Local veterans to receive Legion of Honor

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Michael Vernillo's memory of the landing on the French beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, is almost as sharp as the images in the history books that line the bookshelves of his home on the North Side.

"I can open that book and tell you every place I was," said Mr. Vernillo, 96, pointing to an epistolary memoir of World War II written by a fellow D-Day veteran. A carefully kept list, scrawled on a piece of paper, helps to jog his memory: Saint-Lo, Brest, Battle of the Bulge.

Seeking recognition for that service, Mr. Vernillo has applied for many years to the French consulate in Washington, D.C., for decoration as a knight of the Legion of Honor.

On Tuesday, his longtime wish will be fulfilled -- at a Pittsburgh ceremony honoring veterans for their contributions to the liberation of France. In the Hall of Valor in the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland, the consul general of France will pin the medal on Mr. Vernillo's lapel, conferring on the onetime sergeant the highest honor the country bestows. Several other veterans will be similarly honored. A champagne toast will follow.

Born in Burgettstown, Washington County, to Italian immigrant parents, Mr. Vernillo entered Army training in April 1941, ultimately serving in the 29th Infantry Division. He saw the war come to a close from the banks of the Elbe River in Germany more than four years later.

After being discharged, Mr. Vernillo came to Pittsburgh to pursue a career in cosmetology, operating a series of beauty shops across the city before retiring a number of years ago.

He is now an avid reader, poring over stories of the war in hopes of understanding his place in a broader military history. He witnessed just one small part of an enormous battle that remade Europe and the world, he notes with wonder, fondly recalling the opportunity to travel and see sites that expanded his parochial worldview: the green hills of France and the streets beyond his training camp in Tidworth, England.

But, of course, there was the bloodshed, particularly among the platoon of about 14 men he oversaw. As he swam to shore in the second wave of Allied soldiers in the D-Day invasion of Europe, he recalled, "the water was blood."

"There were so many corpses they had to get a bulldozer to clean the beach," he said. "We had to walk over the men. I felt like I wasn't going to last long."

Mr. Vernillo said he still keeps in touch with some of his fellow infantrymen, but most have died. There are about 1.7 million living veterans of World War II, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. More than 55,000 live in Pennsylvania.

Typically, the Legion of Honor ceremony takes place in Washington or at the homes of individual veterans. This year, marking the 70th anniversary of D-Day, Consul General Olivier Serot Almeras will travel to Pittsburgh to honor nine veterans in and around the city. The other medal recipients are Armand Bruno and William Carr of Verona, Wilbert Cusano of McKees Rocks, Larry Kushner of Monroeville, Rudolph Marzio of Aliquippa, August Pace of Bethel Park, Ralph Russo of New Castle, Lawrence County; and Nevin Woodside of Penn Hills.

The Legion of Honor has celebrated French nationals for extraordinary service since Napoleon Bonaparte established the order in 1802. The French government now honors foreign nationals, including U.S. soldiers, who have made significant contributions to the wellbeing of the republic. President Dwight Eisenhower was inducted in 1943, at the time a general in the war.

John McCabe, president and CEO of Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, said in a statement that the museum is proud to host the ceremony, which fits with its mission to "honor and remember those who have made personal sacrifices to preserve the liberties of our country."

Isaac Stanley-Becker: istanley-becker@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3775.

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