Note: WarChronicle is sad to report the death of Vincent DiGaetano on October 30, 2006. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family. He will be forever in our hearts. Rest in peace, Vinny.
Motion picture bonus: flamethrower in action
Bookmarks Drafted / Overseas / E Company soldiers / Marshalling area / D-Day / Hedgerows / War memories / Weird things happen / Phil Streczyk / Siegfried Line / Hürtgen forest / Nearly home free / Wounded a third time / Nearly busted / Sergeant DiGaetano / Last wound / War's long effects / Meemies on tape / Psychiatric treatment / History books
The narrative below was edited from conversations in spring and summer of 2000.
Vinny DiGaetano joined the 1st Division in England before D-Day. He was wounded four times until the war, but never badly enough to get sent home.
When I first spoke with DiGaetano he corroborated many of the general points in the Lt. Spalding narrative of 1945 (see Spalding D-Day narrative). But Vinny's story, as he told it, also had many interesting divergences in detail.
Many popular historians have written about D-Day. Nearly all of them have used the Pogue/Spalding narrative as their sole source for that piece of the action. This has meant, in many a book, Vinny DiGaetano has yelled on D-Day morning, "I'm drowning! What do you want me to do with this flamethrower?" And, in many a book, later on the D-Day, DiGaetano was hit in the butt by shrapnel. If these authors had contacted Vinny they would have gotten a much better story.
I came from Bensonhurst: 39th Street and Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn. I was born December 7, 1923. So I was 18 the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
I got drafted in ’43. Until I got drafted I worked for Sperry Gyroscope making gyroscopes for bombers.
When I first went through basic training [in Texas], all those Rebels down there knew everything about snakes. I didn’t know nothing. What the hell’s a snake? I used to be walking through a field and see a copperhead. They’d take their bayonets and cut its head off. Holy s----. I’d be running the other way. I ain’t fooling you with, man. [Laughs] The things you remember….In basic training, I’m on the flank and I trip over this barbed wire and I go sailing and rolling down the hill. I end up with a frigging coral snake. I never saw a coral snake in my life. He’s all different colors, beautiful looking snake. And they say that’s the most dangerous snake down there: Watch out. And I start running. I just happened to be the last guy in the flank. We were spreading out. And for some reason or other there was a barbed wire over there and I tripped over it and went flying down the hill. Hello, snake.
Most of my time in the army was spent overseas. I only spent eight or nine months in the States and the rest of the time I spent overseas. I left the States on November 15 1943. It was almost two years from the time I left the States till the time I came back.
The guys were in England training before I came into the company. The first sergeant was from New York. Fitzsimmons. Captain Wozenski was from Connecticut. I got along with Fitzsimmons good because I was from New York also. There wasn’t too many New Yorkers in there. When he found out I was from New York we got along pretty good. He used to search me out all the time.
When we were fighting in the Falaise gap, I found seven hundred dollars in German money on an empty bus. Then, when I got wounded in the Hürtgen, I gave it to Fitzsimmons to hold for me. But when I got back, he was gone.
[I mentioned another E Company soldier, Richard Gallagher, who was from Grant Avenue in Brooklyn. DiGaetano didn’t remember him, and said Grant Avenue was in Bushwick, the other side of Brooklyn from his old neighborhood.]
I remember Colwell. I remember Peterson, too. He was from Jersey. [I asked Vinny if he remembered anything about them. He said, “No, just the name, that’s all.”] A lot of them were together through Sicily and Africa and they used to pal around together and you never wanted to interfere or you never were invited. I stayed alone a lot. I was an introvert then. I kept to myself a lot.
[I asked Vinny if he remembers anyone telling him he did a good job or patting you on the back? Vinny laughed very hard, then said, “Probably in the beginning, maybe Streczyk. Give you a pat on the ass, something like that. ‘Keep up the good work’ or something.”]
If I had come into the outfit from the beginning, I probably would have been more friendly. But I came in, a stranger, and just doing my own thing. Go to a movie or something. I read magazines a lot. “Life” magazine, “Esquire”, “Saturday Evening Post”, whatever we could get our hands on.
My sister Jean was seven or eight years older than me. When I was home, she was always picking on me. Then when I went away, she wrote me everyday; what was going on here and there.
In the Marshalling Area, I got a V-letter from her that my father passed away. He had one of those heart attacks on his way to work and he died. He died at work, so it wasn’t like he was sick or anything. He just 1,2,3, gone. Those days, in 1944, they didn’t have the sophisticated medicine they have today. Machines, bypasses and none of that jazz. He was working like 12, 14 hour days.
I showed the letter to somebody and they said, “Well, too late now, you’re in the marshalling area. We can’t let you go because you know about the invasion...” and this, that, and the other thing. I read the letter telling me that my father was buried. I didn’t know he was dead. Now he’s buried. I tried to get home. They said, no, no way, goodbye.
[When DiGaetano and I first met, he told a different story than the account in the Army Historical Division’s interview with John Spalding. Vinny freely admits he’s forgotten much of what happened during the war. Still, his D-Day memories are vivid, and the basics of his story are credible.]
[At H-Hour, DiGaetano left the landing craft with his 72-pound flame thrower. As he floundered in the water, he inflated his life preserver. It was attached to his back, along with the flame thrower, and its inflation sent Vinny face down under the water. He used his knife to saw off the straps and came up for air. Then he used the floating weapon as a raft to get to shore. Leaving the flamethrower bobbing in the water, Vinny staggered to the seawall, but Streczyk sent him back to get the weapon.]
[Vinny remembers using the flame against a pillbox in the strongpoint above Easy Red. Later, when the section was near Colleville, DiGaetano saw enemy movement through a gap in a hedgerow. Almost instantly, his rifle was shot out of his hands by enemy automatic weapon fire. Then a German grenade sailed through the hedgerow, exploded, and a fragment ripped into DiGaetano’s thigh.]
[A medic came to Vinny’s aid and suggested he go down to the beach for aid. Vinny refused. He lowered his pants and the medic cut out the fragment with a trench knife. The worst part wasn’t the pain, Vinny recalls, it was having his pants down. Vinny also remembers using a safety pin, for many weeks after the invasion, to dig out splinters of metal and wood from the rifle.]
[There is a gap in the story. Vinny didn’t bring a rifle ashore, but he had one later in the afternoon. Vinny didn’t remember where he got it, but Fred Reese remembered. Reese told me that he and DiGaetano were sharing a rifle between them.]
[The identity of the medic isn’t absolutely certain. Vinny thought it might have been a pal of his, Gerald Bianchi. Reese said, no, it was Jesse Hamilton of Oklahoma. Both men served in the Medical Detachment of the 16th Infantry.]
[Some members of Spalding’s section tell a nearly identical story about a German gunner, who turned out to be Polish, on the slope above Easy Red. Vinny tells the story below.]
He [the gunner on the slope above Easy Red] is in a one-man foxhole and he’s shooting like hell. Finally, we get around behind him. He only threw up his hands when we got behind him and put a gun to his head. [Laughs] That’s when he finally found out he was Polish, started talking Polish.
He says, “I got captured, I don’t want to shoot!” One-man foxhole and shooting like crazy! Streczyk talked to him in Polish and he got so crazy with him he punched him. “What the hell are you doing?” Pow!
[Vinny’s wife, Chris, joined in and asked if Streczyk was the one who sent him back for the flamethrower? Vinny said yes. Chris said, “And you went back?” Vinny said, “What the hell do I know? He told me to go back, I go back.”]
We got the flamethrower it and went to a pillbox. The Germans come out, Aaaaah! They didn’t even know we had a frigging flamethrower. They were hiding in the back or something. If you get them, they know about it. Had to be like napalm. In 30 seconds, or a minute, all gone. The tank was empty. Goodbye.
What’s his name, [Fred] Reese? He has a fantastic memory, I think. He remembers me, that thing with the gun. That’s great. I guess if I gave somebody my gun and then it was shot to pieces, I’d probably remember it too.
[I mentioned that in an interview with Spalding, Vinny was said to have been “hit in the butt by shrapnel fire.” Vinny laughed. He also laughed at the idea of a yelling, “I’m drowning, what do you want me to do with this flamethrower?”]
It was about four or five o’clock in the afternoon when I got hit. I got hit in the leg, up here [points to thigh]. But that was from the grenade.
If it was our grenade, I would have been blown to bits. But they had these stupid mashed potatoes and they stunk. They were concussion things. Ours were fragmentation. Theirs were more or less concussion. When it blew up, pieces of metal that came from there was enough to do some damage. But it wasn’t like ours where the whole thing would blew apart. Fragmentation, you know? Ours were more deadly than theirs. They were garbage. We thought they were garbage. It was a good thing too.
I remember the count that night at 9:00 or 10:00 o’clock. It didn’t get dark until about 1:00 o’clock in the morning. It was Double British Summertime, you know? About 10:00 or 11:00 o’clock at night they had a count and from what I remember, 90 of us were left out of 250. They weren’t all killed, probably they were wounded a lot of them. And missing too. But everything was all mixed up then. We had guys from the 29th Division with us most of the day, they had that blue and grey patch. They were with us a lot of the day. They wanted to stay with somebody they didn’t want to be deserted.
I got a Purple Heart a little after D-Day. There was no ceremony. They gave you a Purple Heart then you had to try and take care of the damn thing. I think I mailed mine home.
There was nothing joyous about it [victory on D-Day] because you had the next hedgerow, the next hedgerow, the next hedgerow. And there were a whole load of hedgerows. Like we never really run out of them in Normandy. And every time you got to a hedgerow you never know if there’s going to be another battle, another fire fight. So it was just going from hedgerow to hedgerow to hedgerow.
They had hedges on top, they were about three or four feet high and they hedges on top of them. They were mounds of dirt.
The thing that saved us is that they had these tanks. The tanks would go over and flush them so we could go through. We had this bastard tank outfit with us. They weren’t assigned to our regiment, bastard tanks, they weren’t our tanks, they were just a group of tanks. So you had to try and crash through those things. Just go over the hedgerows and we’d follow them. They’d smash them down and we’d climb over them.
One of the first nights we were in hedgerows. All night long, I’m saying, “There’s something’s moving. Something’s moving there.” And the guy relieving me, I said, “There’s something out there.” [Laughs] It was a freaking cow. I should of shot that bastard. I’m telling you, all night long I kept seeing something, something moving out there. It turned out to be a Goddamn cow grazing all night long.
Things are so distant, know what I mean? It’s hard to pinpoint [when specific events occurred]. I can pinpoint when [Gerald] Bianchi died and stuff like that because it was depressing.
You just did what you had to do and the next day came. That’s it. A lot of that stuff you just don’t remember. Especially since I never doted on it, or I never talked about it or anything. [Laughs]
One time we got into a house. We hadn’t been sleeping in houses for a long time after we got into Germany. It had to be the end of the Hürtgen forest because I remember we was cold that night. And we got into this town and they had these big goose-down covers on the bed. You had a blanket there and then you had this thing…Holy s—! It was great! We all undressed when we got to bed that night. Big goose feathered thing on top of us, farting our ass off. [Laughs]
Things like that, crazy things, you remember.
You couldn’t change your socks. You couldn’t stop to take a bath. You just did what you could to try and keep clean everyday. Using latrines, all that kind of garbage.
The helmets were everything. You’d cook in them, eat out of them. The helmets were the greatest thing in the world. They were a little heavy until you got used to wearing them. You couldn’t really take them off because you couldn’t tell when they’d start shelling you or mortars would be coming in. And helmets saved so many lives.
I wasn’t a religious person. Every once in awhile in a foxhole, [I'd say to God:] “How you doing? Remember me?” Every time the chaplain came around, “You want Communion?” “Yeah, can’t hurt.” My mother had to be the one who got me through the war. She wore out her knees, saying novenas to everybody, every saint you could think of. And masses.
The days went by so fast. Just going, and going, and going. Before you know it they had the St. Lô breakthrough, then they had the Falaise gap, the next thing you knew we were taken Aachen, the next thing you knew we were in the Hürtgen forest. From there you were doing something else. I guess it was close to 300 days I had in combat [from D-Day to the end of the war].
One night, they took us off the line for a five day rest. I guess it had to be before the Hürtgen forest and after the Falaise gap. They took us off the line and we watched a movie. All of a sudden, about seven, eight o’clock at night, one of these planes [a German plane] come in and strafe. Strafed the area. The guy in front of me got killed, the guy in back of me got killed. It’s unbelievable. How the hell do these things happen? It’s so weird. And it was very unusual for a German plane to come over and strafe you.
Twice I saw guys who’d been sliced by bullets. It’s a freak thing to get sliced by a bullet; it’s a weird thing that’ll happen.
The first guy was a German soldier with his guts hanging out. And these guys said, “Don’t give him any water, he’ll die.” And I said, “What the hell is going to happen to him now? He’s going to die anyway. Give him some water, let him die happy at least.”
The next guy we saw was an American guy and he was holding his guts in. I’m pretty sure Bianchi put some safety pins in there. Know that I mean? Hold this guy until the medics come. Because I remember, Bianchi was doing something there. Had to be putting safety pins. If the guy held his guts in there he could be probably be saved. They push it in and sew it up, you know? But the other guy, the German…
You see all this kind of stuff, you got to get callous. Look down in a foxhole and a guy got no head. Holy s—. Jesus Christ. I looked down one time…aarrrrghhh…no head. Most have been a tank or something like that. Goodbye.
One day, this replacement shows up. Nineteen year-old kid from the Midwest: Ohio or one of those one, Tennessee or something like that. This kid said, “I’m going to go out and get some Germans.” We said, “What are you crazy?” He went out and that was the last we saw of him until we found his body. Unbelievable. They got him.
Out of the clear blue sky, a sniper gets a guy. Boom. He goes down. Where the hell…? Where did it come from, why did it come from? Why do these things happen?
Once in the Hürtgen, I just happened to move my leg before a shell fragment hit right where my leg had been. I dug it out of the ground with my knife—it was about three inches around. I kept it with me for quite awhile.
The odds are against you as you keep going every day, every day.
They never even thought about taking us out. Later on, the next war, in Korea and especially in Vietnam you served a year then, boom, you’re out. [In World War II] We could be there for three or four years before they take you out.
[I asked if Vinny ever thought about deserting. He said, "Nah, we never thought of that. It never occurred to us. The only time is when I jumped off a train in Paris with two paratroopers. We had three or four days on the outskirts of Paris. At least we got something. We had to go right back into combat. But as far as deserting, nah. Not too many people talked about that. I guess that was the way we were brought up. In the era we were brought up in, that’s the way we were taught."]
Everybody reacts different to combat. There are some people that can’t take it and some people just let it go, you know what I mean? It’s hard…How somebody’s mind works really. In a million years, you’d never think that Streczyk would be one of the guys who cracked up, but there you go, you never know.
He didn’t crack up until the Hürtgen forest. And when you see that…I think he was one of the most highly decorated soldiers in the army. He had a lot of awards. He had everything but the Congressional Medal of Honor.
We beat the krauts to the Siegfried Line by about eight to ten hours. We dug in on the other side of the pillbox that they had. We dug our trenches in there. Foxholes and trenches. And when they [the Germans] came they were determined. They wanted to get the Siegfried Line.
And that’s when a guy from Brooklyn got captured. He came from my neighborhood. He got captured that night, and I didn’t see him until I got back to Brooklyn. Ignazio Anielo. [Chris wondered about the derivation of Ignazio. Vinny said, “Who the hell knows? He was just called Iggy in Brooklyn.”] I met him when he hit the platoon. He was a replacement and then he got captured right away. He wasn’t with the outfit two months. I don’t know if he got released right away. Maybe he escaped or something. I really don’t know.
[During the fight around Aachen and the Siegfried Line:] There was a time we had to have a truce because we killed so many of them. We had to have a truce right outside of Aachen. There were so many of them killed by fire and by artillery and stuff like that.
So they [a group of Germans] come out with a white flag. They said, is it all right if we have a truce so we can clean up and get our dead?
[Agreement was reached.] They had like a three or four hour truce so they could clean up. They had a lot of casualties there. We were digging in and they were counterattacking. And we were just standing there and firing and a bunch of our guys most have gotten killed or wounded, but they were taking the worst of it.
It was about November 24th when I got evacuated in the Hürtgen forest. It was the day after Thanksgiving [Thanksgiving in 1944 fell on 23 November]. The reason I know is because we hadn’t eaten for a long time. We were eating K rations, C rations, we were eating them. And they said they wanted to get us a hot meal for Thanksgiving.
[I said it must have been cold by the time it got to the front line. Vinny laughed and said, “ We didn’t care. We didn’t even care if it was cooked! It was something to eat.”]
I remember getting a leg, yeah, I’m pretty sure I got a leg. I was chomping on with coffee. And I got hit in the hand the next day and I got evacuated. I said, boy, it was a Million Dollar Wound.
What happened was that we'd come out of the trees and a German tank opened up with direct fire. And tanks can reload fast so it's just ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom. I grabbed on to a tree and a piece of metal went right through my finger. Three other guys with me were killed.
[Vinny’s evacuation ended before he reached England. Vinny recalls that soldiers of the 66th Division (whose troop ship, on Christmas eve, was sunk in the English Channel by a German submarine) were given priority medical treatment. Battle was raging in the Ardennes and walking wounded were ordered to report back for duty. Vinny, still wearing a bandage, had to make his way back through Paris and got a little sidetracked.]
The 66th Division, their boat had hit a mine, and that’s when they sent all the walking patients out. So many people were exposed to the ice cold water. [The doctors said to other patients:] Goodbye, see you again. My hand was all bandaged, and they got rid of us so fast the blood was coming through. But it was dry.
[Vinny ended up on a train with two paratroopers who got on idea as they rolled through Paris.]
They just said, “Let’s go, let’s jump!” I said, “You’re crazy! The train’s going too fast.” They’re holding me on each side, and we jumped in a snow bank. Train wasn’t going fast. Jumped in a snowbank. We had three or four days on the outskirts of Paris. [Then after three or four days which included a fistfight and Vinny's nose being broken, DiGaetano and the two paratroopers were found.] This MP from Brooklyn, from Sand Street, Puerto Rican guy, said, “Let’s see your pass.” I had my hand in my pocket and I take it out and he said, “What the hell happened to your hand?”
I said, “I’m getting sent back to the line.”
He said, “What are you kidding? They wouldn’t send you back like that.”
I said, “Why not? They did.”
The MP was looking for these German paratroopers who were dropped behind the lines. We were out of uniform. We had combat boots but we didn’t have no helmets. We had soft hats. The uniform was leggings, and helmet liners, and stuff like that. We didn’t have that and they knew our uniform that way. [So DiGaetano and the paratroopers looked suspicious and Vinny ended up at the 1st Division stockade.]
A captain was the head of the stockade there. I don’t even know who the hell he is, he was from the First Division, but I recognized him. On D-Day, he had gotten a bad wound. His face was all…he must have got hit by shrapnel in his face. He had to be one of our captains from another company. I recognized the guy and then he saw my 1st Division patch and we started talking. He said, “I’d like to keep you here but I can’t. I got to get rid of you.” I said, “How about keeping us here a couple of days?”
My bedroll was broken open after the Hürtgen forest [and everything was stolen]. I had a luger and a dagger the officer’s used to wear, the silver dagger they had. I had one of them. And I had a pair of binoculars. They were really great.
I happened to get the binoculars, there was a German guy who was dead and he was upside down and the binoculars were hanging over. So I went over there took the binoculars off him. He was probably an artillery observer. They were big glasses. He was just upside down against a fence or something like that. We were flying through the town [and Vinny just reached out and snatched them on the run].
After I came back from the hospital, after the Bulge, I got a piece of shrapnel but I wouldn’t go back. I think it was shrapnel from artillery. But it wasn’t like a big piece. A little small piece I got it in my leg.
I think Bianchi pulled it out with my knife. I always had my knife with me. Then he put it in for a Purple Heart because the medics used to do that. At that time, we didn’t get nothing for a Purple Heart. Later on we got five points or something [toward separation].
The 16th Infantry were still in Belgium, we were on the outside, the left hand side of the Bulge. The First Division and the Ninth Division were the two divisions they couldn’t get through.
[After the Bulge, the 16th Infantry pushed to the Rhine in the vicinity of the Remagen Bridge.] We were on the other side of the Remagen Bridge, and we took one of the towns. At the time there was an order, you’re not supposed to fraternize. Me and Ray Christman were trying to make out with this German girl.
So some guy comes by from way in the back, some outfit back maybe one of those support units back there. He says, “You’re not supposed to be fraternizing, what’s your rank, I’m going to report you.” So he goes, “Where’s your CP?”
We say, “Over there, about a block down.”
Our captain says to this guy, “Well, I’ll tell you. We have four or five towns to take.” We were taking about three or four towns a day on the other side of the Remagen Bridge, trying to make a beachhead over there. And the captain said, “If they both live, I’ll bust both of them.”
So that guy who reported us didn’t know whether to s— or go blind. If they live, I’ll bust both of them. [Laughs]
On the other side of there is where Bianchi got killed. He was assigned to us a lot. He could’ve moved from company to company, but he always seemed to be with E Company that I remember.
[Vinny paused and asked if I’d found his name in the records. I said, yes, his first name was Gerald. Vinny said, “I think you might be right about that. We always called him, Hey, Bianci, you know? But Gerald…sounds familiar.”]
When we were in the bridgehead there, a jeep pulls up and everybody thought the guy was a general because he was clean shaven. But it was my brother-in-law, Hank Canone. He was with the 9th Armored Division and had been at Bastogne—his first time in combat.
He was looking for me all over the bridgehead and finally found me. I was standing there, rolling a severed human finger back and forth with my foot. And I said, "Hey, Hank, look at this." He was married to my sister, Stella.
I made sergeant by elimination. Because as guys got eliminated, they needed men, experienced men, and they made you sergeant.
[I said that not everyone made sergeant, he must have known what he was doing. He said, “Yeah, I guess, in a sense.”]
You spend so much time trying to take care of yourself. A couple of times it was offered and I said, “I just want to take of myself, I don’t want to be bothered with that.” A lot of guys, a lot of the fellows, said I don’t want to be a sergeant. Because you don’t have to worry about your whole squad. You just worry about yourself.
[As a sergeant:] They would call you and say, We’re going to go into this town. We’re going to be here, your squad is going to be here, and your squad’s going to be there. You didn’t go in cold.
I remember the first couple of days in combat we had night patrols. They were scary bastards, boy. Like going out on patrol at night past your line, like they wanted some intelligence. We couldn’t wait to get back.
Go out and see if you could take a prisoner. But you’d go out so far and the sergeant would say, “Come on, let’s go back. Let’s go.” You had to go out there at least half a mile or something like that in front of your own line and you hear all kind of crap.
You had the moonlight, you could see a little bit. But if something starts, you can’t tell who’s shooting at who. All of a sudden, firing starts and you’re shooting all over the frigging place. You don’t know if you’re shooting at your own man or not. Let’s get the hell out of here. It’s a tough thing.
We were close to Czechoslovakia, about two weeks before the war ended, and a Screaming Meemie picked me up, threw me up straight up in the air. I was unconscious for 24 hours, Then I was dazed and couldn’t hear. Couldn’t hear for almost a week. They sent me to a hospital [in France] and the doctor says, “You’ll be okay.” And I says, “I can’t hear nothing.” I had ringing in my ears. He said, “You’re going to be okay.” Fortunately, he was right.
[Sometime later] The chaplain come over and he says, “Are you Mr. DiGaetano?” I said, “What’s happened?” Turns out my sister wrote the Red Cross because I hadn’t written home for two or three months.
At the end, they wanted to send the 1st Division over to Japan. I couldn’t believe it! I was ready to desert then. I didn’t have enough points to get out because I didn’t have enough time in the army. My time in the army was very limited. I only had 33 months in the army: two years overseas. I got the Purple Heart and three clusters. And five campaigns. You get a certain amount of points for each campaign. I had a number of points but not enough to keep me from going to Japan. Frig that. I ain’t going to Japan.
[And he didn’t. Vinny was in the hospital when he heard that we had dropped the atom bomb.]
The atom bomb was a horrible thing. But still in all, let’s get this thing over with. They’re the ones that started it. We didn’t start it. I’m sure if they had the atom bomb, they wouldn’t have hesitated a second to use it.
. . . .
The war's long effects: Vinny and Chris DiGaetano in conversation
Vinny’s wife Chris joined the conversation and I’ve transcribed their words as faithfully as possible (and omitted my questions as it slowed down the text).
Chris: Vinny never really did spoke about the war. Maybe he’d joke. But he had nightmares, he really did.
Vinny: In the beginning, yeah…
Chris: He had a lot of nightmares. In the middle of the night, all of a sudden you’d find him sitting bolt upright, angry as all hell, and you think he’s awake but it’s in his subconscious. We were up in Times Square, and we were walking up in the theater district, by the Paramount, and a truck backfired. I was walking along and—where the hell is he? He had run behind a car, like we were being bombed. He was down on his hands and knees. I didn’t want to embarrass him. And I said, “It’s just a truck, Vinny.” You know, it’s sad. Because he’s like the strong one and to see him crumble was sad.
Vinny: My first job was in printing shop. They cut the paper, it goes zzzzooooowwhhh. Sounded just like when you’re getting artillery fire. I start diving underneath the table. So a guy says, “So you were in the infantry.” He said the first couple times he heard it, he was diving under the table too. He said it takes about a week and a half to get used to that sound.
Chris: Vinny’s cousin was with Special Services. They made recordings. And he came [to a family gathering] with this record of the Screaming Meemies and he wanted Vinny to hear. It was when we were first married. We didn’t even have children yet.
Vinny: Oh, yeah…
Chris: And Vinny’s sitting there. All of a sudden he was like, “You gotta stop it, you gotta stop it soon because I’ll kill him and I’ll break the machine.” I said, “What? What happened?” He said, “That’s the noise I heard!”
Vinny: I hate those Screaming Meemies. You could hear them for miles away. yooeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…then you don’t hear nothing.
Chris: And then there’s an explosion.
Vinny: It wasn’t like an artillery shell, you could hear them coming in [all the way]. But we called them Screaming Meemies because we’d hear them— yaaahhhoowwwweeeeerrr—
Chris: Then silence and then boom.
Vinny: Then it blows up, bowwwrrrrrmmm, because they were like bombs. I used to hate the noise.
Chris: And this cousin thought it was so, wow, look what I got. He got such a charge out bringing all those war sounds. “This is wonderful, you have to hear this.” What the hell is he doing? And then Vinny blew, “I’ll kill him!” You were really yelling that night. What was wrong with him? Why would he record something like that?
Vinny: The Screaming Meemie guy, he was married to my first cousin.
Chris: He didn’t want to see Vinny after that. He said, “If that nut is going to be there, I’m not going.”
Vinny: We never saw him after that. Once or twice maybe. Hardly ever.
Chris: I think your cousin divorced him eventually.
Vinny: Smartest thing she’s done probably.
. . . .
Chris: That’s a shame, that one [Phil Streczyk] who committed suicide after the war? I wonder if he ever got help. Because Vinny went for treatment, for therapy, for eight or ten years, didn’t you, Vinny?
Vinny: Once a week. Kings County Hospital, I used to go. That’s a big hospital, like Bellevue.
Chris: Psychiatric ward.
Vinny: It was good…
Chris: I think it helped. When he came back from those sessions, he’d be laughing.
Vinny: The doctor would be like, “Did your father hit you?” “Yeah.” In those days, if your father hit you it was nothing.
Chris: It wasn’t his father hitting him, it was the Germans. He’d come back and say, “You should see all those crazy people hanging out the windows.” I said, “You’d better keep going or you’ll be joining them.” Maybe [Streczyk] didn’t go for treatment. Sometimes it does help when you can talk man-to-man, someone who’s professional. They can help you out. Vinny always used to give way to his outbursts. My mother used to say, “Don’t get him angry because he’ll get away with it. He’s crazy. He’s got it on the record that he’s nuts.”
Vinny: Her mother used to say, “Leave him alone, he’s crazy.”
[I asked Chris why she married Vinny despite the problems and her family’s misgivings. She shrugged and laughed and said, “I thought he looked like Robert Mitchum.”]
. . . .
[Before this conversation took place, Phil Streczyk’s daughter, Phyllis, had called DiGaetano. She wanted to talk with someone who knew her father, and I gave her Vinny's number. So she called and was nervous at first but soon they were talking like old friends. Phyllis read Vinny parts of Stephen E. Ambrose’s D-Day over the phone.]
Vinny: I never knew I was in that book. I never knew that. He [Spalding] must have had a list of everybody in the platoon.
[I said that Spalding did or the interviewers did. I had a copy of the interview with me. I quoted from it, “Pfc. Vincent DiGaetano, who was carrying a 72 pound flamethrower, yelled and said, ‘I’m drowning, what do you want me to do with this flamethrower’. Streczyk told him to drop it.” Vinny laughed.]
[Then I read, “DiGaetano was hit in the butt by shrapnel fire…” Vinny laughed again, and so did Chris.]
Chris: Oh, Vinny, there was so much blood it’s understandable they got that idea. [Chris paused and then said:] So what were you, retreating?