It was D-Day, and Abe Milkis found himself up to his neck in the war right away. When the boat ramp was dropped off Utah Beach, the 101st Airborne troopers piled out with all their combat gear.

The boat crews didn't want to get too close, so the soldiers disembarked far from shore. "We had some little guys, we had to carry them. I only went in up to my neck," said Milkis, who was 5 feet, 111/2 inches tall.

Speaking in a strong, assured voice at his home in Wynnewood last week, Milkis reached across 69 years of history to bring alive the baptism of fire for a 20-year-old soldier from West Philadelphia. "Everybody was very nervous," he said coolly.

The famed 101st Airborne is best known for its audacious nighttime parachute attack at Normandy before the seaborne invasion. But as Milkis explained, he was supposed to go in by glider, but there weren't enough to go around. So Milkis and the rest of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment rode in to Utah Beach at night on June 6, after the initial landings that morning.

That was just fine with Pfc. Milkis. The steel and canvas gliders, pulled by C-47 transports, were dubbed "flying coffins" by the troops.

Of the 16 million American service members who returned home from World War II, barely one million are still living. By 2036, according to Veterans Affairs estimates, the last of these Greatest Generation soldiers will be gone. The average age of a World War II veteran is about 92, and 617 of them are estimated to die every day this year. In the peak year for deaths, 2001, that number was 1,115, but it has declined every year since as the pool of surviving veterans draws down.

Many veterans, reluctant for decades to talk about the war, have reached out in recent years. Peter Fantacone, 87, of Mays Landing, N.J., was a radioman on a landing craft at Omaha Beach. Still very active, he volunteers as a tour guide on the Battleship New Jersey and speaks widely before groups. He also narrates a 20-minute D-Day DVD. "I'm a spokesman for these guys who died at D-Day," he explained. "I'm not the story."

For some D-Day veterans who have already died, their sons have filled in the ranks. Butch Maisel, 59, is a history teacher at the Boys Latin School of Maryland in Baltimore. His father, Maj. Frederick C. "Fritz" Maisel Jr., was a company commander with the Fourth Infantry Division and the first man out of his landing craft on Utah Beach.

When his father was on his deathbed in 1986, Butch Maisel promised him that he would keep the memory alive. In the years since, he has tracked down Fourth Infantry soldiers far and wide, men who fought with his father all the way up to soldiers who served with the Fourth in Iraq. Tracing his father's war journey, he began by knocking on doors in Normandy, saying simply, "My father was here." Butch Maisel has compiled a vast collection of memories, pictures, and other artifacts of war.

Walking amid his trove recently, he channeled June 6, 1944, in Normandy: "If it had gone wrong, they all could have been killed or captured."

He leafed through a collection of letters and pictures from veterans he has corresponded with, many from the Philadelphia area. About all of them are gone, he said, dozens of names and impossibly young faces in uniform who became his friends. Then he brightened and pointed: "Here's one." It was Angelo Marsella, 88, a Navy LST (landing ship tank) crewman who made five runs in to the beaches over several weeks of the invasion.

Marsella recalls that morning vividly. "It looked like the Fourth of July," he said last week at his home in Brookhaven, Delaware County.

D-Day was a hold-your-breath moment in history, just like Gettysburg, one to which the future owed its very existence. A force of 150,000 soldiers, supported by a staggering 5,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft, gained a 50-mile foothold on Nazi-occupied France.

It was the first time that Allied troops were back in force on Northern European soil since the British evacuation at Dunkirk four years earlier. This time, they would not be evicted, spelling the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.

With more than 9,000 Allied soldiers killed or wounded, though, the sacrifice was precious.

Three young men, fresh out of high school, now are widowers in their late 80s. Each is a witness to what has gone into legend as the Longest Day.

Abe Milkis

His parents owned a wallpaper store at 42d Street and Lancaster Avenue. Milkis, now 89, remembers that his father cried when his brother Harry went off to war. Both made it through, with Harry seeing heavy combat in Europe in the Ninth Infantry Division.

Abe Milkis was drafted and put into infantry training. He still hoped to get into the Air Corps. On bivouac one day, an officer told the group: "Get your stuff out of here, you're going." After a train ride with the others, Milkis found himself at a strange base in Florida among men wearing caps with glider and parachute emblems and eagle patches on their shoulders. Milkis asked if he was in the Air Corps. "They said, 'No, you're in the 101st Airborne.' "

When he asked if he could decline, he was told: "If you don't sign, you'll be in the front lines tomorrow."

The first 10 days at Normandy weren't too bad, Milkis recalled. The 327th Glider Infantry kept probing inland. The troops walked past pastures dotted with dead cows, their legs sticking up eerily in the air. It was near Ste.-Mere-Eglise that the unit met resistance pushing through the thick hedgerows. "Somebody was shooting at me. It was hitting the dirt right in front of me," Milkis recalled. He hit the ground. Then "the captain says: 'Where the hell do you think you're at? Milkis, you're holding up the whole company.' " So Milkis stood and was promptly shot in an arm by a sniper. That was it for him at Normandy.

Shipped back to England for medical treatment, he didn't return to the unit until after the Battle of the Bulge, in early 1945. Milkis was a loader on a bazooka team, which primarily blew up pillboxes, or concrete gun emplacements. Some of the Germans, he recalled, "were glad to get caught. They got three squares a day."

Milkis' unit wound up at Berchtesgaden, Hitler's lair in the Bavarian Alps, guarding Nazi commanders' wives who were being held there. Milkis remembered that many of the women were attractive, but the American officers "wouldn't let us go anywhere near them."

On the ship home, Milkis said, he "got lucky" and won $3,000 shooting craps. "That was a lot of money in those days."

Peter Fantacone

He was only 17 when he joined the Navy out of Manayunk. His mother refused to sign the enlistment papers, but his father did. Fantacone's wartime home was LCI-492 (landing craft infantry), the Navy's smallest oceangoing vessel, which could put troops directly on the beach. He remembers a Mass the afternoon before the invasion: "When the priest gave us absolution, I knew this was not another practice run." Seas were rough during the channel crossing, and with the smell of diesel in a tossing flat-bottomed boat, it was a nauseating ride.

Before the troops went in, the accompanying battleships let loose with their 14-inch guns. When Fantacone's ship went in, "there was much smoke and wreckage burning on the beach."

Fantacone's landing craft was carrying about 200 soldiers. Although he could not see the beach from his battle station, he said the ship's signalman told him he saw the troops racing into almost certain death, with more following them.

LCI-91, which landed nearby, was hit by a shell from shore and the crew had to abandon ship. The LCI-91 burned on Omaha Beach all that day. But 492 survived the landings "by the grace of God," Fantacone recalled.

When Fantacone gives presentations on D-Day, he explains the Navy's role. He recalled that when he gave his first talk, at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va., "everyone was surprised at what the Navy did at Normandy."

The German defenses at Omaha Beach exacted a terrible toll on the assault force, with machine-gun and cannon fire raining down on the arriving troops. Bombing attacks by B-17s had been expected to soften the defenses, but the bombs overshot the beach because of the bad weather. Fire from battleships also did not neutralize the bunkers. Most of the amphibious tanks meant to support the invasion force sank to the bottom when launched in the storm-tossed water.

What saved the day, Fantacone said, is the destroyer captains who brought their ships in so close they almost grounded, then turned and rode along the beach, their guns blasting the concrete bunkers.

Fantacone, a radioman second class, visited Normandy with his wife after the war and they got a private, after-hours tour of the Utah Beach Museum. He was honored at a nearby hotel by a group of French radio amateurs who transmit every June 6 from a German bunker on the beach. "At Normandy, not even the young people forget," he said.

After coming home, he had the radio key from LCI-492, which he had kept, mounted on a plaque and sent it to the Frenchmen. Every year, he said, they transmit their D-Day message using the 492's key, which the radio operator taps to send Morse code.

Fantacone's ship was stationed off the coast until mid-July and survived a terrible storm, the worst to hit the channel in 60 years. "It couldn't sink us," he marveled. "We bobbed around like a cork."

Angelo Marsella

A 19-year-old seaman first class fresh from South Philadelphia High, Marsella was part of the deck gang on LST-281, a transport ship large enough to load up tanks and trucks and deliver them right to the beach through large bow doors. For the invasion, LST-281 was carrying underwater demolition teams and engineers. The ship let off the demolition teams about seven miles off Utah Beach so they could sneak in ahead of the main invasion and blow up obstacles the Germans had planted.

Later, about 7 a.m., LST-281 approached the beach. "That's when we saw the horrors of war," Marsella recalled. "All the wreckage and all the bodies floating around." He suspects that many of the dead were from the underwater demolition team that had climbed over the side on nets a few hours earlier.

He saw it all from his battle station at a 20 mm gun on the large transport's front port side, where he remained for more than a day. He contributed his own share to the fireworks, blazing away at the half-dozen or so German fighters that roared low over the beaches, strafing troops and the ships that brought them in. A year later, he would be on that same LST-281, battling kamikazes off Okinawa.

After unloading on D-Day, LST-281 was converted into an auxiliary hospital ship, with doctors and a crew of pharmacists' mates onboard. Marsella moved from his gun position to help with the wounded. He recalled holding blood plasma bottles, with a doctor admonishing him, "Marsella, hold those bottles up higher." LST-281 subsequently returned to England, where the wounded were transferred to hospitals.

On June 9, when his ship delivered a fresh load of tanks and soldiers to Omaha Beach, he saw a number of torn corpses in the water - more stark testimony to D-Day's sacrifice.

Contact George Carter
at 215-854-2411 or gcarter@phillynews.com.