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July 9, 2011

World War II veterans share their stories

Oral history program sponsored by Conneaut Public Library

CONNEAUT — A handful of World War II veterans shared the terror and tedium of war during an hour-long panel discussion Wednesday night, another installment in an oral history of the era being compiled by the Conneaut Public Library.

An Evening to Remember II was held at the Villa at the Lake, and featured comments from John Zappitello, Kenneth Keidel, John Price, Kenneth Garofalo and Louis Murtha. The event provided dramatic, tearful and sometimes humorous insight into the conflict from the people who were there.

Price was a topographical engineer who prepared maps used by bomber crews, from reconnaissance photos. He helped make the first maps of Rome, noting churches in the ancient city were labeled “do not bomb.” After serving in Italy, Price was sent to the Pacific Theater and to the Philippines, where he was set to participate in the invasion of Japan.

“But we were lucky,” he said. “I didn’t get there in time (before Japan surrendered).”

Photos used by Price were the specialty of Murtha, who flew 75 reconnaissance missions with the U.S. Army Air Corps.

“I had a very interesting job to do,” he said.

Murtha’s planes were fired at constantly by German anti-aircraft batteries but always returned home untouched.

“I got shook up a couple of times, but we never took a hit,” he said.

That winning streak didn’t change when a man known as a “flak magnet” joined Murtha’s two-man crew.

“But he never got any holes with me,” he said.

Garofalo was in the U.S. Army and served in Italy with a heavy weapons company. His main responsibility was to improve the accuracy of his unit’s mortars and heavy machine guns. Garofalo was not involved in any fighting, he said.

Keidel also escaped any fierce fighting, he said.

“I didn’t get shot at, and I didn’t shoot anybody,” he said.

Keidel was a radio operator who, after volunteering for overseas duty, wound up working at the Panama Canal. Unhappy with that duty, he signed up for paratrooper duty.

Zappitello was an Army Infantry captain with engineering companies, who served nearly three years in Africa, Italy, France and Germany. He participated in the invasion of Anzio, south of Rome, which featured some of the fiercest fighting in Europe. Facing no opposition upon landing, the Allies soon found themselves pinned down in a valley while the “Germans held the high ground, looking down at us like sitting ducks.”

Zappitello and others had to deal with Anzio Annie, a massive German artillery piece mounted on a railway car, which could hurl a shell 18 miles. Zappitello was awarded a Bronze Star after he and another man used their helmets to dig victims of an exploded shell from their foxholes.

Zappitello provided a number of harrowing stories of combat, including the time he helped capture 56 Germans hiding in woods in France. He also told of numerous times he evaded death by shot and shell, while people an arm’s length away did not.

“That’s when you know somebody is watching out for you, whether you believe it or not,” he said.

Zappitello did not leave Europe unscathed, however. An explosion put 44 pieces of shrapnel in his body. Still, Zappitello could return home while many of his friends were buried in foreign soil. At times, he became emotional while recalling comrades who were killed or badly wounded in battle.

Attachments become very strong among men under fire, Zappitello said.

“On the front lines, your life depends on the man next to you, and he depends on you,” he said.

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