Frank Soliwoda, a World War II Army veteran who went ashore at Normandy to fight the Nazis, survived the brutal Battle of the Bulge six months later, and eventually rose to the rank of first sergeant, died Friday at an East Islip nursing home. He was 101.
During a November Newsday interview, Soliwoda, a Brooklyn native, said he managed to survive the war virtually unharmed, even though he served every moment of America’s nearly four-year involvement in a conflict that called some 16 million GI's, and killed or wounded more than 1 million Americans.
Danger threatened even before he arrived in Europe.
He said he was aboard a troop ship that was assembling for a convoy bound for England when a collision with another vessel forced his craft back to New York Harbor as a precaution. He said his ship never caught up with the convoy and braved the perilous trans-Atlantic crossing without the protection afforded by numbers.
Soliwoda was selected for the June 6, 1944, D-Day landing, during which some 160,000 American, British and Canadian troops landed at five points along a 50-mile stretch of heavily fortified beaches along France’s Normandy coast. Recent scholarship puts the June 6 death count at more than 4,600 Allied troops.
But luck smiled on Soliwoda. His landing craft did not arrive until the next day, after the worst of the fighting was over.
He also survived the Battle of the Bulge, during which more than 76,000 American troops were killed, wounded or captured during a month of fighting in deep snows and arctic temperatures that spread crippling frostbite through the ranks.
“I don’t like to think about it,” Soliwoda said grimly during the November interview. “It was extremely cold.”
After his honorable discharge in October 1945, he was reunited with his wife, Wanda, whom he had met at a dance.
The couple raised three children in Cambria Heights, Queens, before moving to Seaford in the 1970s and to East Islip in the 1990s. Soliwoda did sheet metal work for a company in Queens before retiring in the 1960s, his family said. He liked woodworking, grew tomatoes in his backyard, and fished the Atlantic’s waters from Sheepshead Bay to Montauk.
At a Veterans Day ceremony in November, his daughter Patricia O’Neill said her father rarely spoke of his wartime experience but was clearly moved by it.
“Over the years, his service has meant so much to him,” she said then.
Soliwoda, who O’Neill said died of natural causes, was known for a quiet sense of humor. Asked during the ceremony to share his secret for having lived such a long life, he responded with comedic deadpan.
“I did everything my mother told me not to do.”
And how did he intend to celebrate his 101st birthday, which was later in November? “I’m going to have a big glass of beer!” With that, a sly smile crept across his face and his blue eyes twinkled.
In addition to O’Neill, who lives in Great River, Soliwoda is survived by his other daughter, JoAnn Fogarty of Connecticut, and his son, Frank Soliwoda of Seaford. He has nine grandchildren and 19 great grandchildren.
Visiting hours are from 2 to 5 p.m. Sunday at Fredrick J. Chapey & Sons Funeral Home in East Islip. A funeral Mass will be offered at 10 a.m. Monday at St. Mary R.C. Church in East Islip. Burial will be at Calverton National Cemetery, Calverton.