A week before Veterans Day, Vincent Greco, 93, who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most lethal battles of World War II, unpacked a box of artifacts in his Freeport home: a piece of shrapnel, an eagle and swastika emblem from a German soldier’s uniform and a patch from his own: “100,” for the 100th Infantry Division, his outfit from 1943 to 1946.
Out too came a Christmas card from one of the other men in the 100th who had looked him up a few years ago. “I often wondered what happened to you after I left you with the medics,” it read. “I hope all turned out OK.”
Greco, the son of a carpenter and homemaker from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, was 18, studying accounting and engineering at City College of New York when he was drafted. He spent his first months in service in the Army Specialized Training Program under the impression he would become a skilled technician or even an officer after graduation. “Whiz kids, they used to call us,” Greco recalled. But the Army, facing a manpower shortage, canceled the program and turned him into a mortar gunner. Greco never returned to college.
As a gunner, Greco fought in the Central Europe, Ardennes and Rhineland campaigns in the last months of the war in the European theater. In Bitche, France, in late 1944 and 1945, the 100th frustrated Operation Nordwind, the German offensive Hitler hoped would redeem his army’s failures in the Battle of the Bulge. It later pushed across the Rhine and deep into Germany.
There, in April 1945 in a forest outside the town of Schwaigern, is where Greco got the leg wounds that ended his war service and earned him a Purple Heart. Germans spotted them and artillery from nearby hill bracketed its fire, dropping shells closer and closer until they “had us cold,” he said. He dove behind a cord of wood, looking for cover with another man who had the same idea. That man got hit in the chest. Shrapnel went through both of Greco’s legs. The piece that Greco keeps is the size of a man’s fingertip, jagged and shockingly heavy. “When you’re young, you’re indestructible,” he said. “All of a sudden, you reach a point where something … where you realize you’re not.” Getting hit by that piece of metal was like getting hit by a “baseball bat,” he said.
A history of Greco’s C Company of the 100th Infantry, published on the website of the Marshall Foundation, lists him as one of nine men wounded that day. One man was killed and another died later from his wounds.
“Anxiety state, manifested by tenseness, tremulousness, insomnia and occasional combat dreams,” read an Army medical evaluation that Greco pulled out of his box. In one of the dreams, “I’d see myself walking through with a rifle and everything was fog all around me,” he said.
“In the beginning,” returning to civilian life, he said, “you’re all mixed up. You try to add a column of figures, you get three different answers. You can’t concentrate.”
He persevered. He married, built a family and a career as a construction project manager on jobs that included the Tombs in Manhattan, the United States Merchant Marine Academy and Plum Island.
He learned to write songs. He built a boat. He and his wife, Regina, lived in Lynbrook but moved to Freeport when they got hooked on boating. They bought Saltair Marina, a small place on East Bedell Street, and fought to close nearby diesel generators he said stank up the place. They wanted a “safe, sociable environment” and they’ve kept it that way, he said. They managed the business for half a century, surviving industry consolidation and superstorm Sandy. Now their daughter, Rosemary Arcuri, does most of the day-to-day management. In the old days, they had competition -- three marinas next door, he said -- but now many of those small places are gone. “There aren’t too many of us anymore,” he said.
Greco kept his artifacts -- documents, photographs, the can opener he used for ration tins -- in a drawer for most of his life, he said. The one thing he’d taken out from time to time to look at was a picture he’d had taken in Paris in 1945, before he was wounded.
It cost a franc and was taken in a photo booth. He’s a day or two off the line and soon to return. He's grizzled and there are bags under his eyes but he’s smiling. Maybe because he'd won the pass in a lottery, or because the artillery had narrowly missed him on his way back, which was like winning another lottery.
“I keep that as a reminder when I go down in the dumps,” he said. Some weeks later, reflecting once more on this photograph, he said: “It reminds you how lucky you are.”
Greco's fellow World War II veterans are growing rare. The Census estimates that in 2016 there were 7,004 in Nassau County and 6,180 in Suffolk: a few hundred fewer than in 2015, which was a few hundred fewer than the year before.
Greco said he planned to observe their holiday at American Legion Post 342 in Freeport today.