SPOKANE, Wash.--Spokane native Ray Destefano was among more than 150,000 soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
Destefano said he wanted to join the Army when he was 18-years-old but his mom told him he could not. He said he decided to attend Gonzaga University and then work as a roofer for a while. Just a few months later, Destefano’s papers arrived and he became part of the 19th Infantry Division.
“As soon as we hit the beach, things are blowing up! And Jesus... you wonder how you were going to make it. And a lot of them didn't make it,” said Destefano.
Destefano was 19-years-old on D-Day. The Army had sent him from Spokane to Texas to train for combat.
“Well, I didn't know what it was like. But I knew that they shot at you, and you had to shoot them,” said Destefano.
Destefano said nothing could have fully prepared him for the invasion at Normandy. He went in as part of the third wave at Omaha Beach, where there was some of the heaviest German resistance.
“On the water, geez, I saw bodies flying around. Oh... it was terrible,” said Destefano. “But uh, I kept on going.”
A German bullet went right through Destefano’s arm. That was when Army commanders gave him the choice to leave the battlefield in France.
“If I went back to England, I'd lose all the friends that I made. And I told them, 'No, I'll stay,’” said Destefano.
He continued to fight.
“I saw they were dead,” said Destefano. “I always looked on the bright side of it. That could have been me.”
Destefano found himself in St. Lo a few days after he was shot. The fierce fighting between allied forces and Germany had leveled the French village. Destefano and another soldier took a direct hit from a German mortar.
“I didn't know what hit me. And I asked him, 'What was that?' He said it was a mortar. And good thing we were close enough it didn't blow us to bits,” said Destefano.
The men were seriously hurt. Destefano had gaping mortar wounds all over his body. He lost a finger on his left hand. He only remembered not being able to move.
“When I looked up and saw the priest give me the last rites. I thought,’ Geez!’ I thought that was it,” said Destefano.
He spent several months in a military hospital in England. He said he met Shirley Temple and Rita Hayworth while he was there.
Within one week of D-Day, the Normandy beaches were secure and more than 300,000 allied forces were on their way to Hitler’s defeat.
Destefano eventually recovered enough to come home. He arrived back in the U.S. with two purple hearts. He met his wife, Ethel, and went to work at the U.S. Postal Service.
His wife said Destefano never spoke about the war.
“I was the type, I didn't like to talk about it. I didn't want nothing said around me. And I don't know why I'm blowing off now,” said Destefano.
At almost 90-years-old, Destefano’s memories and those of other soldiers who survived were all that was left to tell the story of the turning point in World War 2.
Destefano and his wife went back to Normandy for the 50th D-Day Anniversary. They made a special trip to the U.S. cemetery there, which held the graves of more than 9,000 U.S. service members who died.