Today marks the 73rd anniversary of D-Day – a day when 156,000 Allied troops began the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe.
One of those brave souls is North Augusta’s Tony Tantillo, who as a member of the U.S. Army’s 22nd Infantry Regiment landed on the shores of France on June 6, 1944.
Born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1918, Tantillo emigrated to the U.S. when he was 14. As he recalls, “Those very moments of passing the Statue of Liberty and seeing the night lights of New York City glowing like thousands of diamonds is a sight I will never forget.”
The Tantillo family lived in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, and throughout the 1930s he and his younger brother, August, were hired musicians playing in various venues throughout New York City, including the occasional performance at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Drafted into the Army in 1939, Tantillo was first assigned to A Company, 1st Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment of the 4th Infantry Division – based at Camp Gordon. During his time in Augusta, Tantillo would attend Catholic USO dances held at Sacred Heart’s church hall. There he met the love of his life – Clara Punaro, whose father, Egidio “Edward” Punaro, was the proprietor of Punaro’s Market on the corner of 13th and Jones streets. Tony and Clara married on July 5, 1943, and five months later his unit left for England in preparation for the D-Day landing.
Military historians writing about the invasion note that probably the most difficult of the 4th Infantry Division’s missions were those assigned the 22nd Infantry regiment. The regiment had the task of knocking out heavily fortified gun positions overlooking Utah Beach on their way to securing the vital port of Cherbourg. As the regiment’s after-action reports indicate, the Americans were met with hard-nosed resistance, and the fighting to take out the German positions came at a steep price.
On the second day of the invasion, Tantillo’s battalion commander, Athens, Ga., native Lt. Col. Sewell M. Brumby, nearly lost his leg and had to be medically evacuated. On June 8, Tantillo’s company commander, Capt. Thomas C. Shields, was killed in action and posthumously was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for organizing the retreat of his men and directing artillery fire on enemy positions, thereby saving the entire company.
If that were not enough, on June 10, Divison Commander Maj. Gen. Raymond O. Barton relieved the regiment’s beloved commander, Col. Hervey A. Tribolet, for not being able to break the stiff German resistance. According to 22nd Infantry Regiment Society historian Michael Belis, the German resistance was far heavier and better organized than the planners realized – and “the 22nd Infantry Regiment never had a chance.”
On June 17, Tantillo nearly lost his right hand to shrapnel from a German 88-mm artillery shell, and he had to be medically evacuated.
After a year of recovery Tantillo was honorably discharged from the Army on June 17, 1945, having earned a Purple Heart and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. Shortly thereafter, he returned to North Augusta, where he and his wife raised nine wonderful children, helped establish Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church and started his own business – Tantillo’s Market – on Laney Walker Boulevard. He rarely, if ever, spoke of his combat experiences.
Reflecting on the sacrifices made by Tantillo and his fellow D-Day veterans, legendary CBS journalist and Army combat correspondent Andy Rooney declared: “If you think the world is rotten, go to the cemetery of St. Laurent on a hill overlooking the beach and see what one group of men did for another on D-Day, June 6, 1944.”
The writer, a native of North Augusta, is a professor of political science and associate director of the Honors College at Auburn University.