UTICA, N.Y. (WKTV) - Phil Capraro, a Utica native, recounts his experiences in World War II as the 70th anniversary of D-Day is remembered.
Capraro grew up in Utica. He was one of several children, being raised by their mother. The family was on welfare. Capraro remembers often times working multiple jobs, picking beans and dropping out of high school to help his family. Due to his situation at home, when Capraro was drafted into the United States Army at the age of 18, he was more than ready.
"I was ready to go," Capraro said. "I really was. I wanted something different in life."
When the army came calling, Capraro packed his bags and boarded a train for his journey south to Alabama, where he was being stationed. They made a pit-stop on the way to Fort Dix, NJ. Capraro was processed, received a hair cut, his shots and was reexamined by doctors. The troops then headed to Ft. McClellan, Alabama.
During his stay in Alabama, Capraro learned how to be a soldier during basic training. He learned how to shoot a gun, use a bayonet and how to use a hand grenade. He trained for 13 weeks, even experiencing his first injury where he fell down a hill in the rain and the tripod of the machine gun went into his back.
After weeks of training, Capraro and his fellow comrades were boarded onto a ship to Normandy, a fact they didn't learn until they were already on the ship.
"When you got on the boat they didn't tell you nothing," Capraro said. "We were an hour to two hours out to sea before they told us, then the sergeant and the captain come down stairs and made an announcement that we were headed for D-Day."
There was 1,500 soldiers on Capraro's boat. They spent eight days at sea on their way to Normandy. To pass the time, Capraro said they cleaned their machine guns, sang songs and talked. Sometimes, they would shoot their guns to make sure they didn't get rusty. Capraro said many of the guys were scared. They would write letters to their family members saying good-bye, in fear that they would never return to the United States. Thousands of them never did.
The troops finally arrived in Normandy on June 6, 1944. Capraro was part of the 42nd Rainbow Division.
"The commander said check your machine guns, check your rifles, check your ammunition," Capraro said. "Get it all ready and get your safety life jacket on, the belt. When you get in the water, you press something and the air comes up and you're on your own."
The sacks Capraro and his fellow comrades were wearing weighed about 60 pounds. He said he had to strap his rifle across one of his shoulders and climb down a ladder off the boat with the other.
Capraro said many men immediately died as they approached their destination, a beach code-named Omaha. He said many soldiers fell in between the boat and the landing draft or died by gunshots from the Germans.
"I was only a corporal on the ship," Capraro said. "And by the time I got to shore I made sergeant because that's the way the army works, the next man in line." This happened after his sergeant and lieutenant got killed.
As Capraro headed towards the shore he picked up two fellow soldiers out of the water, who didn't know how to swim and lost their supplies. After he got onto the beach, he was shot in the leg. A medic cleaned up Capraro's leg, asking him to go back to the boat, but he refused. This would be the first of many wounds he'd receive during the war, times he'd refuse to go home and the first purple heart he would receive.
"There were guys with their arms off and their legs off," Capraro said. "Bodies split apart, blood all over the place, we were swimming in blood."
The soldiers got to shore and were firing back at the enemy. Capraro said artillery from their ships came. They were there until around June 8th.
After traveling for about three months they finally reached the Seigfried line, a line of German defense marked by "dragon's teeth." The term stands for concrete mounds which were placed there to keep tanks from passing. Fortunately, Capraro says their engineers were smart, building a road right over it.
"As far as sleeping you didn't sleep all the way, you were on and off," Capraro said.
He earned three purple hearts. His next one was for when he got shot on their march towards Paris. During the combat the soldiers had a buddy system, Capraro's stood behind him. What he didn't know, was his buddy got shot first. The next thing Capraro knew, he was being shot in the right shoulder.
"We won that battle and the medics came picking us all up and checking us all out, Capraro said. "I was bleeding like crazy over here and he said we have to send you back to the ship, I said I don't want to go back to the ship."
This would be the second time he'd be asked to go back to the ship. Instead the medics fixed him up with alcohol and sewed up his wound raw.
The allied troops liberated Paris and marched towards the Belgian town of Bastogne, where they waited for the Germans to come through the woods. The troops were dealing with sub-zero temperatures for two weeks, many of them being stricken with frost bite. This would soon become the Battle of the Bulge.
"The line was 20 to 25 miles long with 5000 troops lined up ready to go," Capraro said.
On Dec. 16, 1944 the battle began and would continue for 39 days, but not without blood shed. Capraro's platoon took a direct hit, leaving everyone dead except him and nine others. Capraro laid naked, in nothing but boots in the freezing cold and snow. Caprero's clothes were blown off from the artillery. A medic who was going around checking bodies put a mirror under Caprero's nose. He noticed he was still breathing and sent him to the Paris Hospital. Caprero remained nameless, no one knew who he was, because his dog tags had been blown off. He lost his memory too. He was in that hospital for about four months as John Doe.
The war had ended. Eisenhower pushed through, bringing more troops in, helping defeat the Germans, but Capraro's battle was far from over.
Fate did come through once for Caprero. A medic who worked at the clinic recognized Capraro after his beard had been shaved. James Garcia and Capraro had been friends growing up, both living on Blandina Street in Utica. His mother, who had originally received a letter stating her son was missing in action, now received one that he had been found and alive.
Once Caprero was well again he rejoined his troops in Austria. He was part of the occupation army. He stayed there for a few months before returning to the states, where he ended up at a hospital in Pennsylvania.
Caprero said he was in 'shell shock,' that people thought he was crazy. He was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. He stayed there for over a year before returning to Utica in 1947, meeting his wife Ida DeCuffa, who he'll be married to for 67 years on November 9th.
Once he returned home, he worked at the armory in Utica for a number of years before retiring.
Caprero said all these years later, the war still haunts him. Many times, he has to take medication to calm himself down. Besides his experiences in the war he also helped liberate the Nazi death camp at Dachau, those images sometimes still keep him awake at night.
Caprero said he has no regrets.
"Getting shot being wounded was worth every bit of it. It makes us free," Caprero said. "Every time, I see young people talking about moving overseas I tell them what we fought for."