MORRISTOWN – Eighty-nine year-old World War II veteran Robert F. Shelato, who helped capture 13 soldiers with a single word and offered advice to Gen. George S. Patton about a road full of landmines, took center stage in a ceremony observing the 70th anniversary of D-Day at the St. James American Cemetery in Normandy on June 6.
When the guest speaker took ill three days before he was set to leave for France, organizers asked Mr. Shelato to step in.
The guest of Helen Patton, General George S. Patton’s granddaughter and Chairman of the Patton Foundation, Mr. Shelato spoke about his experiences with thousands of veterans and guests at the St. James American Cemetery, the gravesite of over 4,000 World War II American soldiers, most of whom lost their lives in the Normandy and Brittany campaigns of 1944.
Mr. Shelato served with the 249th Engineer Combat Battalion as the Allied Forces pushed off the beaches of Normandy to drive back Hitler’s troops. He landed on Utah Beach in Normandy in August 1944 at the age of 18.
Mr. Shelato said while most invasion speeches had to do with the horrors of war, he opted instead to tell a humorous story.
While leading a convoy off Utah Beach, he took a wrong turn and got separated from his unit. While trying to catch up with his unit, his Jeep overheated and he turned to a nearby farmhouse for help.
Using his US Army-issued American-French translation book, he asked a woman in a nearby farmhouse for water. But the woman came back with eggs instead.
“I took her hand and showed her the steam rising from Jeep and she knew right away what I meant,” he said. “She left, I could hear the water pump and she came back a few minutes later with a bucket.”
As a thank you, Mr. Shelato gave the woman a chocolate bar.
“You could tell she had not chocolate in a while,” he said. “Her eyes lit up like two gems in a rough polished stone.”
Following the ceremony, Mr. Shelato rode in a jeep as part of a parade Sainte-Mère-Église.
“In this country, people respectfully observe from the sidewalks during parades,” Mr. Shelato said. “That is not the case there. Thousands of people crash onto you. They would try to hug me and say “I am thanking you for my freedom.”
Mr. Shelato said he felt humbled by the whole experience.
“Although, I have very little to do with their freedom, I am just one person, I was humbled,” Mr. Shelato said. “They see in me a representative of the United States. [Many of the French people] have a lot of respect for Americans.”
Of the 16 million soldiers who served in World War II, 1,034,727 are living today, according to the U.S. Veterans Administration.
“Once you experience something like that, those experiences come along very few times,” Mr. Shelato said. “There are so few of us left now, and that is why people want to hear our stories. And that’s why it’s so important for us to tell our stories. The younger generations have to know before there is no one left to tell.”