When France honored 99 American veterans with its most prestigious honor on the 60th anniversary of D-Day, one of those to be bestowed the distinction was Rocco Moretto, a long-time resident of Long Island City.
The French government honored the veterans for helping to liberate Europe from Nazi control on June 6, 1944. The 99 Americans were given the Legion d’Honneur (Legion of Honor) medal during a weekend of ceremonies commemorating the event.
Moretto, 79, was a member of the First Infantry Division that stormed the beaches of Omaha Beach in Normandy. Between 2,500 and 3,000 U.S. troops were killed after they landed.
Moretto, who served five tours in Europe, was 19 years old when his infantry landed. The First Infantry had 219 soldiers when they touched down on Omaha Beach, but only Moretto and another troop member made it to the end of the campaign in Czechslovakia.
“That’s something I’m really proud of,” he said.
In fact, as he received the Legion of Honor, Moretto thought back to his service during World War II.
“I was thinking of the friends I left behind,” he said. “It was a very emotional thing to go through. But we were on such a high for five days, it’s hard to describe it.”
Air France flew the veterans for free and gave them champagne on the flight. When they arrived in Paris and throughout their stay in France, Moretto said the first-class treatment continued.
“We were really treated royally,” he said. “Everyone we came in contact with were so nice. They couldn’t do enough for us.”
French President Jacques Chirac hosted the commemoration, which was attended by 20 heads of state. President Bush spoke at the ceremony, telling the veterans that they would be “honored forever and always by the country you served and the nations you freed.”
Chirac added, “France will never forget what it owes America, its steadfast friend and ally.”
Total Allied casualties on D-Day are estimated at 10,000, with 2,500 of those killed. In total, approximately 250,000 Allied casualties were suffered during the Battle of Normandy.
Moretto said that he did not suffer any lingering psychological problems from his time in the war.
“It never bothered me as it did some people,” he said. “It was the event of my life and I was so proud to have taken part in that great event. I know that Tom Brokaw had coined that term, “The Greatest Generation,” and I truly believe that. Not just for the people who served, but also the civilians.”
Moretto was born and raised in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan. He moved to Long Island City after he married.
After returning from the war, he worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, which would later became Amtrak in 1975. Moretto worked there for 44 years, first as a supervisor of baggage and then in payroll.
After retiring from Amtrak, he worked part-time for The Tablet, the international Catholic newspaper. “I didn’t get paid much, but I felt like I was giving something back. I felt like I was doing something good.”
Moretto, who is a member of VFW Post 2348 in Long Island City, has one son, John, and two granddaughters. Monica, his wife of 53 years, died a few years ago.
“It’s really hard,” Moretto said. “She was really my pal.”
As for the current conflict in Iraq, Moretto didn’t support the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Baghdad.
“I really didn’t agree with us going into Iraq, “ he said. “I didn’t think it was necessary. I thought we had (Saddam Hussein) contained. But I’m an American and I’m certainly behind the military because I went through the same stuff they’re going through right now.”