6 decades later, French say 'merci'
The honored veterans, from left: Ross DiMarco and Martin Tougher, both seated, and Felix Cistolo and Francis Culotta, standing.
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Four proud old men gathered yesterday at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum to receive France's highest award, the Legion of Honor, for helping to liberate that country from the Nazis 65 years ago.
Felix Cistolo, 88, of Ellwood City; Martin Tougher, 87, of Forest Hills; Francis Culotta, 91, of Whitehall; and Ross DiMarco, 87, of Uniontown; were ordinary young men caught up in the greatest maelstrom of the 20th century.
Each rose to the occasion, advancing field by field and house by house across the French countryside, forcing the Germans back to the Fatherland and destroying Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich.
The Legion of Honor, designed by Napoleon in 1802, is one of Europe's most prestigious civic decorations. It had previously been given only to some American World War I veterans who helped France in that conflict.
But in 2004, the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the French government began honoring World War II soldiers with proven records of bravery, reviewing service records and details of their actions to make the determinations. Since then, about 800 medals have been issued at ceremonies like the one at Soldiers & Sailors.
The recipients, decorated many times over and honored again yesterday just days before Veterans Day, are uniformly modest.
Mr. DiMarco is typical. A combat medic who landed at Normandy in 1944, he gave credit to the 13 other men in his medical unit, whom he had trained, for helping him save lives under fire.
"One man does not get a medal like this," he said. "It takes a lot of people who worked and supported me in a lot of things that I did. This medal belongs to all of them."
Martin Tougher speaks with a rasp, the result of a tracheotomy seven years ago, the result of 40 years of smoking before that. But when he was 22, he jumped from an airplane into Normandy on June 6, 1944.
He had only been in the Army for two weeks when he volunteered for jump school in Georgia in December 1942. He wanted the bump in pay, from $50 a month to $100. Later he underwent training to become a medic and joined the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
He landed in swamp water and lost his backpack on the first day. He also lost his best friend, Mickey O'Donnell. It was the first time Mr. Tougher cried since he learned that his brother, John, had been killed fighting the Japanese in the Aleutians.
Mr. Tougher almost died, too. On June 14, 1944, a shell exploded in front of him on a country road and shrapnel struck him in the jaw.
"If it was down a little lower," he said, "I'd still be over there, I guess."
When his regiment returned to England on July 15, fewer than 800 men were with him. Some 1,200 were dead, wounded, captured or missing.
After replenishing its ranks with replacements, the 507th boarded C-47s to return to France. The unit made its way into Belgium, where Mr. Tougher recalls eating K-rations for Christmas dinner.
During the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Forest in January 1945, it was so cold that his morphine froze before he could inject it into a soldier's hip. He learned to warm his supply with body heat.
The men didn't have cold-weather gear. So he made an overcoat out of his shrapnel-damaged sleeping bag and strapped a pick and shovel to his back for chipping out foxholes in the frozen ground.
"I would love to have a picture," he said. "I must have looked like a junk dealer."
Besides his Purple Heart, Mr. Tougher earned two bronze stars for aiding the wounded under fire in France and Belgium. After the Battle of the Bulge, he made a second battle jump for the Rhine River crossing in March 1945.
When he came home, Mr. Tougher went back to work at Westinghouse and married Mary Joyce in 1953. They had two sons, Marty and John, and he stayed with Westinghouse until his retirement in 1985. Mary died in 2002.
Mr. Tougher thinks often of his time as a soldier and the friendships forged in combat. He has been going to reunions for 30 years.
At one in Buffalo, N.Y., he met a fellow he had patched up. "Marty," the man said, "I thought I was going to die in that field." The man's wife kissed him and said, "Thanks for saving my husband."
Seven years ago, Mr. Tougher returned to Normandy with son Marty. There they met old women, still grateful to American GIs, who said they had used American parachutes like his for their wedding dresses.
Francis Culotta, tough and wiry at 91, can still fit into his Army uniform.
A retired Sears hardware salesman, he grew up in East Liberty and was working for a dog food delivery service when the war came.
He went to Army officer training school and got married in 1943 (his wife, Ellen, died last year). Then he shipped out for North Africa with the 36th Infantry Division.
The fighting in Africa was over already, but the 36th saw heavy combat in Italy, slogging up the Italian boot in one of the war's most costly campaigns. Mr. Culotta, a second lieutenant, made a good friend there: Charles Rawls, a radioman from a small Alabama town. Mr. Culotta nicknamed him "Alabama."
Mr. Culotta's unit had half-tracks with 75 mm cannons and later howitzers mounted on tank chassis in support of the infantry. At Monte Cassino and other battlegrounds, he and his comrades often felt forsaken, "cannon fodder" for the fearsome German 88 mm artillery guns.
Was he scared? "Constantly," he said. Anyone who says they weren't, he said, "was either crazy or lying."
He was fortunate more than once. In one incident, a mortar round landed right next to his head as he lay in his foxhole. But it didn't go off.
The division pushed on and eventually captured Rome, but the victory was overshadowed by D-Day a few days later. Mr. Culotta still has a book of cartoons by Bill Mauldin, who earned the admiration of the U.S. "dog faces" in Italy whose plight he recorded in iconic drawings.
Mr. Culotta, who was inducted into the Hall of Valor at Soldiers & Sailors last year, is still irritated that the brutal fighting in Italy is a side note in history.
"We lost an entire regiment [3,000 men] in one night at the Rapido River [in January 1944]!" he said. "But all you hear about is Normandy."
Mr. Culotta's next campaign is also little known -- in fact, "Operation Dragoon," the invasion of southern France on Aug. 15, 1944, is called the "forgotten D-Day." After little resistance on the coast, the Allies battled north to the Vosges Mountains and linked up with other forces pushing east from Normandy.
Mr. Culotta was wounded four times in France, but he and his unit pushed on through the Siegfried Line, a massive defensive wall on the German border.
It was there that he lost "Alabama."
The two were atop a tank, Mr. Culotta firing the .50-caliber machine gun and Mr. Rawls feeding the weapon, when a German bullet hit Mr. Rawls in the throat and killed him. There was nothing Mr. Culotta could do for his friend.
"I took him off the tank and lay him by the side the road," he said. "I had to keep on going."
In a letter he wrote that night -- March 23, 1945 -- Mr. Culotta promised Mr. Rawls' mother that if he survived the war and had a son, he would name him after her boy.
And he did.
His first son, Charles Rawls Culotta, was born exactly one year later at Shadyside Hospital. He's 63 now and living in New Hampshire. He has a son, too: Charles Rawls Culotta II.
Felix Cistolo and Ross DiMarco landed at Normandy at different times, fought across northern France and lived through the Battle of the Bulge.
Mr. DiMarco, who ran DiMarco Food Products in Uniontown for 33 years and raised three children, was drafted into the Army and ended up a combat medic.
He trained in England for six months prior to Operation Overlord. On the first day at Normandy, he worked on the wounded who had been evacuated from the beach to Navy ships. He then landed on Omaha Beach in the second wave with the 29th Infantry Division.
"If you saw 'Saving Private Ryan,' that's what I saw," he recalled. "Except multiply that a thousand times."
With the German 88s pinning down the Allies, he was on the beach for a day and a half before the breakout.
The American units eventually secured the port of Cherbourg and then moved into the hedgerow country, eventually taking St. Lo before pushing on to Paris. Mr. DiMarco later saw action at the Battle of the Bulge, where he spent six weeks in combat, dug into frozen holes like the rest of the infantry. He treated a lot of soldiers for trench foot, a consequence of the cold and wet, and remembers a visit by famed writer Ernie Pyle, who was later killed in the Pacific.
He was afraid, like everyone else, but got used to it.
"If you worried about what the end result might be, you would never do anything," he said. "We always thought that those that hesitated died. So we moved. We did our job."
Mr. DiMarco earned numerous commendations for treating the wounded in combat across France and Germany. But he said everyone in his unit deserves the French medal as much as he does.
"Those boys lay their lives down every day," he said, "like I did."
Mr. Cistolo, a retired postal worker who raised four children, was drafted in 1942 and assigned to the 80th Infantry Division.
He trained for a month in England, arrived in France on Aug. 4, 1944, and fought at Falaise Gap, where the Allies killed 10,000 German troops and trapped another 50,000, although some 20,000 Germans troops managed to escape to fight another day.
"It was a rough battle and really our first of that kind," Mr. Cistolo said, "but we did surprise them and it was a real victory for us Americans."
He was wounded by artillery shrapnel at St. Genevieve on Sept. 13, 1944, nearly losing his right leg, and spent almost three months in the hospital in England.
He was released in time to rejoin his outfit for the Battle of the Bulge, where he suffered frozen feet and what he calls a "slight wound that didn't amount to anything." After two more months in the hospital, he returned to his unit for the end of the war.
Elected national commander of the 80th Infantry Veterans Association in 1974, Mr. Cistolo returned to Luxembourg a year later to unveil a monument for veterans of the Battle of the Bulge.
"I feel honored to receive this award," he said of the Legion of Honor. "But what took them so long to present it to us?"
World War II veterans, all now in their 80s and 90s, are vanishing.
By some estimates, 1,000 die each week. In a few years, no one will be left from a generation hardened by the Depression, tempered by war and lionized as exceptional.
But the men who fought hardly consider themselves special. They rarely talked about the war, even with their own families.
"The thing is, everyone was involved," said Mr. Culotta. "We did what we had to do and came home and forgot about it."
First Published November 8, 2009 12:00 am