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July 27, 2008

'We were lucky, very lucky:' Belleville man, two brothers lived to tell of WWII

John Fantini, 86, ran into his brothers a couple of times during his tour in Europe during World War II. Fantini, of Belleville, joined the Air Force in June 1942 and was assigned to the Air Force's 1062nd Military Police Company with the 9th Air Force. He was a motorcycle driver. He spent part of the war patrolling air strips, looking for sabotage and trespassers.

John Fantini, 86, ran into his brothers a couple of times during his tour in Europe during World War II.

Fantini, of Belleville, joined the Air Force in June 1942 and was assigned to the Air Force's 1062nd Military Police Company with the 9th Air Force. He was a motorcycle driver. He spent part of the war patrolling air strips, looking for sabotage and trespassers.

"It was a little hairy at night," he said of the motorcycle patrols. "All we had were those two little blinkers, no headlights. We often prayed for a full moon so we could see."

When he wasn't patrolling air strips, he helped escort the Red Ball Express safely through towns around Europe. The Red Ball Express was a convoy system created by Allied forces to keep troops supplied as they moved through Europe after D-Day. The convoy was often targeted by the German air force.

"I remember the convoys being strafed at least twice when I was on convoy duty," Fantini said. "It was really never easy. We were always going faster than the convoys so we could block stop signs for them to get through towns."

Fantini landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day between 9:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., he said.

"It was just starting to get dark when we landed," he said. "The Air Force set up their communication center and we guarded that. That's what we did."

When he wasn't participating in Red Ball Express convoy duty or guarding military assets, he had other, more exciting duties.

"We had the privilege to escort Gen. Eisenhower to Middle Wallop (England) and escorted (Admiral Andrew) Cunningham, the chief of England's Air Ministry, from London to Middle Wallop."

His brothers, Army Cpl. Joseph Fantini and Army Sgt. Tony Fantini were assigned to the Army's 7th Armored Division.

"My two brothers were drafted in June, they were together in the same outfit during the war," Fantini said. "I decided to join a different branch."

During most of the war he had no idea where his brothers were, or if they were still alive.

"Mail at that time was horrendous," he said. "It was hard to get mail."

After 27 months without seeing his brothers, Fantini had the opportunity to visit for a half hour with both of them when they were all stationed about 100 miles from each other in Holland a short time before the Battle of the Bulge in October 1944.

"I had to take off at 5 a.m. and it was over 100 mph to get to them," he said. "It was Oct. 5, 1944, and there was a glaze of ice over the highways. I couldn't go but 5 or 6 mph 'til the sun came out and melted the ice."

He found the unit his brothers' were assigned to. Tony Fantini was assigned as a mess sergeant and was working when Fantini arrived. The brothers didn't know he was coming for a visit.

"I went up to his truck and said 'Tony, I want some spaghetti and meatballs,'" Fantini said with a laugh. "Oh, the look on his face was unforgettable. We found Joseph and we talked and we bawled. It was really a thrill to see them after so long."

All three brothers survived the war. Joseph and Tony are now deceased.

Fantini was particularly attracted to the architecture in Europe, especially the historic buildings.

"I was fascinated by their churches in France and Belgium," he said. "They are hundreds of years old and just beautiful."

There are pictures of the horrors Fantini saw when Allied forces liberated the notorious Buchenwald Concentration Camp hidden away in boxes in his attic.

He doesn't like to get them out and he tries not to remember what he saw and smelled.

"It was terrible, terrible, horrible," he said. "I saw civilians, naked, piled up on carts. Furnaces with piles of ashes behind them. It was horrible."

Between July 1937 and April 1945, an estimated 250,000 people were incarcerated in Buchenwald by the Nazi regime. It is estimated that more than 56,000 people died or were killed at the camp before Allied forces liberated the prisoners on April 8, 1945.

Fantini was assigned to guard the Air Force's communications equipment at Buchenwald.

The military police company Fantini was assigned to experienced no casualties during the war.

"We were lucky, very lucky," he said. "I cherish all the memories I have of being in the service for three-and-a-half years. I was very, very lucky."

Contact reporter Jennifer A. Bowen at jbowen@bnd.com or 239-2667.

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