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World War II veteran recalls whirlwind tour in Europe

It was 66 years ago, but Chet Bianco tells the story about being pinned down by enemy fire like it happened yesterday. "We lay down at a curb for maybe an hour," he said of guarding himself and a comrade from a sniper beyond his Jeep. "It seemed ...

Chet Bianco
Chet Bianco, 85, is among the 105 Northland veterans on today's Honor Flight to see war memorials in Washington, D.C.

It was 66 years ago, but Chet Bianco tells the story about being pinned down by enemy fire like it happened yesterday.

"We lay down at a curb for maybe an hour," he said of guarding himself and a comrade from a sniper beyond his Jeep. "It seemed like a year."

He draws a map of the territory he had been trying to cross, going "wide open" between two German strongholds, communication wire flying from the Jeep.

The 85-year-old Two Harbors resident still looks like he could take on an enemy or two.

His stories of being "young and dumb" and "afraid of everything" while serving in the 65th Infantry Division, 259th Regiment, come out of him easily, but not from practice.

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"Never," he simply says when asked how often he tells stories of the war.

Bianco was just 18 when he went into the Army in 1944, part of the last wave of soldiers from the U.S. before the war in Europe ended on May 7, 1945. Three Bianco brothers from Gary-New Duluth were serving in the war. All three survived. Chet talks about hearing of their whereabouts now and then, on a few occasions realizing he had just missed one of them while moving around France and eventually into Germany.

He will find himself surrounded today by a dwindling number of living veterans when he embarks on the regional Honor Flight with 104 other veterans to see the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C.

The Duluth-based Northland Hub is part of the national nonprofit Honor Flight Network. Since 2005, the network has taken more than 63,000 World War II or terminally ill veterans from other wars to see their monuments in Washington.

Janelle Jones knows her father's sacrifices in the war effort. She and her mother, Judy, encouraged Bianco to go on the flight when they heard about it.

"I'm very proud of him," Jones said. She said her father's stories of "splitting up peas for dinner" and "always wondering where his brothers were" have stayed with her.

Long journey

Bianco's introduction to the war came after a grueling journey across the Atlantic Ocean in January 1945. Soldiers were crammed into the bowels of a ship for 10 days, sleeping on the floor and not allowed topside. "All you knew is you left New York," Bianco said, and then they were suddenly disembarking, in the dark, onto the shores of LeHavre, France, the site of the D-Day invasion the year before.

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Bianco doesn't swim, so taking ropes down into a landing boat and then being told to wade onto the shore was frightening enough, and "colder than hell."

He started out on guard duty as a camp was set up. He hated it, constantly thinking about stories of Germans sneaking up on guards with piano wire and strangling them. "It was all I could think of."

It was muddy and cold at Camp Lucky Strike. Coal was rationed for the 20-man tents, and most nights soldiers wore all the clothes they had to stay warm, Bianco said.

He won't forget the meals -- a sparse breakfast and one dinner later in the day: One wiener, seven peas, half a piece of bread and some coffee.

Bianco's stint overseas was short but active. Troops were on the move across France and he had to move with them, providing the communication wires for rifle companies. He found himself climbing poles or anything else that would hold the wires. That meant exposure. "We got shot at all the time," he said.

On some occasions, there was no chance to string up wire, just a mad dash spooling it onto the ground. Eventually, a U.S. tank came to save the day, taking out the home where the sniper fire had been coming from.

His division had orders to help in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the deadliest campaigns in Europe as the Allied forces made a last push toward Germany. The Allies broke through before the division could help and the next mission was to go to Berlin. That was stopped short when the Russians were allowed to go in first. Bianco ended up in Austria, and that's where he heard about the war's end.

He went back to Camp Lucky Strike in France, now called Camp Phillip Morris, and ended up back on a ship for the States with no real knowledge of what was next. "No one tells you nothing," he said. He found himself on a train headed across the U.S. for the West Coast. The plan was to serve in the Pacific Theater.

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But as the train made its way, there was a stop and thousands of people cheering outside. "It was VJ Day," Bianco said. The victory over Japan meant the end of the war and an assignment at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin to finish his service.

It was there that he finally ran into one of his brothers.

It's all a whirlwind, perhaps like today's trip. Bianco's last visit to Washington was in 1977 as a district commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The World War II memorial was dedicated in 2004.

"It'll be something to see," he said.

Related Topics: TWO HARBORS
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