Examples of faith guide World War II veteran in his service to country

Photo courtesy of Karl Lund
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When Anthony Saputo arrived at Utah Beach off the coast of France in late 1943, he and his U.S. Navy comrades were instructed to dig foxholes as an advance team looked for signs of the enemy leading to the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944.

Saputo placed his pup tent on the ground and got to work. Suddenly, he hit something. It was a rosary. There was no indication of whom it might have belonged to, but somehow Saputo knew it was a sign from God.

"I used that rosary every night, for years and years, even after I came home," he said. "It calmed my nerves anyway. I treasured it."

That was just one moment of faith Saputo experienced as a second-class yeoman in the Second World War. The 92-year-old recently was honored for his service to the United States, participating in the Greater St. Louis Honor Flight. The nonprofit organization provides veterans with a day of honor, remembrance and celebration, including a one-day, all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C. to visit Veterans' Memorials. Saputo joined 21 World War II and Korean War vets on the trip Nov. 12.

"I was flabbergasted," said Saputo, a longtime member of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in south St. Louis. "I'm really nothing compared to all the others who went through combat. They just made you feel like you were somebody important."

Saputo entered the Navy in 1943 as an 18-year-old graduate of South Side Catholic High School (now St. Mary's High School). He started out as a seaman, and underwent training at Camp Peary near Williamsburg, Va., and worked at the Davisville Naval Construction Battalion Center in Rhode Island.

"They trained us in construction work — rebuilding airports, bridges, railroads — wherever we were assigned," he said.

Later that year, Saputo was called overseas. It took 11 days by ship to reach the coast of Ireland. They traveled through London to Southampton, eventually reaching Utah Beach, one of the five landing beaches at Normandy. Because of the typing and shorthand skills he learned while in high school, Saputo eventually was promoted to second-class yeoman, helping assign men with different occupations to work.

"We were behind enemy lines all the time, and we did our work doing that," he said. "We had to keep everybody together in particular spots for their jobs."

In France, Saputo helped rebuild a monastery about 20 miles outside of Paris, which served as housing for the troops. While some monks fled during the war, several remained and lived with the men. In fact, a few comrades got in trouble for bringing their girlfriends onto the grounds.

"The priests would be saying their prayers, and they'd see these two necking, you know?" he said with a chuckle.

Saputo was diligent about attending Mass whenever he could. For Christmas, he was at a bombed-out cathedral in Cherbourg. Saputo also put his childhood skills to use and was an altar server on occasion. He remembers once telling a priest that he could assist at Mass, but wouldn't be able to receive Communion, because he had just consumed a K-ration.

"He said, 'That's OK, you might be killed in 10 minutes — you can go to Communion anytime you want.'"

Saputo's assignment ended in 1946, and he returned to St. Louis. In 1947, he married his childhood school sweetheart, Ann, whom he knew growing up in an Italian neighborhood near the old Our Lady Help of Christians Church in north St. Louis. They eventually moved into a two-bedroom, one-bathroom Vatterott-built home in south St. Louis, where they raised six children, sending them to Immaculate Heart of Mary School.

Saputo described his experience with the Honor Flight as an opportunity to remember how many gave their lives in service to the United States. Visiting the World War II and Korean War memorials "really moved you. You find an old guy like me and the older fellas walking around ... all the people standing around us just kept clapping, no matter where we went. This was just out of this world." 

Greater St. Louis Honor Flight

Greater St. Louis Honor Flight is a nonprofit organization that since 2008 has sent veterans on an all-inclusive trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorial built in their honor. By the end of 2015, the organization had flown 55 Honor Flights, transporting more than 1,400 veterans in the St. Louis area.

The St. Louis organization is part of the National Honor Flight Network, which started when Earl Morse, a physician assistant and retired Air Force captain, wanted to honor veterans he took care of for more than 27 years. The first Honor Flight was in 2005, with six planes flying 12 World War II veterans.

To learn more about the Greater St. Louis Honor Flight, visit www.gslhonorflight.org. 

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