North Shore Elder Services has been servicing the older adult population in our five communities (Danvers, Peabody, Salem, Middleton, and Marblehead) for forty years. Amongst that group of adults we have had the privilege of caring for is a large contingent of War Veterans. One such veteran who bravely served our country is ninety-four year old World War II veteran, Salvatore (Sal) Durante. Earlier this week we celebrated another July 4th, Independence Day. Sal is one of those people who remind us of what our independence and freedom cost.
Sal grew up in East Boston and after completion of high school, registered for war service. He was a member of the 79th Infantry, the “Cross of Lorraine Division” that went overseas in April of 1944. The 79th landed at Utah Beach, Normandy on June 12 (D Day plus Six) and entered combat June 19th. Sal recalls with pride that “we (the 79th) were considered one of the best infantry outfits in Europe. When there was trouble, the 79th was there.” A Nazi report in October of 1944 references this unit. “The 79th Division is said to have fought particularly well in Normandy and is considered as one of the best attack divisions in the US Army.”
The German resistance to the landing at Normandy was much stronger than anticipated. Sal describes the Germans as very good fighters who had the best weapons and the best tanks. Coming down the ramp off the ship to make his way to shore that June day in 1944 is something Sal will never forget; yet to this day he does not remember how he waded through chest high water and found himself on land looking back at his ship. “I asked myself, how did I get here? Somebody was with me that day, watching over me.”
The visions of bodies in the water remain vivid for Sal. “We lost a lot of men as they got off the boat. We carried sixty pound packs on our backs and many of our GIs fell from the weight pulling them over into the water and they drowned. There was nothing we could do to help. It was very hard watching your fellow GIs drown.”
The first encounter for the 79th as Sal recalls was made more treacherous by the hedgerows. The countryside was a patchwork of small fields surrounded by thick earthen embankments with large hedgerows growing on top, which made defense easier for the Germans and attack more difficult for the Americans.
The 79th Division continued to push enemy lines further back and engaged in house-to-house fighting. “We liberated most of France. At first the French were not friendly to us. The mayor of one town was very grateful to us for liberating his town and invited us to his home. He explained that the French people were scared because ‘the Germans did a job on us. They took everything we owned.’ We understood then why the people were cautious.”
Sal’s Division was on the edge of the Black Forest, almost into Germany, when they were struck by a bomb. He heard his gunner say, “I’m hit in the chest.” He remembers feeling weak and dizzy. Looking down at his own abdomen, he could see he had also been hit. “I was able to radio the medic who told me to apply pressure to the wound to slow the bleeding and lay down. I knew I was dying but believe me or not, in the distance I saw a light and what I heard was, ‘Don’t worry. You’ll be okay.’ I was aware of help arriving and the last thing I remember is someone saying ‘Pick up this GI first. He’s the worst.’ It was me!”
Sal was taken to a field hospital and operated on to remove the piece of shrapnel that entered his abdomen and sliced upwards through his bowels and intestines. He remained in and out of a coma. Despite his slipping in and out of consciousness, he recalls the doctor who presented him with the piece of shrapnel he had removed from his abdomen. “He wanted me to have it as a keepsake to making it through an injury that came close to ending my life.” Sal was two months in the hospital in France before being sent by ship back to the States, eventually ending in a hospital in Utica, New York for another four months.
Sal returned to East Boston and lived with his parents. He was not able to do much because of his pain and the nature of his injury. “I was really handicapped from the injury. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t digest my food.” He was unable to secure employment for a period of time because of his disability. Sal decided it was a good opportunity to pursue the college degree he had always wanted. He was told it was a three year wait to get into Northeastern University so unfortunately he had to abandon that dream. “But that was okay. I took the Civil Service exam and got a job with the Boston Naval Shipyard till it closed in 1974. I worked for the Army Corps of Engineers for five years after that and retired from there.”
During the time that he was unable to work, Sal was introduced to the game of golf. “A neighbor in East Boston was a golfer and invited me to play one day. This guy taught me to play the game. I continued playing for over fifty years at golf courses all over the United States. I would still play today if I could.”
Sal was plagued by nightmares of the war and by anxiety attacks. It was his mother who witnessed his outbursts in his sleep and it frightened her. “I would never talk about the war. My mother was the only one who knew what I was going through.” At her urging, Sal sought medical advice and the doctor prescribed an anxiety medication. “I was diagnosed as suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which at the time was hard to be diagnosed with. I asked my doctor, ‘Does this anxiety go away?’ and he told me that it will be in my head the rest of my life.” Sal was wisely told by a doctor that he had to start talking about his war experiences if he wanted to preserve his mental well-being.
Sal is still humble about his service but is no longer uncomfortable talking of it. Before his injury, he had had four other close encounters with death. “There are people who care less about the war and the time we served. Today people don’t necessarily know about the war. I don’t let it bother me though. Times are different now.”
Sal continues to have repercussions from his injury, particularly with digestion issues. “I’m discouraged. It’s like I’m going backwards to the beginning of my injury, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Sal wishes he could have returned to France after the war to see where he had fought. “I always wanted to go back but was unable to.” Like so many of his sacrifices, Sal does not begrudge any missed opportunities. He is pleased to be doing so well independently and in his own home. His wife Evelyn has been deceased thirteen years. He is very happy with the weekly ten hours of homemaking and personal care North Shore Elder Services has been coordinating for him the past two years. He likes that he is very busy and gets out of the house several times each week. He credits his daughter and son who live in Massachusetts with helping him stay in his home and be engaged with family (six grandchildren and a great-grandchild). He is so proud of their accomplishments although wants to apologize for sounding as though he is bragging when he shares those stories!
Every Friday and Saturday Sal’s neighbor picks him up and together they go to a local barber shop where they meet with others and discuss politics and current events and share friendships. Sal seems most proud of the fact that “everyone likes me. I credit my mother with teaching me to look out for myself and for others. I love people. I’ve made many friends in my lifetime.”
Sal’s stories give us reason to pause and pay homage to all those who went to war and sacrificed much for our country. North Shore Elder Services is honored to “pay back” in some small way to our veterans by helping them maintain their independence and remain vital contributors to the communities they choose to live in.
Your donation of time and/or money to North Shore Elder Services helps us continue providing services to those older adults, like Sal, who need some extra support. If you would like to learn more about volunteer opportunities to get involved in our mission, or to make a monetary contribution, visit us at www.nselder.org.