By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A member of the Greatest Generation finally has the Bronze Star medal he earned the Battle of the Bulge more than half a century ago.
In a brief, but touching ceremony at the US Army Garrison at Fort Hamilton on July 25, Eugene Gagliardi, an 87-year-old World War II veteran, was awarded the Bronze Star for his heroics and endurance in that famous battle long ago. The medal, which is awarded to a soldier for acts of heroism and meritorious service in a combat zone, was given to him 68 years after his honorable discharge from the army.
The Battle of the Bulge took place in France over a three week period in December of 1944.
With his unit pinned down by the Germans during a blizzard, Gagliardi somehow managed to crawl to a village several miles away to search for fresh ammunition. Gagliardi, who was a US Army private, suffered frostbite that was so destructive; he nearly had to have both feet amputated. To this day, he has trouble with his feet and his legs.
“He put his life on the line to serve his comrades,” Col. Eluyn Gines, the garrison’s commander, said. “His heroics were beyond a lot of people’s comprehension,” he said.
Gines officially presented Gagliardi, a retired newspaper printer, with the medal as the hero’s wife Eleanor and their family looked with pride. “Think about the legacy of what you have done,” Gines told Gagliardi. “You represent what the strength of the army is,” Gines said.
Gagliardi, a Staten Island resident, accepted the overdue honor with humility. “I’m just shocked. I don’t think I deserve it,” he said. His thoughts turned to his comrades who died in the battle. “I left too many people behind,” he said, his voice quivering.
Twenty-thousand men were killed in the battle. Gagliardi’s son, Eugene Gagliardi Jr., said the numbers were staggering. There were 600,000 men in the battle. There were 80,000 men injured. “The Battle of the Bulge was the greatest land battle ever fought and won by the United States,” the younger Gagliardi said.
Gagliardi was a 15-year-old boy working in the New York Herald Tribune pressroom when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. He joined the New York National Guard. But when the National Guard was federalized, Gagliardi’s age was uncovered and he was sent home. Such was his love for his country that he did give up his efforts to join the service. At age 17, he joined the army. This time, he was accepted.
After training at Fort Knox and Camp Polk, Gagliardi was sent to Europe with the 8th Armored Division. He served in England and then in Alsace Lorraine in France, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
The battle took place decades ago, but Gagliardi said he remembers it like it was yesterday. “It’s with me every day,” he told reporters in a post-ceremony press conference.
“They threw everything at us,” Gagliardi said, referring to the Germans. “We were outnumbered, outmanned, and outgunned,” he said.
Making matters worse was the weather. A blizzard had hit that part of France. “The cold was so severe,” Gagliardi said.
The Germans had the Allies almost completely surrounded. When his commanding officer asked Gagliardi to go to the village to find fuel and ammunition, he went. “We crawled through the deep snow,” he recalled. There was no ammunition in the village and Gagliardi suffered frostbite. “I came close to losing my feet,” he said.
When the snow stopped and the skies cleared, the US Air Force flew over dropping missiles at the Germans. Gagliardi said there were so many planes they “looked like mosquitoes.” There were 1,000 planes, he said, adding that it was “a sight for sore eyes.” The air attack pushed the Germans back.
Gaglardi was taken by medics off the battlefield. He was rushed to a hospital in England, where he remained for two months. His trip back home to the US came on the Queen Mary.
“We knew in the long run we were going to win,” he said, expressing his confidence that the Allies would win the war.
Following his honorable discharge in 1945, he returned to civilian life. His job at the Herald Tribune was waiting for him. In 1949, he married his wife Eleanor. They had met at the newspaper. She worked the payroll department. The couple has a son, a daughter, and two grandsons.
Over the next 40 years, Gagliardi worked at the New York Post, Daily News and New York Times. He eventually retired.
Gagliardi, who still comes into Brooklyn for treatment at the Brooklyn Veterans Administration Medical Center in Bay Ridge, is a member of the group http://www.dav.org/ Disabled American Veterans. He is also a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Staten Island Battle of the Bulge Post.
Looking at the medal pinned to his chest, Gagliardi said he was thinking of his fellow soldiers. “There were many other boys who were with me. They deserved it too,” he said.