At the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook, a stirring celebration of two residents for their historic service exactly 80 years ago on D-Day. NewsdayTV’s Steve Langford reports.  Credit: Newsday/Kendall Rodriguez

This story was reported by Jasmine Sellars, Nicholas Spangler, Nicolas Villanil, and Nayden Villorente. It was written by Spangler.

Across the world and at ceremonies on Long Island Thursday, civilians and soldiers commemorated the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion, exactly 80 years ago, of Nazi-occupied Normandy.

It was an audacious, devastating strike that within a year brought the unconditional surrender of the German Third Reich. But the number of those alive to tell of it is dwindling. Of the 16.1 million Americans who fought in World War II, about 131,000 or fewer remain, according to the Census. On Long Island, they number in the hundreds.

They include William DeGroat, 101, a retired master electrician from Wantagh, who rang a silver bell at the Museum of American Armor in Old Bethpage — one toll each for Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword, codenames for the beaches where 133,000 Allied troops waded ashore under machine gun and artillery fire.

WW II re-enactors at the end of D-Day ceremonies at...

WW II re-enactors at the end of D-Day ceremonies at The Museum of American Armor in Bethpage Thursday. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

DeGroat was a 22-year-old Army private when he landed at Omaha. “I’m proud to be here, I’m proud to have done my job,” he told a reporter in a video distributed by the museum. Of his experience that day, he said little. “When somebody’s shooting at you, friend, it’s not fun anymore.”

A half dozen World War II veterans attended the ceremony. As a trumpeter played Taps, one stood and saluted. DeGroat stayed sitting and put his right hand over his heart. The ceremony concluded with the laying of a Memorial wreath. .

Other events scheduled included ceremonies at the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook and Port Jefferson Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4729.

Marcelle Leis, director of the Suffolk Veterans Service Agency, said Thursday’s ceremonies were likely among the last to be held with veterans of that war. “We’re less than a decade out,” she said. “Their stories should be heard, because soon we will not have them.”

On Long Island in 2022, according to the Census, there remained an estimated 480 in Nassau County and 1,268 in Suffolk.

“It breaks my heart,” said Ralph Esposito, director of Nassau’s service agency. “They gave us what we have today.”

In a phone interview, DeGroat’s daughter, Barbara Connolly, a Nassau County police officer from Amityville, said her father had never talked much about D-Day, confining his recollections of the war mainly to pranks the GIs played in downtime.

D-Day, when Allied casualties topped 10,300, was no downtime. In “The Longest Day,” a classic account of the invasion's opening hours, Cornelius Ryan described the French coastline DeGroat faced as nested with “heavily gunned steel and concrete fortifications. communication trenches, machine-gun nests, mortar pits and mine fields supplemented the heavy gun blockhouses, and the sands were strewed with a maze of mined anti-invasion obstacles.”

Connolly said she was proud to see her father and the other veterans recognized. “They all did it — the guys that came back and the guys that didn’t come back. It’s nice to see people haven’t forgotten.”

Attendees of the Stony Brook ceremony included Army veteran Frank Agoglia, 100, and David Wolman, 102, of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Both live in the Veterans Home.

From left, David Wolman, 102, served as control tower operator in...

From left, David Wolman, 102, served as control tower operator in the 412 Air Service Group, 8th Air Service Force, 100th Bomber Group, England and Frank Agoglia, 100, United States Army, 2 Bronze Star Medals and a Purple Heart recipient who served with the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division and on June 6th, 1944, landed his glider behind enemy lines in Ste. Mere Eglise, France. They were honored as the Long Island State Veterans Home in Stony Brook on the 80th anniversary of D-Day. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Brooklyn-born Agoglia served in the 325th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, flying into France on an engineless aircraft made of wood. “Everybody makes sacrifices,” Agoglia said. “We landed safely, but some didn’t make it. It’s a miracle and it’s a gift to be here.”

Wolman, also born in Brooklyn, served as a control tower operator in the 412th Air Service Group, the 8th Air Service Force and the 100th Bomber Group in England during the war. He worked 72 hours straight during the invasion, he said. “I got up at 4 o’clock in the morning and was working at the towers for three days sending out B17 airplanes.”

Port Jefferson Station’s VFW Post 4729 marked D-Day anniversary by rededicating two historic artifacts: bronze plaques, commissioned to honor employees of a local company who served in the armed forces during the war, recently discovered in a closet of a Department of Public Works building in Port Jefferson. The plaques named 52 employees of Thomas Wilson Co., a onetime lace manufacturer that converted its looms to make nets for camouflage and mosquito netting as part of the war effort. The company was active on Long Island and New York City but went out of business in 1986.

Spectators applauded World War II veteran Thomas P. Vicale, 97, who was not a Thomas Wilson employee but enlisted in the United States Army a year after D-Day. “I am excited to represent veterans of D-Day who couldn’t be here. I salute them,” Vicale said. Vicale served as a first class private in Germany and worked as a hardware salesman after being honorably discharged. 

Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) spoke about his father, who he said helped build amphibious landing craft used in the invasion and died from the asbestos they were exposed to during the work.

“We are in a moment where in the next decade there won’t be any more of the great generation of Americans that made our lives possible,” Englebright said. “We have not forgotten on this D-Day. It is important we never forget the perilous state our freedom was in.”

In Normandy Thursday, a Floral Park World War II Army veteran, Dominick Critelli, 103, was one of 11 American servicemen awarded the French Legion of Honor by French President Emmanuel Macron in a ceremony attended by President Joe Biden and other leaders including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove).

Suozzi, whose father served as navigator on a B-24 bomber during the war, said he placed a handful of soil from Sagamore Hill Roosevelt estate in Oyster Bay on the grave of Brigadier Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, who landed on Utah Beach with the first wave of troops. 

Macron “pinned the medals, kissed them on each cheek, and (President Biden) shook their hands,” Suozzi said. “It was a very moving experience.” 

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