Today marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the biggest amphibious landing in history.
While most mark the date as one day, the soldiers who were there know better from memories made in blood, anguish and triumph that the invasion lasted much longer than a single day.
After hammering Normandy with bombs dropped from thousands of warplanes, parachuting in an advance force of troops, and shelling the northern French coastline from naval vessels, more than 150,000 Allied soldiers who crossed the English Channel were ferried to the heavily fortified beaches in a rotating flotilla of landing craft beginning at about daybreak.
As German artillery rained down on them, the first soldiers on the beaches jumped off landing craft and waded through a watery no man’s land, making their way through an obstacle course of steel barriers and mines, with many of them dying before they could make it to shore.
About 4,400 members of the Allied forces and about 1,000 Germans died in the fighting June 6, 1944. Thousands more were killed and wounded throughout the Normandy campaign as the number of Allied troops swelled beyond a million in early July.
Fighting raged in places such as Cherbourg, Saint-Lô and Caen until finally, in late August, the Germans – whose losses were numbering into the many thousands – began a major retreat, abandoning Paris.
So today, as the invasion of Normandy is remembered by world leaders and countless others as a pivotal moment in World War II, the story of one man, a mere teenager when he was drafted into service from Buffalo’s West Side, takes on all the more significance – symbolizing what many acknowledge was the Greatest Generation.
It was on June 11, 1944, five days after the invasion started, that John C. Tiranno and other members of the Army’s 83rd Infantry Division were told that it was their turn. But rough weather scuttled their nighttime crossing of the channel.
“It was raining so hard, the crossing was delayed, and we slept on the docks at Southampton wearing our rain slickers,” Tiranno said.
The next day, June 12, Tiranno and the other soldiers arrived at Omaha Beach.
“As far as you could see, there were ships half in and out of the water, partially sunk. It was quite scary,” he recalls. “We’d heard stories of so many of those first soldiers who never made it to the shore. They were either shot or drowned from the heavy equipment they were carrying.”
After setting foot on what became known as “Bloody Omaha,” Tiranno said he and other troops marched up an incline to the road above and became replacement troops for those already killed or wounded.
“We filled the empty slots. We joined a group moving up. We spent many, many nights in the hedgerows, mounds of dirt and vegetation that marked off the farm fields,” he says. “These mounds were over the tops of a man’s head, and you couldn’t see over them unless you climbed up to the top.”
But it wasn’t necessary to get a visual fix to know the enemy was close.
“We could often hear the enemy on the other side,” Tiranno says. “We’d hear them talking to each other and shouting orders. We fired mortars back and forth at each other.”
In time, the American soldiers progressed beyond the hedgerows, and Tiranno’s unit ended up outside Saint-Lô, where a major battle was fought that July.
“We were in an open field and moving through it and across this creek where there were several German tanks, and when they spotted us, they opened fire with 88-millimeter cannons,” he remembers. “We took cover in the creek, a little below normal ground level. We didn’t see the shells, but we certainly heard them. They were whistling overhead and exploding.
“After we were in the creek, the Germans started firing into the trees above us and shrapnel came down. The fellow right next to me was killed. I recall the lieutenant, not far from where we were, calling for the litter-bearers to pick us up. They picked up the first guy, and the lieutenant said, ‘Stop, put him down. He’s dead. Pick up the other guy.’ ”
Tiranno realized that the lieutenant was referring to him; he had suffered a severe wound to his left leg.
As blood gushed from his leg, the medics placed a tourniquet just above the knee.
“They were carrying me across an open field toward a Jeep, and the shelling intensified. They put me down on the ground, and they went for cover,” he says. “While I was on the ground, four German soldiers came out of their hiding places and ran right across the field by me.
“The guys who dropped me yelled at the Germans to pick me up, but they ran right by me.”
It was lucky for Tiranno that the Germans ignored what surely would have been a humanitarian gesture had they taken him to cover.
“Other Americans shot and killed all four of them.”
After the shelling slowed down, the medics returned and carried Tiranno to the waiting Jeep, where he was strapped across the hood and driven to a first-aid station.
“They cut my clothes, sedated me and patched me up. Then I waited for an ambulance to transport me to a field hospital, where they took X-rays of where the shrapnel was. They told me they would remove the shrapnel. That’s the last thing I remember until about three days later, when I came to.”
In a daze, he yanked needles and tubes sticking out of his arms.
“An aide came over and calmed me down and reinserted all the needles and said, ‘You know, you have some Irish blood in you now.’
“I asked, ‘What do you mean?’ He told me that I’d needed a transfusion, and a soldier who was Irish had the same blood type as me and donated his blood,” says Tiranno, whose parents had come from Italy to the United States.
Tiranno was then transported to England in a ship filled with stretchers. “I was sent to a U.S. military hospital in Nottingham, and they finally concluded there was no chance of saving my left leg because gangrene had set it. They amputated it above the knee.”
For Tiranno, the war was over, but life was just beginning with a major challenge – conquering his physical disability. He would win.
And it started with love.
“I married the girl I left behind,” he said. “She insisted we get married.”
Tiranno and Lee Mueller married on the second anniversary of D-Day far from the bullets and bombs of Normandy, saying “I do” inside the sanctuary at Holy Cross Catholic Church at Seventh and Maryland streets on the West Side.
That was 68 years ago, and the marriage, which produced a son who would also one day entered the military, is still going strong.
Tiranno, as a newly returned war veteran, attended and graduated from Bryant & Stratton Business Institute with a degree in accounting. That opened the door to a job with U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service as a clerk.
Several years later, while working in the records room at the downtown Buffalo U.S. Courthouse, Tiranno’s work ethic caught the notice of the INS district director, a retired Army colonel, who saw Tiranno moving file cabinets onto a two-wheeled hand cart and pushing them to another section of the office.
“He was so impressed with my ability to do this job even though I had an artificial leg,” Tiranno says. “He said he was going to make me an immigration inspector at a port of entry. He called Washington and insisted I get the job. It was a promotion, and I was the first amputee ever hired as an inspector. Inspectors are required to be able bodied.”
Even with one leg, Tiranno proved to be a trailblazer in making inroads for others with disabilities.
“Soon after I was hired and showed I could do the job, two more people with leg amputations were hired, one as an inspector, the other in an INS office.”
In time, the Amherst resident, now 88, worked his way up the ranks and retired in 1984 as inspector in charge of the three international bridges in Niagara County.
And while he says he is grateful he made it home alive from Normandy, he is even more grateful that his son, Samuel J. Tiranno, returned home without any wounds from his two years at war in Vietnam.
John C. Tiranno, 88
Branch: Army • Rank: Private first class
War zone: Europe
Years of service: 1943-45
Most prominent honors: Purple Heart, European Theater Medal
Specialty: Mortar man