World War II veteran Vincent DeMartino served in the 95th Division as part of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army in Europe, a division that earned the rare distinction of receiving a unit citation for its participation in taking the heavily fortified German city of Metz four months after the D-Day landings.
But when DeMartino, the current chaplain and past commander of VFW Post 5253 in Albertson and Floral Park resident returned to Normandy for the 71st anniversary of D-Day last month, he wasn’t expecting additional honors for his service. But he was awarded the title of “chevalier de la Legion of d’honneur” or “knight in the legion of honor”—a title created by Napoleon Bonaparte—in the small Normandy village of Picauville.
DeMartino, 89, said he was simply planning on participating in ceremonies commemorating the invasion.
“I went just to go,” he said. “I had no idea. It was a complete surprise to me.”
A veterans group DeMartino was traveling with had given him an itinerary that included attending the D-Day observance in Picauville, so the legion of honor medal presentation had been planned. He didn’t even know what the citation was for until after he received it from Picauville Mayor Phillipe Catherine.
“When they presented it, that’s when I found out,” DeMartino said.
Every French hamlet or village in Normandy holds its own annual D-Day observance and when DeMartino arrived in Picauville wearing his dress uniform, he was asked to stand up front for the ceremonies and the people couldn’t do enough for him.
“The French people in Normandy were very appreciative of our being there. I never had my picture taken so many times,” DeMartino said.
During the ceremonies he was seated next to Patton’s granddaughter, Helen, and gave her his opinion of the controversial American general. “I told her I thought he was a great general,” he said.
DeMartino was a part of an anti-tank crew manning a mobile 57-millimeter cannon as part of a vital effort to break through the heavily fortified German defenses at Metz from September to mid-December 1944 to facilitate the allied advance.
The 95th Infantry held the line for the Third Army during the Battle of the Bulge as Patton’s tanks raced to relieve the beleaguered 101st Airborne in Bastogne.
“We lost a lot of guys,” he recalled.
He was reminded of the lives lost then—and particularly the lives lost in the Normandy invasion—as he visited the cemetery for U.S. military servicemen on the bluff above Omaha Beach, where some of the bloodiest fighting of the invasion took place. But it was a recurrent phrase on some of those white crosses of the fallen that hit a deep emotional chord in him.
“When I saw the crosses that said ‘Only Known To God’, it struck me,” DeMartino said.
He also visited Pointe du Hoc, site of a famous U.S. Ranger mission to knock out German artillery on a high cliff there. And he reflected on what the soldiers who landed on D-Day dealt with when he visited Utah Beach.
“When you look at that beach, you can see why so many were killed,” DeMartino said.
He found the Normandy landscape as he remembered it—including the thick hedgerows that impeded the Allied troops progress inland after D-Day.
“Nothing has changed in 71 years. The hedgerows are still the same. You can’t image how they got through those hedgerows,” he said.
It seemed appropriate that DeMartino received the unexpected honor. He is that rare veteran who saw duty in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and he is still in active service for his fellow veterans today.
He maintains an office in the Northport Veterans Administration Hospital, where he volunteers his time two days a week helping veterans sort out benefits issues.
DeMartino, who was 17 when he enlisted in World War II, retired from active service in 1970, and retired from his civilian job as a parts manager in a Flushing, Queens, air conditioning business in the early 1980s.
DeMartino has also worked with the county VFW.
Tom Rumore, senior vice commander of the Albertson Post, said DeMartino devotes a great deal of time on veterans issues, particularly focusing on health benefits.
“He’s a wealth of knowledge on veterans affairs. He’s very conscientious and very straightforward,” Rumore said. “I think he’s big contributor to the Post.”
DeMartino also belongs to U.S. Volunteers, a veterans group that provides escorts for veterans’ funerals. He also is past commander of the Bellmore VFW Pup Tent of the Military Order of Cootie, an elite VFW group focused on hospital work.
“It’s a payback for what I’ve gotten from the government. And I feel it’s my duty too,” DeMartino said.