Return To Battle
Although Tony Costanzo and Paul Arnone were barely out of their teens on June 6, 1944, the two of them found themselves uniquely driven by fate into the largest and arguably most consequential invasion of all mankind.
Costanzo, an infantryman with the Army’s First Infantry Division, or the “Big Red One,” was part of the first wave of ground forces to assault the much-storied Omaha Beach.
Arnone, by contrast, was a Navy signalman, who sailed toward Juno Beach on board a “landing ship, tank,” or LST, one of the many large – and essential – ships that transported personnel and cargo to and from the shore.
Despite varied experiences, both Costanzo, 94, and Arnone, 90, still hold potent, vivid memories of the massive assault, ones that ultimately defined and made poignant their recent trip back to Normandy as part of the invasion’s 70th anniversary.
Costanzo was chosen by state Sen. Cathy Young, R,C,I-Olean, to join 13 other veterans from around the country, to travel in an all-expenses-paid flight to Normandy on June 2. He was accompanied by his two granddaughters, Meaghan Costanzo and Danielle Lowe.
Arnone also traveled in an all-expenses-paid trip, courtesy of two nonprofit organizations, one aptly titled 70th Anniversary of D-Day and the other Honor Flight Network. His daughter accompanied him.
Upon arriving in Normandy, the veterans were welcomed with open arms, given – in many ways – “rock star” treatment.
“I would say 80 percent of (my grandfather’s) time was signing autographs,” Meaghan Costanzo said. “They were treated like celebrities over there.”
“All the French people who lived along the oceanside, they were the people who really (looked upon) the Americans as being their liberators,” Arnone said. “They just couldn’t do enough for us … they appreciated us very much.”
After sightseeing, sampling the local cuisine and attending a number of banquets, the veterans also visited the beaches at Normandy and the American cemetery.
Constanzo couldn’t bear to walk the sands of Omaha Beach, requesting simply that his granddaughters save some sand in a bottle.
“It’s a different kind of feeling,” said Costanzo, describing his experience overlooking the beach. “It’s a feeling where you could see it all over again … I could see all my guys fighting like hell.”
Arnone, whose ship had pulled into Juno Beach so many years ago, was taken aback by how different things looked today.
“I looked at the beach and thought ‘wow, how serene it is,'” Arnone said. “(It was) such a beautiful place … whereas 70 years ago, the beach was littered with ships and men and equipment and everything imaginable. What a big change. You couldn’t tell there was any war that happened at any time just by looking at those beaches.”
The June 6 ceremony had Constanzo, Arnone and a number of other veterans sitting behind President Obama and French President Francois Hollande. Each veteran received a medal and a number of other commemorative coins from various dignitaries in attendance.
To Arnone, the greatest reward was seeing the people of France and experiencing their gratitude. Emotionally, he described a moment when a number of French jets flew over his tour bus and drew a giant heart in the sky.
“It was just a great experience,” Arnone said.
Costanzo also felt the journey back to Normandy was worthwhile.
“A lot of times I think to myself ‘did I go through all that?'” said Costanzo, reflecting on his life experiences. “When you get there, you’re reliving the same things that you did when you landed on that beach.”