When Anthony Catalano landed in Normandy on D-Day with General George Patton’s Third Army, 70th Infantry Division, he wasn’t thinking about accolades or honors.
Commendations were the furthest from the Mineola resident’s mind on that June 6, 1944. He was concerned with defending his home, his country, and his family from the evil that was hell-bent on world domination.
Catalano, who was a sergeant during the war and is now 92 years old, reflected on the horror he witnessed, the freezing nights in the French forests and the men that were left behind after World War II, during his acceptance of North Hempstead’s Hometown Hero Award on Tuesday, Jan. 15. He is the fourth Mineola resident to receive the award. Joseph Wood, Bill Gresalfi and John DaVanzo have been commended since 2010.
The American Legion Post 144 member liberated POW camps in France and Germany during the war. He has lectured at Carle Place High School, Herricks High School and the Denton Avenue School regarding his military experiences.
Catalano was the 10,327th man drafted into the Second World War. But his birth date was the first to be picked out of a bowl in Washington, D.C. making him first in his neighborhood to be selected for military service. His brother’s Joe and Frank were drafted after him. His third brother Ed got selected but had a broken trigger finger and was unable to serve.
“My mother went haywire because her brother was in World War I and they never found his body,” he said. “I wound up with General Patton in France.”
In the dead of winter on the outskirts of the Ardennes in France, Catalano, 21 at the time, and his men were freezing, stuck in 4 feet of snow. At one point, Catalano said their rations ran so low that he told men to take wintery powder around them and shove in their canteens to melt into water.
Protocol, according to Catalano, was to wake his men up every two and a half hours to prevent severe illnesses or death. His fellow comrade, a 19-year-old man from Brooklyn, pleaded with Catalano to shoot him in the leg so he’d be sent back home.
Much to the man’s chagrin, the roads were closed due to the snow. Catalano’s reaction: He took off his coat and draped it over the young solider.
“We couldn’t move for nothing,” Catalano said, wiping his brow. “Then General Patton came in with bulldozers and soup for all of us.”
The former Idlewild (now JFK) air traffic control worker gripped the podium when he talked about his heroes: fallen soldiers.
“Everyone has a hero…and my heroes are the ones who didn’t come with me,” Catalano said, fighting back tears. “They gave their lives so we can enjoy the freedom we have today. May they rest in peace and never be forgotten.”
Four years after he entered the war, his outfit was chosen for the invasion of Japan. Catalano admitted he was scared. He thought he’d never get home again…but his love for Harry Truman grew tenfold.
“He ended the war and I didn’t have to go to Japan,” said Catalano.
Senior Post vice commancer Jack Hirsch said Catalano helps out whenever necessary. He called him a “tremendous asset.” Catalano runs The Veterans Voice, the Post newsletter.
“I am very proud and honored to be serving at this Post with Tony,” Hirsch said.
Catalano is a fixture at yearly events, including the bicentennial parade in Oyster Bay and the VFW State Convention in Binghamton.
“We look at Tony and it’s hard to imagine him standing somewhere, freezing cold, freezing feet, giving someone his coat. Now, you understand why he is a Hometown Hero,” Town Clerk Leslie Gross said.
Catalano is parade chairman for the annual Memorial Day, Veterans Day Parade and the 9/11 ceremonies at Clark Gardens. He is even undertaking an initiative to get a steal beam from the World Trade Center to be displayed at Clark Gardens.
“I have been to this Post many times and really have had the pleasure of working with Tony and being here, whether it’s Memorial Day or Veterans Day, honoring Eagle Scouts, but today is different and special.”
Catalano volunteers on Flag Etiquette Day each year with the Great Neck Association of Girl Scouts of Nassau County. He lectures the group on the 13 folds of the American flag and what each fold represents.
“I got to meet Tony when I first came into public office in 2010,” TNH Receiver of Taxes Charles Berman said. “He’s been a wonderful friend to me and I have become familiar with him and his life, especially his experiences during the war.
Catalano called the Hometown Hero designation a “huge compliment.” “I’m always trying to do something,” he said. “I love to help. I don’t like sitting around. To be recognized for it is a nice distinction.”
“When Michelle [Schimel] heard about Tony being honored, we discussed what we were going to do and we usually write a letter or we do a citation, she said ‘Oh, it’s Tony! He gets a letter and a citation,’” Schimel’s Communications Coordinator Sandra Portnoy said. Schimel could not attend the event since she was in Albany helping hammer out the new gun control law passed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Catalano said he wants the “Greatest Generation” to be remembered. He feels events like this promote that remembrance.
“Tony is one of those truly exceptional people that I am proud to have gotten to know in my 11 years of public service,” Nassau County Legislator Wayne Wink said.