TODAY'S PAPER
78° Good Afternoon
78° Good Afternoon
Long Island

Patchogue man reunites with WWII shipmate

John

John "Harry" Kellers, right, of Patchogue and Lou Sapienza of Vermont served on a Navy landing craft during World War II. (Sept. 29, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

John "Harry" Kellers' Patchogue home is filled with mementos of that long-ago war -- wooden-stock rifles, old photographs, steel bayonets and other artifacts linking the 86-year-old Navy veteran to the June 6, 1944, D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy, France.

These days he ambles about his waterside ranch-style home, occasionally visited by war memories that remain painful.

Kellers recently tracked down another former sailor from the landing craft that unloaded American soldiers onto the French beaches who shares many of Kellers' wartime experiences. He had not seen him since the end of the war.

The two old shipmates -- Kellers and Vito Sapienza, 87, of Vermont -- were reunited in late September thanks to Honor Flight, an Ohio-based nonprofit organization that flies WWII veterans free to see the World War II monument in Washington, D.C.

"As soon as we got talking and got some of the 'do you remembers' out, it was just wonderful," said Kellers, a retired Long Island Lighting Co. manager from the never-opened Shoreham nuclear power plant.

"It almost felt like old times," he said. The years seemed to have just disappeared. It was really, really great."

The two were crewmen aboard the amphibious landing craft LCT-539 during D-Day's foggy pre-dawn. As they churned toward a stretch of Omaha Beach designated "Easy Red," it was their task to ferry troops into the war's most pivotal battle.

Kellers remembers Sapienza as a quiet, serious, chain-smoking seaman who looked after younger sailors like Kellers, who had enlisted at 17 and was still a teenager when D-Day arrived.

As the morning unfolded, they watched grimly as men they bore toward the Normandy coast fell to withering German gunfire, sometimes before reaching the shore. Later, they both recalled, the water ran pink with blood when they hosed down the deck.

"It's something you just can't put out of your mind," Kellers said of the carnage, including seeing a soldier decapitated by a German artillery shell.

Chance kept the two together through shipboard assignments that by the war's end had taken them to the Pacific theater.

Once back from the fighting, the two sailors said goodbye at the Navy's Lido Beach discharge station in 1945, and walked out of each other's lives.

Though they had fought side by side in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, and seen so much death, they parted quickly, and did not stay in touch.

"I think we were more concerned with getting discharged and getting home," said Kellers, who returned to Patchogue, married, and raised three children. Kellers' wife, Barbara, died in 1981.

That changed about two years ago, when Kellers gazed at a photograph of the 539's crew members and decided to write to the last addresses he could find.

A week later, his phone rang.

"The guy on the line said, 'You found me,' " Kellers recalled. "It was Vito."

Still, the men did not arrange to see each other until several weeks ago, when Louis Sapienza, an East Hampton businessman who is Sapienza's son, encouraged the two men to travel to Washington together with Honor Flight.

On Oct. 1, they were among dozens of area veterans who were escorted to the Washington Mall. There in front of them was a monument honoring men just like them.

"It's tough to describe the emotions," Sapienza said of the visit with his old friend. "But it was a wonderful experience together. We're all older, of course. But he really hasn't changed that much."

Comments

We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

Latest Long Island News