During WWII, Guy Prestia of Ellwood City, Pennsylvania was among the first Army troops to reach Europe through North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio.  From June 1943 through Allied Occupation, Guy served with the 45th Infantry Division, a unit formed out of the Oklahoma Army National Guard from the American Southwest.

Official military records state that the 45th endured 511 days of combat and more than 63,000 casualties.  By war’s end it was a tough, seasoned outfit.   But it wasn’t always that way.  “We really didn’t know what we were doing at first,” Guy admits.  Mistakes were made.  There were tragic friendly fire accidents in the fog of war, literally.

One night early on during the invasion of Sicily, Guy’s unit heard planes overhead and someone started shooting into the mist and clouds above.  “We were new in combat.  We didn’t know,” Guy says.  “We all fired up in the air.”  The next morning the men discovered that they were shooting at paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division.  Results were obvious.

After pushing through France and Germany, the men of the 45th were among the first to liberate Dachau.  Despite their battle hardness, they were unprepared for such inhumanity.  It was terrible, almost beyond belief.  Many soldiers, through the tears and vomit, now understood the importance of their service.

And that smell . . . “It never leaves you,” Guy laments, thinking of those who perished.

On January 19, 2015, we invited Guy Prestia and four other local WWII veterans to share their stories with us at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our partnership with the Heinz History Center, an affiliate of the Smithsonian, officially came about in 2014, but since 2012 we have conducted several audio and video interviews capturing the experiences of Western Pennsylvanians as part of our involvement with StoryCorp’s National Day of Listening, the Heinz Center’s Italian Heritage Day, and of course, our own veterans’ oral history initiative.

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Keep It Clean

In this audio short story, Guy Prestia recalls the fate of a young, untrained replacement soldier.  

My name is Guy Prestia.  I’m from Ellwood City, Pennsylvania.  I remember Pearl Harbor.  We saw on the movie news and also in the newspapers the terrible thing that took place there.  That’s what started the war. Then my number was called up in the draft.

Until I got in the service and took basic training, I never fired a rifle.  But in the beginning going through basic training and later at Camp Pickett, we had all kinds of training in the Infiltration Course.  We had bayonet drills and we learned how to launch grenades.  We had rifles and we learned about all kinds of ammunition.

When you’re in basic training you don’t think about what’s going to happen in actual battle, but when the artillery, machine guns, and assault rifles are firing at you—that gives you the incentive to fire back.  You never get to the point where you enjoy it.  It’s just something that you have to do.  And everybody in the service took care of each other.  You weren’t there for yourself.

I remember this one person there in Italy who came up as a replacement.  The sergeant of our unit said, “Go back and see this recruit that just came in earlier today.”

They gave him an M1, and I said, “Do you know anything about this?” and he said, “No.  I was never on a rifle range.” This kid was about nineteen years old.

I said, “You went through basic training and didn’t get to go to the rifle range and learn about the different weapons?”

He said, “No, they had me working in the barracks and in the orderly room, things like that, doing paperwork.”  He said, “I never got any training like that.  I never fired a rifle.”

I said, “Let me show you something.   You have to know how to field strip this thing.  This is an M1.  This is a semi-automatic.”  I says, “The rifle you have here has to be kept clean.   If you get sand in it or dirt–anything like that–it will misfire on you.  And you may need it sometime to save your life, so you have to know how to clean it and keep it clean.”

So I showed him how to field strip it and how to clean it.  How to put it together and how to load it.   I said, “You understand this?”  And he said, “Yeah.  I know how that works.”

That night, it was pitch dark again.  I’m at the front of the column there and I hear this loud shot.  One blast.  So I walk back there and see this guy.  He fired one bullet out of that gun.  And that one bullet is the one he shot himself with.  He shot himself in the head.

What would happen in that situation?  The company commander would write up a citation.  The papers would get back down to headquarters.  The Army would knock on the parents’ door and they would get the information that their son was killed in battle.   They wouldn’t say he committed suicide.