World War II vet reflects on D-Day

When World War II ended, Ross Milianti was a battle-tested soldier with five major engagements to his credit, service that earned him the Bronze Star and nightmares that even now disturb the 89-year-old Mandeville man’s sleep.

But 70 years ago today, Milianti was a 120-pound teenager who had just left Chicago and the arms of the grandmother who had raised him. He had never shot a rifle before his training, and he didn’t know how to drive a car. But as the sun came up, he and 200 other soldiers looked from their Higgins boat at the chaos and blood that was Omaha Beach and knew what they were about to face.

“I was thinking of myself, of nothing but myself and how was I going to get through this mess,’’ he said recently.

Memories like this are vanishing quickly. The latest major anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe finds most veterans of the conflict in their 90s. More of them pass away each day, taking with them recollections that few of their survivors can readily imagine.

Milianti, who was 18 when he was drafted in 1943, was part of the 120th Infantry, 30th Division. He was in the fourth wave that hit the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and can easily summon up the overriding emotion of those waiting for their turn: terror. He didn’t think he would live to see another day. “Nobody thinks that. Everyone would think it’s your time to go,’’ he said.

He lost his first friend immediately. A soldier named Frank, who had been a high school classmate, was struck by German fire and killed. Milianti looked at his own weapon, an M1 rifle, then at his dead buddy’s Browning Automatic. It had more rounds. Milianti threw away his rifle and took the weapon from the body of his friend.

The noise was overwhelming: shells exploding, gunfire, Germans hollering, Americans screaming.

“It happened so fast, I didn’t even know about it,’’ he said of his friend’s death.

The living took ammunition from the dead. “You had blood on you. You didn’t know if it was your buddy’s blood or what. There was blood all over the (ammunition) bandoliers,’’ he said.

It took an hour and half to reach the shore, he said, and most of that time the soldiers were frozen in place, moving only when there seemed to be a break in the shooting.

The Germans were uphill, in a much better position because they could shoot downhill, and Omaha Beach saw the most Allied casualties of any of the landing zones.

“The Germans were firing their guns, and you just stood there like a dummy,’’ he said. “We hit the beach at 6 o’clock in the morning. Seven at night, we were still shooting at each other.’’

By the next day, he said, the bodies were gone, but there was still blood in the water. His older brother, who also was drafted despite the fact that he was 40 and blind in one eye, was a grave digger. Part of his job was to separate the German dead from the Allies.

“Every time he turned over an American, he was scared it was his little brother,’’ Milianti said.

The attention the D-Day anniversary brings holds little interest for Milianti. “It’s just another day, another Friday,’’ he said, although his wife, Dorothy, said television programs that air around the anniversary have given her husband nightmares about the war.

The draftee, who returned to his native Chicago and his job as a chrome plater after the war, never talked much about his wartime experiences, she said.

But for him, the worst didn’t happen in France, but in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge. He still won’t eat turnips, his wife said, after subsisting on raw ones he got while foraging at night.

It was during that engagement that Milianti, who didn’t suffer a single injury during his two years in the Army, narrowly escaped death. He said he saw a vision of his mother, who died when he was a child. She was in the doorway of a farm house, urgently telling him to move, that the next mortar was going to hit the foxhole he was in.

“I told my buddy, and he said, ‘How do you know?’ and I said, ‘I had a vision of my mother.’ I took off and he stayed. I turned around and I saw my buddy, parts of his body, go up in the air.’’

Belgium is also where Milianti earned his Bronze Star. On Jan. 13, 1945, his squad was investigating an enemy house when they came under automatic and small-arms fire, according to the citation. Their company would have been unable to advance unless the squad diverted the enemy’s attention, so Milianti’s squad continued to advance against what the Army called almost impossible odds.

“Private Milianti advanced until nearly all his squad became casualties. His heroism was instrumental in allowing his company to bypass the enemy strongpoint,’’ the citation says.

Milianti brushes off terms like heroism. He says, simply, that he is glad he made it and returned home to Chicago and to the grandmother who spent much of those two years in church praying for his safe return.

He and his wife moved to Mandeville in 1991 because her roots were in Louisiana, and the walls of their home are decorated with photos of the young soldier in his uniform and his awards. But as the number of D-Day veterans dwindles and his own health becomes more fragile, he no longer attends reunions.

Although he knows other veterans who have gone back to Normandy, Milianti has never returned to the scene of the invasion, and he has no desire to do so.

“I didn’t lose nothing over there,’’ he said.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.