LINCOLN – A wave of memories from Robello Ferrante’s years in the service wash over him, and for a moment he’s no longer in his Lincoln home, but back overseas in the thick of the Second World War.
He’s 97 now, and many decades removed from his time in the Army infantry. Two Purple Hearts and a medal for good conduct are among the few physical possessions he still has commemorating those years.
Still, he recalls in vivid detail those days serving in five major battles as a member of the Seventh U.S. Army under General George S. Patton.
“We were in Africa, Algeria, Tunisia and went across and invaded Sicily. We were the first Americans back on the continent after the Germans had thrown everybody out,” he said. “Boy, we had a lot of injured and a lot of death,” he said.
Ferrante still holds something of a grudge against the U.S. Navy for “dumping the infantrymen beyond the sandbar” as they prepared to invade Anzio, Italy.
“Instead of 3 feet it was 9 feet of water and we were packed with gear. We had a lot of drowning that day. Guys couldn’t handle it,” he said.
Anzio degenerated into a deadlock.
“Anzio was where the Germans said: You stop and go no further until next summer. It was February,” he said. The Germans were posted in a monastery 5,000 feet above the allied troops, and the snow was swirling.
“They were firing guns at us, and then the Americans bombed the place and made it worse because there were more hiding places for the Germans,” he said.
The Americans began the uphill climb.
At one point in the thick of the night, Ferrante and two others were asked to scout out the path and search for six missing men.
“As I was going out I lost my two buddies. They were cautious. I wasn’t cautious. I’m not bragging,” he said. Then, he came across a small peninsula of barbed wire in the woods.
“I couldn’t see, so I threw my pistol over and jumped over the wire. When I went around the curve, oh, I saw a big gun. At the same time, I saw a hole, and a Luger pistol.”
It was a new gun, and a curious Ferrante picked it up, held it to his hip and fired two shots. Suddenly, an enemy appeared from the hole.
“I pulled my rifle and fired again. I didn’t realize what I did but I fired and it scraped him right over the eye,” Ferrante recalls. “I stopped firing and made him come out of the hole, except it wasn’t one that came out. One, two, three, four, five came out of the hole. I thought: holy smokes!”
Ferrante was reunited with his unit, five prisoners in tow. When he dropped them at the medical tent, one of the prisoners grabbed Ferrante’s face and gave him a “European kiss,” one on each cheek, to express his thanks.
“The Germans held the lines all winter. It wasn’t until the spring that we broke through,” he said.
Ferrante was hospitalized due to severe asthma, for which he earned his first Purple Heart. His second was earned when he sustained a shrapnel injury from a gunshot. He also survived malaria thrice.
Some of his memories still render a belly laugh from the 97-year-old veteran, like the time he was asked to translate Italian, though he hardly spoke it. With a name like Robello Ferrante, his commander assumed he was fluent.
“The only thing I understood clearly was that I had to bring them in. I said. you, fucile, down (put your rifle down), and come with me,” he recalls. “The major said to me, ‘Boy, that was OK, kid!’”
He can also remember stripping German soldiers of their weapons, accumulating a small collection of weapons, medals and other items that they’d trade with others. Every time he went into battle, he’d wrap the items up in his sleeping bag.
Unfortunately, when he was hospitalized, Ferrante lost his contraband collection.
“When I came out I didn’t have much. I do have a little P-shot,” he said.
He cares little about losing the items. For Ferrante, the loss of life he witnessed during World War II was significant.
“I had a lot of friends I lost, so I chose not to make friends because it was always somebody getting injured,” he said.
He entered the service at age 17, fudging his age. He was recruited off Branch Avenue, when the school there was turned into a recruiting station. It would be five year before he would return home.
After the service, he earned five free years of schooling thanks to the G.I. bill and went on to work as an engineer building bridges. He retired at age 90.
Surrounded by family and his hospice nurses from Comfort Keepers, Ferrante was honored by the local Department of Veterans Affairs at his Lincoln home on Friday.
Jen Beausoleil, medical social worker with HopeHealth, presented Ferrante with a pin and other gifts, thanking him for his service.
“Because of you and the people you served with, we’re all able to have a wonderful life. We greatly appreciate your service, especially all of the sacrifices you’ve made,” she said.
Ferrante said the pinning was a complete surprise.
“I’m so happy. My years are short now. I’m 97 years old, and for that reason I’m grateful for people still thinking of me,” he said.