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Joseph "Little Joe" Stefaniak, Legion of Honor recipient, salutes the memory of his fallen comrades.
Harry Scull Jr / Buffalo News

Updated: 11/11/08 08:12 AM


France honors Grand Island veteran 64 years later

Paratrooper to receive top medal

By Lou Michel
News Staff Reporter

Sixty-four years after Joseph J. Stefaniak parachuted into a small French town and helped defend it in the D-Day invasion, France is paying him tribute today on Veterans Day.

The 88-year-old Army veteran from Grand Island will receive that country’s Legion of Honor Medal for his courage, though he felt anything but courageous when he and about 160 other paratroopers landed 20 miles away from their intended drop zone to avoid heavy enemy fire.

Even with the detour, Stefaniak said, “The sky was like the Fourth of July.”

And that marked just the beginning of six days of protecting Graignes, where the townspeople embraced the American soldiers by putting their own lives at stake to provide them food and ammunition.

Stefaniak, a member of G Company, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne, said his greatest reward was surviving the war and making it home safely, with only one battle scar to show for it, a wound to his right leg caused by a bullet or shrapnel.

As for the special recognition to-

day, Stefaniak modestly said it wasn’t necessary, but he’s glad to have it anyway.

“It’s an honor, and I’m very proud of it,” said Stefaniak, who goes by the nickname of “Little Joe,” though his spirit belies his compact size.

The Army two years ago filled out the paperwork for him to receive the French medal. The ceremony is scheduled for 11 a. m. today in Veterans Park off Bedell Road on Grand Island.

Pascal Soares, the honorary French consul in Buffalo, will give Stefaniak a gentle peck on each cheek and present him the highly regarded medal that Napoleon Bonaparte established to honor individuals who provided exceptional service to France.

“It took more than 60 years, but it is never too late to do a good deed, and the French people are very proud to honor him,” Soares said.

And while Stefaniak will be in the spotlight, with as many as 200 friends and fellow veterans present to pay him tribute, the ranks of World War II vets continue to thin as time marches onward.

Burials at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia are backed up by a few months because of the large numbers of World War II veterans being laid to rest at the country’s most-hallowed ground for service members.

The U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that there are 2.5 million World War II veterans alive, but 900 of them pass away every day.

Stefaniak was raised on Kail Street in Black Rock, which he called “one tough neighborhood.” And he proved his point by noting that Kail produced eight paratroopers, one submariner and a glider pilot for World War II.

But Black Rock could not prepare him for his invasion experiences, which lasted for weeks and left him with a lifetime of memories that sometimes still yank him from sleep in the middle of the night.

“I was stationed on the outpost to watch for the Germans. They were throwing everything but the kitchen sink at us,” Stefaniak recalled. “They were sending small groups, 20, 30 and 50 soldiers at a crack, but we had pretty good setups with our machine guns crisscrossing and taking them out.”

For six days, he said, the Americans fought, though they would not have lasted that long if it weren’t for the French townsfolk going into the marshes and retrieving ammunition U. S. warplanes had dropped.

“Children were going right past the Germans with carts and wagons covered with straw to retrieve the ammunition. If it wasn’t for them, believe me when I say, we would have been wiped out for sure,” Stefaniak said.

But perhaps the most poignant memory he has is of a 5-or 6-year-old girl walking up to him and grabbing his hand and taking him into her parents’ home, where they fed him hard-boiled eggs.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said.

When all of the ammunition ran out on the sixth day, the soldiers retreated about five miles to the town of Carentan, where the Germans had been defeated earlier the same day.

“When we got to Carentan, it was just taken over by the 101st Airborne. We had blown up a bridge at Graignes so that the Germans couldn’t get in with their tanks,” Stefaniak said. “The 101st fed us, gave us ammunition and put us on trucks and took us back to our regiment.”

But with the Americans gone from Graignes, the German soldiers took their vengeance, killing 24 wounded U. S. soldiers and 32 town residents.

Thoughts of that massacre and what he and the other soldiers endured, Stefaniak says, make life difficult at times. When someone recently gave him a book detailing the Invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, he said it wasn’t easy reading.

“I’m almost done with it, but it’s been a tough go,” he said.

Today, as he receives the special honor from France, things should go a whole lot smoother for the veteran known as “Little Joe.”