Obituary: Michael T. Vernillo / D-Day veteran went from soldiering to styling
April 20, 1918 - March 12, 2017
March 20, 2017 12:00 AM
Veteran Michael Vernillo, then 96, remembers being a soldier in World War II. He talks about fighting in several historic battles and travelling through Europe in the 1940s in service to his country.
Michael Vernillo celebrated his 98th birthday on April 20, 2016.
Sgt. Michael Vernillo in a photo dated July 1944.
By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
During World War II in 1944, Army Tech Sgt. Michael Vernillo, 25, of Burgettstown was captured by a Nazi officer and a Wehrmacht soldier. Having learned a little German in high school, he understood when the officer ordered the soldier to shoot him. Sgt. Vernillo then pulled a pistol from his holster and killed them both.
A swastika armband taken from the officer that day was recently rediscovered by family members searching through Mr. Vernillo’s belongings at his North Side home. He died March 12 of complications following hip surgery. He was 98.
An articulate and passionate storyteller, Michael T. Vernillo had no shortage of tales to tell about his part in a savage military campaign that started at Omaha Beach in France on June, 6, 1944, and ended on German soil. He dug in at the Battle of Saint-Lo, nearly froze during the Battle of the Bulge, saw Soviet tanks lined up on the east bank of the River Elbe and was awarded four Bronze Stars. In 2014, became a member of the French Legion of Honor.
“He could bring tears to your eyes telling how his officers and friends died, but he didn’t like to talk about the times when he had to kill to survive,” said his friend and fellow veteran, Frank Losos of Thornburg.
Mr. Vernillo was the oldest of three boys born in Burgettstown, Washington County, to Italian immigrants Dominic and Julia Muscato Vernillo. Impressed by a local hairdresser who always had a fancy car and pretty girlfriends, he worked as a laborer to earn money to attend cosmetology school in Pittsburgh. Months after he and a friend opened a hair salon in 1941, Mr. Vernillo was drafted. He was at home on leave the day Pearl Harbor was bombed.
After training for two years in England, the young member of the 29th Infantry Division climbed over the side of a landing craft during the second wave of Americans to arrive at Omaha Beach.
“He described what a bloodbath that whole day was, how they had to bulldoze bodies off the sand so the boats could land,” said Mr. Losos, who met Mr. Vernillo at a meeting of the Veterans Breakfast Club, a Pittsburgh group that meets regularly to share military stories. “He spent the next 40 days in a foxhole, and it got worse after that.”
In recent years, Mr. Vernillo became a hit at the Breakfast Club meetings.
“We’ve been doing [them] for nine years — 300 or 400 of them,” group organizer Todd DePastino said. “Only twice can I remember a speaker getting a standing ovation, and one was Michael when he told his story of landing at Omaha Beach.”
Mr. Vernillo is was among several World War II veterans interviewed for a 2016 documentary film by Italian director Stefano Ballini. American previews of “Monte Sole Landing Memories” will be held Monday in New York City and at a free screening 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Allegheny-Kiski Valley Historical Society, 224 East Seventh Ave., Tarentum.
After the war, Mr. Vernillo returned to cosmetology. He quickly advanced as a top hairdresser at Horne’s Department Store, Downtown, and was requested by the wives of Pittsburgh steel, banking and political leaders. He styled the hair of celebrities at Heinz Hall.
A Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph story from the 1950s claimed Mr. Vernillo held a record for traveling the farthest for a hair appointment after he was flown to Florida to do a client’s ’do. He and a partner briefly went into business on their own at Towers Boutique in Gateway Towers, Downtown.
Mr. Vernillo remained active until Christmas Eve, 2016, when he was injured in a fall on the stairs at St. Peter Catholic Church on the North Side.
Having never married, he is survived by his first cousin Michael Eannace of North Fayette, nephew John Vernillo of Midway, Pa., and niece Cynthia Ann Wright of Clearwater, Fla.
A funeral Mass will be celebrated 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. Columbkille Roman Catholic Church, Imperial. Interment will be held at Grandview Cemetery in Florence, Pa.
John Hayes: 412-263-1991, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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