World War II Vet Dies at 102 on His Way to France for the 80th Anniversary of D-Day

U.S. Navy veteran Robert Persichitti was on his way to Normandy to take part in the 80th anniversary commemoration of D-Day when he fell ill while aboard a ship sailing toward Normandy. He was airlifted to a hospital in Germany and died a short time later. He was 102.

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Persichitti was a radioman on the USS El Dorado in the Pacific. “His tour of duty included Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Guam,” according to the New York State Senate Veterans Hall of Fame, Persichitti was inducted into the group in 2020.

Who was Robert Persichitti? He was a “wonderful, pleasant, humble guy,” who was “easy know, easy to talk to,” Honor Flight Rochester President and CEO Richard Stewart told CNN. Before the war, he served in FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps and later taught in the Rochester School District.

The New York Times reports that Robert “witnessed the flag being raised on Iwo Jima. He says he witnessed the huge flag being raised on Mount Surabachi from the deck of his ship.”

“I was on the deck,” the 96-year-old said, his voice wavering. “When I got on the island today, I just broke down,” Persichitti told Stars and Stripes in 2019.

“When they made the landing, they started losing all these guys,” he said. “It wasn’t a very good sight.”

Richard Stewart described Persichitti’s active life.

“He was a fit and upright and got around, and had the complete faculties of someone who would be decades younger,” Mr. Stewart said. “He was really something.”

Long after he retired from the Rochester School System, Persichitti would return to the classrooms to tell the story of his experiences in World War II.

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“It shouldn’t be forgotten,” he said in an interview last month with WXXI News, a National Public Radio station in Rochester.

But it will be. They don’t teach about World War II today. They teach about how blacks were segregated, how Japanese were sent to camps, or how women were discriminated against. This is all well and good. That’s part of the American story as well.

But there is little effort to tell the story of the men who stormed the beaches at Normandy, Iwo, or Tarawa. And we forget how very, very, close the landings on Normandy were to failure. It was a very near thing on Omaha Beach and if the Americans had been pushed back into the sea, the entire front would have had to be abandoned. The consequences of an unsuccessful landing in France would have been almost unimaginable.

“If Eisenhower had been forced to abandon the beachhead, the consequences would have been catastrophic,” I wrote 20 years ago. “Stalin, who had been clamoring for two years for the Allies to open a second front against the Germans, could have decided to make a separate peace with Hitler. We know now that he contemplated such a move several times. Whether Hitler would have been smart enough to let him off the hook is another matter. But freeing up 3 million German troops from fighting Russians to manning the defenses of the Western Wall would have made any additional attempt to land in France problematic.”

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In his wonderful book, “D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II,” Stephen Ambrose shows how a pitifully small group of Americans on Omaha Beach were the difference between victory and defeat. 

“The carnage, the confusion, the terror present on that ridiculously small strip of insignificant French territory became the crucible by which our present was forged. The entire war effort had telescoped down to the actions of less than 8,000 American soldiers who were pinned down by some of the most intense fire ever experienced by American fighting men,” I wrote.

It was the Boy Scouts versus the Hitler Youth, Ambrose wrote, and our young men prevailed. Men Like Robert Persichitti, serving in the hell of the Pacific War, and the half million nameless souls who perished in places that didn’t even have a name, are joined in death, at rest, and at peace.

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