“Yes, sir, I can.”
No matter what an officer asked him, Louis Graziano had the same answer: “Yes.”
Graziano spoke on the first day of the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum’s observance of the 75th anniversary of D-Day which was June 6, 1944.
It was code-named Operation Overlord and enabled the Allies to take France from the Germans and end the European Theater of War in World War II.
Abilene native Dwight D. Eisenhower was the supreme Allied commander in charge of the ETO.
Graziano, now 96, spoke of his war-time experiences and signed copies of his book, “A Private’s Memoirs of World War II: Through my Eyes, Heart and Soul” on Saturday. The book was published this year.
Graziano had a rocky start in the Army. Just 20, he was inducted into the Army in March 1943. He was a hairdresser, trained in the family business, from East Aurora, New York.
The first thing in the Army he was told was to shave his beloved moustache. He did, but no one else told him to shave it when it happened to grow back.
His first task was to peel six bushels of potatoes with two other soldiers in boot camp.
After that was 13 weeks of combat training. He was late for reveille one morning and had to run 20 laps around the barracks. He was never late again.
When he was sent overseas, he shared the Queen Mary with more than 16,000 other soldiers. Quarters were so tight that to turn over in his bunk, he had to get out and get back in. He chose to sleep every night on the deck instead.
The Queen Mary was being chased by German U-boats, so she had to change course every six minutes. Then she got hit by a storm at sea and nearly capsized.
Instead of landing in England, as ordered, the ship docked in Scotland and the men took trains to England.
In England, he was asked to go to London for a secret mission, which he still has not revealed, for six weeks and he experienced the German blitzkrieg.
Things improved for Graziano, though.
After eight months, he was promoted to utility staff sergeant. After 23 months, he was promoted to master sergeant, instead of four to five years.
As utility sergeant, he supervised 35 men in plumbing, carpentry, road building, construction, masonry and electrical work.
“I did a lot of reading,” wrote the man who had left school after eighth grade.
Graziano received a commendation for his work in utilities in October 1944.
After 18 months in England, he drove a tanker truck full of gasoline onto a ship and boarded an LST, a landing ship tank, to cross the English Channel.
Graziano was in the third wave to hit Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944. He drove his truck onto the beach.
“When I got onto the shore, I jumped out of it quick and got my guns out and my equipment and lay on the ground with the dead soldiers,” he said.
While the Germans were firing at him on the beach, he crawled toward the cover of the cliff. Protected by the cliff, Graziano got out his flame thrower and burned out the German machine gun nest above him.
“Then we fought our way up France to Reims,” he said.
When asked later if D-Day was like the opening scenes to the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” he said yes and did not elaborate.
His first personal meeting with Eisenhower was when he was directed to run a telephone line to Ike’s quarters, through a mined field.
Mission accomplished, he and the man with him spent the night with Ike.
“Ike was a great leader, compassionate and cared for his men,” Graziano said. “He said officers had enough brains they could take care of themselves; he’d take care of the enlisted men.”
Then Graziano’s captain asked him to go on a special mission with him. A request or an order, he wanted to know?
“I could make it into an order,” the captain said.
“Let’s go,” Graziano said.
The two men had to find the Third Armory Division which was lost, and direct it to join Gen. George Patton’s Army, cut off for six weeks at Bastogne.
“It was snowing like anything and cold below zero,” Graziano said. “We found them between Riems and Metz and had to fight our way to Bastogne. I got frozen feet. I wasn’t thinking about my feet, I was thinking about staying alive.”
When he got back, he spent three weeks in the dispensary.
Most of his talk focused on the light side of Army life, however.
After Graziano pulled the overnight pass of a large young man who had been late for reveille, the man offered to “meet him outside.” His men were concerned when the hairdresser started to take off his shirt. He wasn’t going to fight, was he?
But Graziano says yes to every opportunity.
“I beat the hell out of him,” he said.
What his men hadn’t know was that he’d grown up next door to professional wrestlers and boxers and learned a few tricks.
When Graziano was assigned to an engineer major, a general told the major to assemble Missen huts into a mess hall. Three weeks later, when the general came back, nothing had been done.
The general looked at Graziano and asked if he could do it.
“Yes, sir,” Graziano replied.
He did with the help of a couple of guards who spoke English and German and some German prisoners.
The general asked next if he could build an open-air stage to entertain the troops.
Graziano selected a spot and they began to build, stopping when they hit a wall. It was a wall to a wine cellar and the men “liberated” some fine French Champagne.
The owner complained and each man lost a little off his next paycheck, but Graziano said no one minded that.
The general asked if Graziano knew anything about acoustics for the stage show.
“Yes, sir,” Graziano said, but he thought, “What in the hell are acoustics?”
He found a book.
About three weeks after the mess hall incident, the major was transferred out and Graziano was given his job of being in charge of the war room at the Little Red Schoolhouse.
He was one of those present when the Germans signed the Instrument of Surrender there, ending the European part of the war.
Graziano has been told he is the last one alive of the 16 correspondents and about 60 people in the room that day.
When the war was over, he moved back to western New York, then to the South, away from the snow belt. He returned to hairdressing which he still does, holding a license 80 years this year.
He’s active in his Catholic church, in the Knights of Columbus and as a handyman.
He wrote the book for his family.
“I didn’t know all this was going to happen,” he said.
Several members of his family were at Saturday’s talk, including children and grandchildren.
Grandson Gus Graziano is a Navy officer. Grandson Matthew Graziano and his wife, Alexandra are both specialists in the Navy. Coincidentally, Alexandra is stationed on the USS Eisenhower.
Gas and Matthew’s father, Butch, served two tours with the Marines in Vietnam, getting shot nine times and earning three Purple Hearts.
Contact Jean Bowers at email@example.com.