World War II veteran Anthony Catalano never thought he would survive his time in combat, even after making it through his 82 days with the U.S. Army 70th Infantry Division.
“I walked the full length of France and three-quarters of Germany,” recalled the 92-year-old member of Albertston VFW Post 5253 and longtime Mineola resident.
Catalano was recently honored as a Town of North Hempstead hometown hero by Town Clerk Leslie Gross for his service to his country and his continuing service as a veteran. He serves as a member of the Albertson Post’s Color Guard and Drill Team and as parade chairman for the annual Memorial Day Parade, Veteran’s Day and the town’s September 11 observance at Clark Botanic Gardens.
For over the past few years, he’s also carried the message about the troops’ sacrifices with his fellow veterans to students at Herricks High School, Denton Avenue School and Carle Place High School.
“I tell them these guys gave their lives so we can be here today,” Catalano said.
“He’s really what made the fabric of the community strong,” Gross said. “We need more Tony Catalano’s in our community.”
Catalano said he participated in liberating about 40 French towns in that long walk across Europe as part of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army.
Disembarking from a troopship to a landing draft to reach Le Havre after D-Day, he said he wasn’t certain he was going to survive.
He said he looked at the water below, weighed down with 90 pounds of equipment including a 20-pound Browning Automatic Rifle, and remembered he couldn’t swim. He was having trouble with the rope ladder and a sergeant clamboring down above him told him he was holding things up, he said. Then he stepped on Catalano’s hand and Catalano, also a sergeant, threatened to shoot him if he did it again.
He said he still recalls the bitter cold in that winter of 1944 and the terrifying sound of the German 88-millimeter artillery and the effect the exploding shells had on whatever they hit.
“When you see fire all around you and buildings coming down, you don’t know where to go,” Catalano said.
Six months after he landed in France, his hair turned white, he said. He said he took a good deal of ribbing for that, but it suited the fatherly role he assumed toward the 19-year-olds he was commanding.
“I grew up fast,” he said.
He said still remembers the cold, and how he used to wake up his soldiers every two hours, and make them move around to make sure they wouldn’t freeze in their foxholes. After one GI reflexively stuck his rifle in Catano’s gut upon being wakened, Catalano made sure he stepped on each soldier’s rifle before he woke him after that.
When the war in Europe ended, his unit was selected to participate in an invasion of Japan that was canceled after the war ended with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“I thought I was never going to see Brooklyn again,” Catalano said.
Catalano has spent time in the intervening years since coming home thinking about the friends he lost.
“It haunts you the rest of your life,” Catalano said. “A lot of friends didn’t come home with me.”
Memorial Day, he said, is his worst day because of all the headstones he sees at cemeteries he’s visited over the years that “just go on for miles.”
But he feels a deep sense of duty to those lying beneath those headstones. And every year, he goes to the graveyards, as he went to Holy Rood Cemetery last year, and plants flags and flowers to honor their memories.
“I made sure those guys got the homage they deserve to get,” he said. “I want to keep Memorial Day alive.”
He got married when he came home from the war and had become an air traffic controller at Idlewilde Airport (now Kennedy). Three years after starting work at Idlewild, he became a radar controller, and a year later he moved to Mineola. In 1965, he became assistant chief of the control tower at MacArthur Airport. He put in 35 years in that line of work, retiring in 1980.
He had a brief brush with celebrity while at MacArthur, recruited to shoot a scene with Walter Matthau in a movie called “New Leaf,” but his scene was left on the cutting room floor.
“I got paid anyway,” he said, laughing at the memory.
For nearly 50 years after he came home, Catalano wanted to forget the war and never spoke about it to anyone.
“I clammed up for 47 years,” he said.
Then his brother saw a newspaper item about a reunion of Catalano’s old unit in Pittsburgh, Catalano went and, as he put it, “we all opened up.”
Later a fellow veteran suggested that he join the Albertson VFW and he’s been a member for the past 25 years. He’s also a member of American Legion Post 144 in Williston Park.
“I’m doing it for the veterans, to make sure they’re not forgotten,” he said.
And for the past 10 years, Catalano has been the publisher of The Veterans Voice, a monthly publication of Albertson VFW Post 5253 that reaches some 600 members and former members of the post around the country. The four-page publication keeps the veterans informed about what their fellow veterans are doing and what’s going on at the Post.
When he was honored with the town’s hometown hero award, he accepted it proudly, but he denies that he’s a hero.
“I didn’t want no credit for anything. I just want to do my job,” Catalano said.