Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

A West Deptford man remembers the Longest Day

After rocking and rolling across the English Channel for hours, Frank Latorre was more than ready to step back onto dry land, even if it meant the beaches of Normandy.

Frank Lattore, A WWII Army vet who was part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy.  (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
Frank Lattore, A WWII Army vet who was part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)Read more

After rocking and rolling across the English Channel for hours, Frank Latorre was more than ready to step back onto dry land, even if it meant the beaches of Normandy.

He heard the cacophonous din - ships blasting at formidable German defenses, enemy artillery rounds exploding, and fighter planes strafing the oncoming Americans.

Then the gate of his landing craft opened into the surf and Latorre drove his heavily armed half-track onto a beach covered with dead and severely injured soldiers.

"We had a job to do, and we were pushing inch by inch," Latorre, of West Deptford, said.

"We didn't worry about what was going on inside of us," he said. "We had to think about what lay ahead."

Each year at this time, Latorre thinks back to those desperate hours when he was 21 and stormed Utah Beach during the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944.

The Philadelphia native manned the antiaircraft gun turret on his half-track and shot down an enemy fighter at Normandy. And he had some close calls as his unit fought across France and Germany until held up by the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans' last-ditch effort to throw back the Allies.

"I never thought what we did was heroic," said Latorre, 88, a member of the Bellmawr Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9563. "Many people were killed. They were the heroes."

Latorre was recognized last month by the New Jersey Senate Military and Veterans' Affairs Committee, which presented him with a resolution honoring his service.

He has received several decorations and citations, including the Bronze Star Medal, American Theater Service Medal, and European African Middle Eastern Service Medal.

Latorre's story is a reminder "of the sacrifices that our men and women of the military made so that we can enjoy the liberties we do today," said State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden), who chose Latorre for the Senate honor.

Latorre, a graduate of Philadelphia's Central High School, might not have been at Normandy if he had got what he wanted. He volunteered for the Army Air Forces in 1942 but was turned down because of a perforated eardrum.

When he received a draft notice, Latorre tried again. He left his home in the Grays Ferry section for a physical at a local armory and was somehow accepted into the Army.

In 1943, he boarded the RMS Aquitania for England. "Some of the GIs went to London and saw actual fires from the [German] bombs. Two days later, we were on trucks to a town called Bridgewater," he recalled.

"I was lucky," he said. "I moved in alone [with a couple] whose son was with the English army in India."

By April 1944, Latorre and thousands of others were involved in Exercise Tiger, a D-Day practice run at Slapton Beach, England. Hundreds were killed when several German torpedo boats caught the vessels off-guard.

By May, Latorre's unit, the 474th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, was among the Allied troops in Southern England awaiting the real invasion.

"We were fenced in. Nobody was supposed to talk," he said.

Tensions ran high as poor weather delayed D-Day. Latorre still has a copy of the handbill given to the troops. It had a message from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower:

"You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. . . . Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely."

Hours later, hundreds of warships and troop carriers crossed the choppy English Channel to Normandy.

"You could hear the bombardment. It was really loud," said Latorre, an Army technician fifth grade who, with four comrades, waited anxiously in their craft to get back on land. "We had four .50-caliber machine guns and were there to knock down German planes, spray a pillbox, or protect a bridge."

On Utah Beach, Latorre jumped into the gun turret of his half-track, a vehicle with wheels at the front and caterpillar tracks in the rear. He opened up on a German fighter strafing the landing troops and saw the aircraft plummet to the earth in flames.

"A lieutenant said, 'You got him, Frank,' " he said. "But I don't know if it was me. Everybody was shooting at him."

His unit later moved off the beach and Latorre dug in for the night. "Germans came over, we fired with our .50-caliber machine guns and lit up the sky like the Fourth of July," Latorre said. "Then I jumped into my foxhole."

That's when "flares lit up the sky," he said. "[German] artillery came bursting in. My foxhole seemed as big as Broad Street in Philadelphia.

"I kept thinking, 'How could they miss me?' You could read a newspaper in the night."

Remembering the chaos, Latorre said, "That's what you call a baptism of fire. From then on everything felt like, if it happens, there's nothing we can do about it. Our fate is in God's hands."

Twelve swastikas were painted on the side of his half-track, indicating the downing of 12 German aircraft. More would be added.

Latorre and his unit later helped push back the German counteroffensive at the Battle of the Bulge, and briefly occupied Berlin after the German surrender.

He got 30 days' home leave and was told he would be shipped to Japan. The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the Japanese surrender - and Latorre's military discharge.

He worked as a driver and supervisor for Pepsi-Cola, married in 1947, had two daughters, and retired in 1987. A widower now, he enjoys golfing and the camaraderie of fellow veterans. And he often thinks back to his youth when he served in the "Great Crusade" to liberate Europe.

On his kitchen table, Latorre spread out mementoes including a unit commendation for outstanding performance in battle.

"We not only had a grandstand seat at the biggest show on Earth, but we took the stage to play a leading role," Brig. Gen. E.W. Timberlake wrote in an accompanying note to the troops in July 1944.

Sixty-seven years later, Latorre was recommended for the state Senate's recognition by the commander of the Bellmawr VFW post, Thomas Fayer.

He "was absolutely one of the first people to come to mind when you think of someone worthy of this recognition," Fayer said. "He is a hero in my eyes."