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93-year-old Battle of the Bulge vet: ‘You can never forget’

Infantrymen fighting in snow during the Battle of the Bulge (Braun, USA/WikiCommons)

John Panighetti remembers digging foxholes in the snow. And he remembers the killing.

“We dug and we dug,” said Panighetti, of Westvale, a World War II veteran who will celebrate is 94th birthday next month. “And then they’d tell us we had to move, in the cold and snow, and we’d dig again, maybe 100 yards away. Again and again. And the Germans kept shooting at us.”

It was December 1944 in the Ardennes Forest, a rugged, hilly and wooded area spanning the border of Belgium, France and Germany. The Germans launched an attack that bitterly cold winter in an attempt to stop the Allied troops who had poured into France since D-Day the previous June.

It came to be called the Battle of the Bulge, and it was one of the biggest and bloodiest battles of the war in Europe. It lasted from Dec. 16, 1944 through Christmas and the New Year, and didn’t end until Jan. 25, 1945.

Now, 75 years later, Panighetti mostly remembers the dead.

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There was his boyhood pal, Arthur Campagnoni, who he grew up and played with on Gillis Street in Solvay. Campagnoni was cut down by a German sniper. “He was my best friend,” Panighetti said.

Panighetti took another soldier, a young man of Chinese descent from San Francisco, under his wing. He, too, was shot by a sniper.

“I was next to him and then his blood and brains were on me,” Panighetti said. “You can never forget something like that.”

He saw it from the other side, too. He had to do some killing himself.

“We were so young, I don’t know, at that time, barely 19 years old, 20 years old,” he said. “All I know is I was fighting for my country and fighting for my life. … Nobody wanted to go fight and carry a gun and shoot other people.”

But he felt a duty to his country and his comrades. His duty included killing Germans.

Some of those he killed, near the end of the war, were kids. The Germans were running out of soldiers.

Panighetti remembers shooting some uniformed German soldiers then approaching them and turning over the bodies. They looked to be about 10 or 11.

‘“I stayed there and cried and cried, tears,” he said. “How could they do something like that? It brings tears to my eyes now.”

“You can never forget, never forget, what that’s like,” he said. “And maybe you shouldn’t forget it.”

‘I never saw him again’

John Panighetti was born Jan. 29, 1926. His parents had immigrated from a mountainous village in northern Italy. His mother was seven months pregnant with him when they arrived in the United States.

He and his buddy Arthur, who was born the same week, grew up poor “but we didn’t know it.” The played football using socks stuffed with rags. They roamed the fields and hills of Solvay.

“We had great times together,” Panighetti said.

In 1944, when they turned 18 at the height of the war, they were drafted — on the same day. They would run into each other on occasion during training.

Panighetti trained in Georgia and Virginia and then went to New York to await deployment to Europe aboard the Queen Mary..

Shortly before they sailed, two older soldiers took him out for a night on the town in Manhattan.They plied him with a bottle of whiskey and took him to the top of the Empire State Building.

“They filled me with so much whiskey I threw up there in the Empire State Building,” he said with a smile. “I never forgave them for that.”

His unit was still training in England on June 6, 1944 — D-Day, the start of the Allied invasion of Europe that would bring the war to an end the following spring. They landed in Europe that fall.

John Panighetti and Arthur Campagnoni ended up in the same unit — the 78th Infantry, dubbed the “Lightning Division.” But they were in separate companies.

Panigehtti, at the time, was still a private, moving when ordered and digging new foxholes. He and his fellow infantrymen just went where the brass, led by Allied commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, told them to go.

“I can’t say we knew what was happening,” he said. “Eisenhower didn’t let us in on his plans. They told us to go over here, so we went over here.”

As a native Central New Yorker, Panighetti was probably less likely to be bothered by the intense cold and snow than soldiers from other parts of the country. It was still an ordeal.

“They only gave us one pair of socks,” he remembers. “At night, in the foxhole, you took them off and stuck them under you armpits to warm them up and dry them out.”

Their units slogged through northern France in the ensuing months. It was tough, Panighetti remembers, but got tougher when the Germans launched their big counter-offensive in December.

At one point, Panighetti’s sqad found itself confronting a German machine gun nest. They traded fire, and Panighetti says he managed to throw a hand grenade “right down the muzzle” of an enemy artillery piece.

That action, on Dec. 20, 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge — helped Panighetti earn a Bronze Star for “meritorious achievement in active ground combat against the enemy,” according to his citation.

The casualties mounted. One day, on a short break from the front lines, Panighetti went looking for Arthur Campagnoni, his pal from Solvay. He’d lost track of him.

“But I never saw him again,” Panighetti said. “I found out he was killed by a sniper. The kid I played with, my friend — I didn’t know he was dead until later.”

‘That’s how I survived’

Five weeks after it began, in January 1945, the German offensive collapsed, but there was still plenty of hard fighting ahead.

Panighetti quickly found himself promoted to sergeant — a battlefield necessity because so many American soldiers were killed, wounded or captured.

The 78th Infantry, then assigned to the First Army, helped lead the drive toward Germany. In March, the Lightning Division found itself at the Remagen Bridge over the Rhine River. The Allies hoped to preserve the bridge so they could get men and equipment across.

After the bridge was secured, Panighetti and other soldiers crossed on foot. They were among the first group of American soldiers to enter Germany during the war.

“So there we were, finally fighting in Germany,” he said. But that satisfaction didn’t last long — pretty soon he and several of his comrades were captured by a German patrol.

Things got more intense when they were loaded onto a train bound for a POW camp — and came under fire from Allied planes. “They didn’t know who were were,” he said.

But the German Army was crumbling, and the Americans took advantage of the situation by forming human lines to spell out “POW” to let the pilots know who they were. Then, Panighetti and some fellow soldiers decided to try an escape.

They did, but Panighetti soon got separated from the others in the woods. For 10 days, he hid out, foraging for a diet consisting mostly of spring dandelion greens.

That was something he learned while growing up poor in Solvay.

“We did that back home — go out and look for dandelions in the woods to bring home and eat,” he said. “That’s how I survived.”

After 10 days, Panighetti was rescued by an American patrol. After the war, he returned home to Central New York.

‘You should never forget’

Initially, Panighetti wanted to stay in the Army. It had, in many ways, become his home.

“I was happy in the Army,” he said. “Not the war, of course, but the Army.’’

But that wasn’t to be. Back home, many of the other returning veterans were getting jobs or maybe going to college.

Based on Army tests, Panighetti probably could have enrolled in a school like Syracuse University.

“But none of my friends went to college,” he said. “So if they didn’t go, why would I? We all just wanted to go out and live our lives.”

He got a job, first as a mason for a home-builder and then running his own building business, Panighetti Construction. He estimates he built more than 50 homes and other buildings in Onondaga Hill and other areas, primarily in the western suburbs.

In the 1990s, when he “retired” at age 67, he built a few churches “at cost.”

“I felt I should give something back,” he said.

Today, he lives in Westvale with his wife, Janet. They had five children, 15 granchildren and, now, great-grandchildren.

He keeps memorabilia of his days as a combat soldier on the back porch of home. There are plaques marking his medal citations, stacks of binders with newspaper clippings and old photos and one picture of that day at the Empire State Building in 1944 (before he got sick).

Hanging in the corner is his Army jacket, on which are pinned his Bronze Star, his Combat Infantryman’s Badge and other service ribbons.

Unlike some veterans, he doesn’t seem to mind talking about the war. He recalls events of 75 years ago and he keeps up with current events.

At one point, while recalling the time he was captured by the Germans in 1945, he made a point of criticizing President Trump for his comment about the late Sen. John McCain, a POW in Vietnam. Trump, then campaigning for president, had said in 2015 he’d preferred soldiers who weren’t captured.

Panighetti says he thinks Trump insulted McCain and other POWs.

“John McCain to me was a hero, because he was a prisoner of war,” Panighetti said. “When Donald Trump said — and I don’t get into politics that much and I still don’t — when he (Trump) made that statement that John McCain was not a hero because he got captured, I don’t know if you remember that, and I said, ‘Well Mr. Trump, I’ll never forgive you for making that statement.’ “

Panighetti said after he was captured, he kept hoping he could escape to continue fighting. “Not to go home, but to keep fighting,” he said.

It wasn’t until he did get home, Panighetti said, that he realized, “Yes we did something significant. Anybody who served did.”

For the last several years, Panighetti has made a point of attending the ceremony held each Memorial Day at the Solvay-Geddes veterans memorial on Woods Road. He says a few words, often in memory of Arthur Campagnoni.

“You should never forget,” he said.

Note: As we approach the 75th anniversary of the end of World Way II, we are looking for veterans and other whose stories we can tell. If you know of someone, send an email to [email protected].

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