.

“The soldiers on Richard’s landing craft, as Richard told me many times, none of them were atheists,” said Gray.

Fazzio became visibly emotional as the filmmaker described the scene that greeted the boats as they approached the beach. The young sailor had been told to aim for a specific church tower, only finding out later on that he had been tasked with transporting troops to one of the most heavily defended sections of Omaha Beach. Members of the 16th infantry regiment, nicknamed the “Big Red One,” and other first-wave regiments suffered casualty rates of close to 50 percent.

“If you can picture the first 27 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, that is what happened to Richard’s 16th infantry regiment soldiers of the Big Red One,” said Gray.

As he waved a frightened soldier off the boat, Gray recounted, Fazzio was shot in the right armpit, an injury that later earned him a Purple Heart. The sailors yanked up the landing ramp of their Higgins boat and made their way back to the USS Henrico. Years later, Fazzio would return to the beaches of Normandy while being interviewed for one of Gray’s documentaries. The filmmaker recalled how a group of French schoolchildren approached the military veteran on the occasion, hugging him and lauding him as a hero.

“From that moment, you understood what you were fighting for,” he said.

For most in the room, the stories were a reminder of an era long past. But for Fazzio, the memories of what happened that day are still fresh enough to haunt his sleep at night.

“I can’t take that, I break down just the thought of it,” he told The Valley Breeze following the ceremony.

Instead, he focused his comments on friends in the audience whose efforts led to the recognition and on his family, many of whom were in attendance.

“They’re the best. Every one of them,” he said.

Other speakers described Fazzio’s humility and need to always turn attention on others before himself, a habit that led to a reluctance to attend an honor flight to Washington D.C. He finally accepted last year at the invitation of Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, who traveled to the nation’s capital with Fazzio in the summer of 2018. She described the emotion of the day and his excitement at getting to meet former Sen. Bob Dole.

“It was one of the most moving, compelling, beautiful days that you could experience,” she said.

Mentré, who presented the award in French, noted the sacrifices of war veterans on both sides of the Atlantic, sharing that many of his family members had also fought for France’s liberation from Nazi control. Though the number of deaths was devastating, he said, for the French, the reason for their sacrifice was obvious in the outcome of the war.

“It was the liberation of our country, but beyond that, it was the reaffirmation of freedom and dignity on European soil,” he said.

The presentation came just a few weeks after the observance of the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6. Roger Begin, honorary consul of France in Rhode Island who served as emcee of the event, noted that for many, it was the first time they heard the stories of World War II.

“For those of us of the generation, it was a reminder for us, and perhaps even for others it was the first time they heard the story, of what occurred during World War II and the D-Day invasion that turned the tide,” he said.

In addition to Fazzio’s injury, the family also lost a son during World War II. His brother, Frank, an Army infantryman, was killed in action in the Philippines in December of 1944. A third brother, Charlie, also served in the Navy during World War II, while a fourth, Sam, served during the Korean War.

After the war, Fazzio married his now-late wife, Frances, and had two children and three grandchildren. He now lives with his granddaughter, Kelli Legendre, and her husband, Dan, on Jillson Avenue. Kelli said that growing up, she never knew the stories of her grandfather’s heroism during World War II, only learning about them later through documentaries and articles.

“(There are) no words. So proud of him,” said Dan.

Woonsocket’s Richard Fazzio, 94, receives the French Legion D’Honneur from French Consul General Arnaud Mentre.