World War II Veteran.Michael T. Vernillo
interviewed by Paul-James Cukanna.
Michael T. Vernillo.
Michael T. Vernillo was born on April 6, 1919 in Burgettstown, PA. He was the oldest of three sons born to Dominic and Julia Muscato Vernillo. Both of his parents immigrated to the United States from Italy. His father worked for most of his adult life as a crossing watchman for the Pennsylvania Railroad and his mother dutifully maintained the household.
Michael graduated from Union High School in 1937. In high school, he followed the business curriculum. He was known as 'Bing' by his classmates due to his ability to sing, dance and perform in musicals. During high school and summer vacations, Michael worked for a local hardware and a clothing store--both of which were owned by the Horowitz family.
After high school, Michael's parents wanted him to become a tailor. However, he wanted to be a cosmetologist. Michael became interested in cosmetology because he noticed that Robert Flinton, a cosmetologist from his hometown, always seemed to have pretty women, fast cars, fancy clothes and lots of cash. Michael had to work for several years as a laborer on the Pennsylvania Railroad to save enough money to finance his education. As a laborer, he repaired and replaced rails, ties, spikes and balances. Michael eventually saved enough money to enroll in Maison Frederick--a Pittsburgh-based school of cosmetology. He completed his program of study in early 1941 and within several weeks he and a friend, Michael Harris, opened a small beauty shop in McDonald, PA.
Within several months of opening the beauty shop, Michael was inducted into the Army. His draft number was 222--a number he sometimes plays in the Pennsylvania Daily lottery. He underwent both the medical and administrative phases of the induction process in Pittsburgh on April 8, 1941. Later that day, Michael and several hundred young men boarded a train to Fort George G. Meade, MD for basic training. Michael recalls that the train ride took a long, long time.
Michael was a member of the 176th Infantry (Carolina Maneuvers), a battalion within the 29th Infantry Division. His military service number was 33036224. He remembers basic training as being very rigorous and difficult--especially the continuous drilling. He said that there were no 'dropouts' or 'recycles'--everyone worked hard and graduated from boot camp on time. His drill instructors repeatedly told him and his fellow recruits that the basic training was in preparation for a tour of duty in the European Theatre of Operations. Michael graduated from basic training as a Private First Class.
After basic training, he and some fellow soldiers from the local area 'pooled' their money and traveled home in a friend's old Chevrolet. Michael and his friends were home on leave when Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941.
In the summer of 1942, Michael and his battalion were sent to Camp Blanding, Florida to learn how to swim. Even after weeks of rigorous swimming lessons, Michael and many of his fellow GIs did not become proficient swimmers. He and his fellow soldiers were then trucked from Florida to Fort Lee, New Jersey. Shortly after their arrival, Michael and several thousand other men boarded the Queen Elizabeth, a converted luxury liner, and headed to England. On the voyage, Michael became 'sick as a dog' from the rocking motion of the boat on the ocean. He explained that the Queen Elizabeth did not take a direct route to England due to the fear of enemy submarine attacks and several actual, enemy submarine alerts. Michael believes that the voyage lasted a little less than a week.
Michael was stationed at Tidworth, England where he was assigned to the 227th Field Artillery Battalion (FABN) of the 29th Division. At Tidworth, he and his fellow soldiers--many of whom had been together since their April 1941 induction in Pittsburgh--lived in tents and trained daily with various types of landing crafts for a future, beachhead landing. Members of his battalion were aware that the purpose of the future operation was to drive out the German Army, which had occupied France for four, long years. During his stay in England, Michael and a small group of other men were also trained in chemical warfare. He remembers that his diet consisted primarily of mutton, bread and butter and lots of coffee. While in England, Michael fell in love with a beautiful, young lady named Cynthia Ann Wright from South Wales. During this period of time, he also had his first name tattooed on his right thigh.
Michael's military record revealed that he saw continuous battle from D-Day until V-E Day when his battalion found itself on the Elbe River in contact with the 5th Guards, Calvary Division, of the Soviet Army.
June 6, 1944 (D-Day) was a day that changed Michael's life forever. It was the first time that he had ever witnessed or experienced human death and destruction. His battalion had been selected to participate in the D-Day operation due to the amphibious training and superb physical condition of its men. He and his comrades were also advised prior to the invasion of France that their failure to hold Omaha Beach would probably doom the whole operation. At mid-morning he and the other members of his battalion (the 227th Field Artillery Battalion of the 29th Division) crossed the English Channel on an LCI (type of amphibious transport craft for infantry) headed to Omaha Beach.
His landing craft was forced to prematurely drop its ramps during a high tide and to discharge the troops in an area where the water level was too high. His battalion immediately encountered a firestorm of German resistance. Death and misery were everywhere. Heavy German defenses on the bluff above the beach killed many of his comrades as they were trying to secure the beachhead. Many of his fellow GIs drowned or were killed getting off the landing craft or while crossing the high-tide. Michael crawled toward the beachhead in horror as he heard and watched many of his friends screaming, crying, drowning and dying from massive gunshot wounds.
Michael's battalion was one of three infantry divisions to hit the beach in Normandy that day. There were so many casualties that 'bulldozers' were pushing the dead and wounded soldiers aside to make room for reinforcement troops and other machinery. Michael remembers D-Day as the first time he ever felt intense and nauseating fear. He continuously asked God to help him and his friends. To this day, he thanks God for sparing his life on that 'crazy' day.
Major General Charles H. Gearhardt, a West Point Graduate and a fanatic for discipline, commanded the 29th Division. Michael explained that the symbol of the 29th Division was a blue and gray monad, a Korean symbol for eternal life. The blue and gray colors symbolized the various units of the divisions that fought for the Union and Confederates during the Civil War. General Gearhardt forced his officers and soldiers to wear this patch and the insignia of their rank on their field jackets and helmets. Even though the men feared sniper attacks based on their military rank, Gearhardt felt that it was important to recognize a superior officer at all times. General Gearhardt also required his men to shave daily. Michael and his fellow soldiers often shaved with his cold coffee.
Michael also remembers General Gearhardt as being a caring and charismatic person. After D-Day, he adopted an orphaned puppy and named him 'D-Day'. He and 'D-Day' would make frequent, unexpected visits to the front line to motivate the troops. 'D-Day' followed the flag of the Blue and Gray to the Elbe and returned to the United States with the 115th Infantry Division on the last transport--arriving in New York in January 1946.
Throughout the war, Michael always feared that a sniper would kill him. His fear was further reinforced when one of his Lieutenants--Charles Merrill--was killed by a German sniper as he stood guard on a hedgerow. The death of Lieutenant Merrill represented a low-point in Michael's military experience and life. Lt. Merrill had become his role model and mentor. Michael remembers Lt. Merrill as a kind, honest, spiritual and handsome, young man from Connecticut.
Michael believes that combat is one of the most extreme of human experiences and that only those who have been there can fully understand the toll it takes on the human body, the mind and the ultimately the soul. While he won a Bronze Star for his capture of a German captain at the Battle of the Bulge, he remembers November and December 1944 and January 1945 as being days of extreme cold and hunger.
Michael was discharged as a Technical Sargent on July 4,  from Fort Dix, NJ.
Today, Michael is a semi-retired businessman. He leads what appears to be a very plush, middle-class life style. He is very fit, well groomed and has a sense of style in his conservative dress. He likes his home to be 'plush' because of the cold and uncomfortable experiences of war--especially the cold months of the Battle of the Bulge. He collects art and has become particularly interested in Hitler's massive plunder of Europe's great art treasures and his egomaniac plans to make Linz, the provincial Austrian city of his childhood, the cultural center of the world. Michael explained that in seven years, by direct confiscation or by forced sale, Hitler systematically amassed 100,000 works of art worth an estimated $300 million. Michael believes that Hitler accumulated paintings, sculpture--art greater than the collections of the Louvre, the Metropolitan, the British Museum, and Moscow's Tretiakov. Michael believes that Hitler had little interest in art beyond the fact of possessing it. Rather, he thinks that Hitler's long-range plan was simply to show the people of his hometown that he had made good.
Michael further explained that soon after the D-Day invasion of Hitler's Europe, art and museum experts in uniform followed the advancing Allied armies with the sole purpose of tracking down looted art treasures and returning them to their rightful owners. Their work was given high priority by General Eisenhower who recognized the importance of making speedy reparations of national treasures if he was not to lose the goodwill of the liberated countries. These experts, all of whom were recruited, commissioned and trained in the United States, formed the Art Looting Investigation Unit of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services.
Michael is very proud to be a World War II veteran. Over the past fifty-five years, he has thought a lot about the positive and negative impact that the war has had on his life and the lives of his friends. He has maintained contact with several Army buddies throughout the years and he especially enjoys reading AMITIE--a quarterly newsletter for World War II veterans of the 29th Division. It was through AMITE that he recently established contact with Ms. Alicia Boyce, the granddaughter of his Captain, John G. Hughes. Captain Hughes had landed at Omaha Beach with Michael on D-Day. Ms. Boyce told Michael that her maternal grandfather died before she was old enough to realize the significance of what he had been through. She also told Michael of her plans to visit Normandy within the next year. Michael spent over an hour on the telephone sharing his memories of her grandfather, D-Day and the war with her. Ms. Boyce, in turn, promised Michael that during her visit to France she would go to the Normandy Cemetery and photograph the headstones of two of his friends who gave their lives for our freedom on that 'crazy' day some fifty years ago.
Entered: 15 September 2000.
Last Updated: 21 May 2001.