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WWII veteran to take part in D-Day anniversary in France

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MORRISTOWN — Robert F. Shelato will be one of several World War II veterans who will be honored on the 70th anniversary of D-Day this year in France.

Mr. Shelato, 89, of 361 River Road East, will participate in the D-Day memorial parade on June 6 at Sainte-Mère-Église in Normandy, France. He will be recognized at a pre-parade along with other veterans, and take part in a special ceremony on Omaha Beach.

Mr. Shelato joined the war effort in 1943 as a weapons sergeant in charge of security for the 249 Engineer Combat Battalion, part of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army. He left for training the day after he graduated from high school in Keuka, Ind., a town with a population of 1,000, at the age of 18.

“When we graduated they gave us a rolled-up blank piece of paper with a ribbon because paper was rationed, so I didn’t get my high school diploma until after the service,” Mr. Shelato said Thursday.

Mr. Shelato landed on Utah Beach in Normandy in August 1944. From there, he embarked on a whirlwind tour of war-torn Europe on which he navigated the French countryside, Luxembourg and Belgium in pursuit of Nazi forces as they retreated in early 1945.

“They took me out of cornfields and put me in the Battle of Bulge,” he said. “They threw me in there and you are supposed to survive. I coped with that very well. I have no idea how. The things I saw bothered me, but I had to put it behind me real quick. I was just interested in surviving, not dwelling on problems that might happen.”

Mr. Shelato was personally invited to the D-Day celebration by Helen Patton, granddaughter of Gen. George S. Patton Jr. and chairwoman of the Patton Foundation, which helps keep the memory of the WWII generation alive. It also helps soldiers, veterans and their families. Mr. Shelato met Ms. Patton during a monument dedication ceremony of a bridge over the Our River in Luxembourg.

During the Battle of the Bulge, the bridge was used to transport Nazi troops and vehicles to the front lines. It was used to aid in the Nazi retreat. Gen. Patton, seeing the strategic importance of the bridge, had it bombed and cornered a contingent of German troops along the river.

For Mr. Shelato’s part in rebuilding the bridge, thereby allowing Patton’s Sixth Army to chase the Nazi force, and in capturing roughly a dozen Nazi troops who were hiding near the bridge, he was granted the Medal of Honor. It was presented at the unveiling of a monument on the German side of the Our River to the bravery of the men who fought there.

But the story of the German soldiers’ capture is a hairy one. During a security inspection on the German side of the bridge, he shouted “Aus,” or “come out” in German.

All at once, and to Mr. Shelato’s surprise, nearly two dozen German soldiers acting as rear guard came out of hiding, guns in hand.

“My curiosity got the best of me and I wondered if there would be echo if I hollered in this big concrete place,” he said. “I was breathless when I saw the soldiers. I was shouting and looking directly at their guns. As rear guard, they were left behind by their unit to shoot us. They were trying to make up their mind when to start shooting. But when I shouted that, they thought we had broken stalemate and I knew where they all were. That surprised them. We were both equally shocked.”

Besides four “minor medals for good conduct,” Mr. Shelato received a Silver Star, a Medal of Honor from Luxembourg and an American Theater Ribbon with four Bronze Stars, for his extraordinary service that took place within a year and a half in the final days of World War II. He also received a French Legion of Honor medal, France’s highest military distinction.

He was awarded the Silver Star in 1944 after he pulled his driver from a Jeep that had just taken strafing fire from a German Stuka.

Although he was offered a career in the military, Mr. Shelato opted instead to return home to a quiet life in Indiana in 1945.

“I had gone through Battle of the Bulge and made it through the war from the time I was in until ended, but when I tried to go into a tavern when I got home, they wouldn’t let me in,” he said. “I was 20 then and the drinking age was 21 in Indiana.”

Following the war, Mr. Shelato spent many summers in Morristown and now lives just outside the village for six months of the year.

Mr. Shelato said he is most looking forward to bringing his wife, Beverly H., and sons, Duane, Dean and Dwight, with him to the ceremony.

His book, “From Wheat Fields to Battlefields,” about his experiences growing up in Indiana during the Great Depression and his time in World War II, is available on Amazon and for free at the Morristown and Hammond libraries.

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