Steve Mel­nikoff

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD -

Eu­gene Deibler

Climb­ing into the plane that would take him to Nor­mandy, Eu­gene Deibler had no idea what to ex­pect. The 19-year-old had joined the para­troop­ers to avoid be­ing a ra­dio op­er­a­tor, trained for months and sur­vived a bro­ken an­kle in jump school, but had yet to see com­bat.

Gath­ered at Mer­ry­field Air­field in south­west Eng­land, the para­troop­ers had al­ready got­ten geared up to jump the night be­fore, and then the oper­a­tion was called off due to bad weather. All that pent-up en­ergy had to go some­place, and Deibler re­mem­bers troops get­ting into fights.

The sec­ond night, it was a go. Climb­ing into the plane, Deibler told him­self that if his bud­dies could do this, so could he.

“If you weren’t scared, some­thing was wrong with you,” he said. “Be­cause you’re just a kid, you know?”

As they ar­rived at the French coast, he re­mem­bers heavy an­ti­air­craft fire and tracer bul­lets from ma­chine guns light­ing up the sky like fire­works.

“We said ‘Let’s get the hell out of this plane,’ ” he said. The jump light went on, and out they went.

On the ground, their job was to se­cure a se­ries of locks on the Douve River to pre­vent the Ger­mans from open­ing the locks and flood­ing the fields. But they ran into such fierce re­sis­tance try­ing to se­cure an­other ob­jec­tive — a set of bridges — that they had to fall back.

Deibler went on to fight across Nor­mandy, Hol­land and Bel­gium, in the Bat­tle of Bas­togne.

This will be his first time back to Nor­mandy since the in­va­sion, and he’d like to see what’s changed. At his Char­lotte, North Carolina, home, the 94-year-old re­tired den­tist has a col­lec­tion of World War II books. He’s afraid that the great con­flict will be for­got­ten.

“How many peo­ple re­mem­ber the Civil War? How many peo­ple will re­mem­ber World War I? And now it’s the same with World

War II,” he said. “World War II will fade away also.”

Of all the medals and awards that Steve Mel­nikoff re­ceived as a 23-year-old fight­ing his way across Europe, the Com­bat In­fantry Badge means the most to him. It sig­ni­fies the bearer “had in­ti­mate con­tact with the en­emy,” he said.

And Mel­nikoff cer­tainly did. When he landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day-plus-1 — June 7, 1944 — vic­tory was far from se­cure. His unit was part of the bloody cam­paign to cap­ture the French town of Saint-Lo through fields marked by thick hedgerows that pro­vided per­fect cover for Ger­man troops.

He re­mem­bers the bat­tle for Hill 108 — dubbed Pur­ple

Heart Hill — for its fe­roc­ity. His job was to take up the Brown­ing Au­to­matic Ri­fle should the man wield­ing it go down. The Ger­mans had shot and killed his friend who was car­ry­ing the BAR, and Mel­nikoff picked it up. About an hour later, he, too, was shot. As he went down, he looked to the side and saw his lieu­tenant also come un­der fire.

“He’s be­ing hit by the same au­to­matic fire, just stand­ing there tak­ing all these hits. And when the ma­chine gun stopped fir­ing he just hit the ground. He was gone,” Mel­nikoff said.

“That is what hap­pens in war,” he said, speak­ing from his Cock­eysville, Mary­land, home.

For decades he didn’t talk about the war and knows some men who went to their graves never speak­ing about it again. But he feels an obli­ga­tion now to talk about what he and oth­ers went through. In his hun­dredth year, he works closely with The Great­est Gen­er­a­tions Foun­da­tion, which helps vet­er­ans re­turn to bat­tle­fields where they fought. This year on June 6, he’ll go back to the ceme­tery and pay his re­spects.

“This pros­per­ity and peace that we’ve had for all these years, it’s be­cause of that gen­er­a­tion,” he said. “It can’t hap­pen again and that’s why I go there.”

STEVE RUARK/AP

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