BRICK – Hometown hero, World War II veteran John Santillo, 96, received a key to the city from Mayor John G. Ducey and a proclamation from the governing body for his courage during the largest seaborne invasion in history.
Drafted into the Army in 1942, Santillo supported operations in North Africa at the battle of Kasserine Pass, and on June 6, 1944 his battalion landed on Normandy’s Utah Beach – better known as “D-Day” – and he was onboard one of the landing crafts as it pulled up to the beach.
“The men and women who served during World War II were often called ‘America’s Greatest Generation,’ a moniker they earned through their blood, sweat and tears,” said Mayor John G. Ducey, who presented Santillo with the key to the city during a recent council meeting.
Santillo was surrounded by veterans from the Greenbriar 1 Veterans Association, VFW Post 8867 and American Legion post 348, who were also invited to the ceremony.
Councilwoman Marianna Pontoriero presented Santillo with a proclamation on behalf of the governing body, thanking him for “all the strength and courage you have shown…and how wonderful you are and how wonderful all our veterans are,” she said. “Thank you all for your service.” Pontoriero held up a photograph of the 22-year-old Santillo in his Army uniform.
On May 11, 2018 Santillo was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government at the Consulate General of France in New York City, in appreciation and gratitude for helping to liberate France. The award is the highest French order of merit for military and civil merits.
“Not bad for 22,” said Santillo as he looked at the photo of his younger self. “Not bad for 96, either. Still counting, but I’m running out of numbers,” he quipped.
He thanked the governing body, his fellow veterans and Brick township, and said he was honored to be recognized.
“I’m so proud to be here and live here for the last 24 years of my life, and when I got the award in New York I was so flabbergasted, I never had anything like this in my life,” Santillo said.
According to Santillo’s biography, their mission was to clear a pathway through mines and obstructions to facilitate an infantry advance inland from the beach. He recalled being scared that he might fall into a shell hole under the water because he couldn’t swim.
During the chaotic invasion with artillery shells and bullets flying overhead, Santillo and his battalion made their way across the beach and moved inland through areas flooded with Germans.
As they made their way into France, Santillo and his company ferried paratroopers across the Douve River while under enemy fire.
In the spring of 1945, Santillo crossed the Rhine River into Germany where he went from house to house collecting firearms from civilians that could be used against the Americans. By May 1945, the war ended and Santillo was sent to Fort Monmouth where he was discharged.
According to his biography, Santillo is one of an estimated 500 survivors of the original D-Day invasion force. His biography may be viewed in its entirety at nj.gov/military/museum/summaries/wwii/john-santillo/