D-Day Dan

June 6, 1944. Dan Curatola is in an amphibious transport vehicle with 40 other members of the 3rd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, part of an armada of 5,000 vessels headed toward the beaches of Normandy. His is the first battalion to go in on D-Day.

Several hundred feet from the slice of shore code-named Omaha Beach, the boat stops. The gate opens and drops into the water. He joins his buddies in the water and wades toward shore. Bullets and mortar shells are splashing and exploding in the waters all around. His commanding officer is among the first to die. As he nears the beach, a shell explodes, killing men on either side. He struggles out of the water to see the beach to his left and right strewn with fallen bodies. He scrambles up the steep bank and digs in. His unit regroups with what is left of its forces. Only 11 men of his company make it up the beach.

On June 8, a Frenchman appears and offers to show the men where land mines are planted. Dan, an accomplished linguist, has picked up French during the North African campaign and goes along as interpreter, along with the lead corporal and another GI with a mine detector. The little group travels a mile or so when suddenly there is an explosion. The lead corporal is killed. Dan’s left arm is nearly severed, and he has a bad wound in his right leg.

Two corpsmen tend to him as best they can, though they believe that with such a terrible loss of blood he will not survive. He is carried to the beach for preliminary treatment. Then, still critical, he is shipped to England, where he remains hospitalized for four months before returning to France. After he recovers, he is assigned to behind-the-lines duty, including burial of the dead and supervision of German prisoners of war.

As he travels by train to Belgium, the train is constantly shelled by German artillery. The German units “aren’t supposed to be there.” It’s the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge—Hitler’s secretly planned and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to push his army to Antwerp and split the invading Allied forces.

For a long time after the war, working at the Globe-Times and then for 31 years at Bethlehem Steel, Dan can’t talk about his war experiences. Only after an interview for the Globe-Times in 1988, and the publication of a book, The Fighting First: The Untold Story of the Big Red One on D-Day, by Flint Whitlock (2004), is he able to share what he went through in the war.

Dan’s division, before the invasion of Normandy, fought in the campaigns in North Africa and Sicily. He recalls a wild ride in a truck, loaded with live ammo, during the battle for El Guettar in Tunisia, and being shelled with mortar fire and pelted with bullets and shells from Nazi planes.

He was awarded a Bronze Star with two oak-leaf clusters for bravery, a Purple Heart, and 10 other medals, including the Distinguished Unit Medal—a presidential citation second only the the Congressional Medal of Honor, awarded to members of the “Fighting First” for their collective valor.

His bravery and selfless service did not end with those years in the Army. He spent 11 months providing home hospice care for his wife, Angelina, before she passed away in 2003. That was tougher even than seeing so many fellow GIs killed and maimed in combat.

Dan Curatola returned to Bethlehem after the war and enrolled at Moravian College in 1946. Taking an accelerated program, he graduated with the Class of 1948. His son, Daniel B. Curatola, is a member of the Class of 1980.

— Charles W. Eichman ’48

Editor’s note: some errors and omissions in the print edition have been corrected in this online version.

Wearing his Military Order of the Purple Heart hat, Dan Curatola reminisces about his World War II experiences.

Photo: John Kish IV