This story was written by Ron Albers for Motts Military Museum and is reprinted here with permission.
Dante P. Toneguzzo was delivered by a midwife at the family home in Columbus, Ohio, on November 11, 1922. His mother suffered some complications shortly after his birth and was unable to have more children, so Dante was raised as an only child. Their home was in an Italian neighborhood on East Third Avenue, in an area called the Cleveland Avenue Flats near where the Timken Bearings plant was located. He attended local schools and graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas College High School, an all boys’ parochial school in 1940.
Dante fondly remembers playing football as a youth and again after his military service. With blue laws in effect, none of the stores were open on Sundays; so everyone either played in a football league or went to watch the games. He also will tell you that when he was in high school; if a lad was picked up by the police, he wouldn’t be taken to jail or the police station. The officer would drop him off with Father Smith, headmaster of St. Aquinas school. That priest would, “beat the hell out of you; and if you told your parents, you would get it again.”
Dante’s father did concrete work, and Dante was his partner. In those days, workers had to mix their own concrete at the site and move it by wheelbarrow; and it was hard work for the two of them. Because it was during the great Depression, many families didn’t have money to pay when the job was done; and the Toneguzzo guys were often stiffed for their strenuous labor. Tony also recalls that his dad had a fondness for wine in his thermos bottle at lunch. Quite often he’d go home for lunch and never return the rest of the day. Dante was left to toil alone.
Obviously, Dante’s childhood was not an easy one, but neither was anyone else’s at that time. People were honest, and nobody ever locked their home when they were away. Crime was minimal. Family and community were valued. It was the worst of times but the best of times.
It is worth noting here that Dante’s last name was pronounced with a long “e” and, therefore, was spoken as “Tony Guzzo.” His given name was Dante Toneguzzo. Often, however, and especially throughout his days in the Army, he was known as Tony Guzzo. After he was discharged and at the time of his marriage, he legally changed his name to Dante Guzzo. Today, he responds to either Tony or Dante.
About a month after Tony’s 20th birthday, President Roosevelt ordered a halt to all military enlistments except those wanting to enlist in the U.S. Army. Tony went to the Coast Guard recruiter and applied to become a member of that branch of service as soon as the ban was lifted. Less than a month later, however, Tony was drafted and ordered to report to Fort Hayes. After passing his physical on January 13, 1943, he was told to go home for a week to get his affairs in order and then report back as a draftee into the U.S. Army. He complied and was sent to Ft. Thomas, Kentucky, for basic training. Tony says that’s the only time during his 34 months in the military that he slept in a barracks. The remainder was in tents, in a fox hole, or on the ground. He also remembers his first mail call at Ft. Thomas. He received a letter congratulating him upon his acceptance into the U.S. Coast Guard. It was too late. He was in the Army now.
Months later, while serving with a quartermaster company at Vancouver Barracks in Washington state, Private Toneguzzo’s job was doing laundry. All day, every day, he washed uniforms in a huge washing machine – a task he hated. One day, he and a friend jumped the fence and went to Ft. Lewis, where they met with an officer who allowed them to apply right then and there to become paratroopers. Not only would becoming a paratrooper be more exciting that the mundane task of doing laundry all the time, but paratroopers received an extra $50 a month in jump pay. That was a lot of money to a private making $21 a month.
Tony was later serving with his same quartermaster company in California’s Indio Desert when he received his acceptance orders into the Army’s paratrooper corps. Following a five-day furlough back home in Columbus, Tony reported to a place called the Alabama Area, which was just across the Chattahoochee River from Ft. Benning, GA. He received his paratrooper training there and became a member of the 541st Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR.)
On February 10, 1944, PFC Toneguzzo and his fellow paratroopers sailed from New York harbor for Europe. The Atlantic crossing was twelve days of misery for most of the soldiers, because of terrible food and motion sickness. After arriving in the northern part of Ireland, the 541st was supposed to remain a replacement regiment, but around Christmas the unit was broken up; and the men were assigned to various other units – the 82nd, 101st, 507th, and 508th. Tony was reassigned to the 507th PIR at Nottingham, England, and his unit then became part of the 82nd Airborne (along with the 508th PIR.) In March of 1944, still at Nottingham, these paratroopers trained and prepared for the Allied invasion of Europe, on D-Day (June 6, 1944) as part of Operation Neptune.
The 507th PIR first saw combat during the Normandy invasion - 6 June 1944. The 507th and the 508th PIRs were to be dropped near the west bank of the Merderet River. The objectives of both regiments were to establish defensive positions in those areas and prepare to attack westward sealing off France’s Cotentin Peninsula. The 2004 men of the 507th filled 117 C-47 “Skytrain” aircraft and were among 13,000 paratroopers dropped from 800 C-47 planes early that morning.
In the predawn hours of D-Day the sporadic jump patterns caused by the C-47 pilots’ navigational errors and course alterations to avoid enemy flak and bad weather left troopers of the 507th and 508th PIRs spread out over a forty mile area. The 507th was the last of six regiments in the massive formation of aircraft that morning; and by the time their planes arrived over France, the Germans were ready for them with all kinds of armament. A great number of these paratroopers who had earlier been worried about this jump into the darkness and behind enemy lines were soon wishing they could hurry up and jump before being blown up by flak and anti-aircraft shells while still in their Skytrains. Within minutes of hitting the ground, many of these same soldiers were wishing they were still in the planes. Some who overshot the Drop Zone (DZ) dropped into the Merderet River and its adjoining marshes. Unknown to American intelligence at the time, the Germans had just flooded the area. Many troopers who jumped with heavy equipment were unable to swim free and drowned. Some immediately got their first taste of combat as they came under enemy fire as soon as they hit the surface. Others roamed the countryside until they encountered different Allied units and joined their efforts. Even Colonel Millett, the commanding officer of the 507th was unable to muster his troops and was captured three days after the drop in the vicinity of Amfreville. Only the 2nd Battalion was able to function as a team and began digging in around Cauquigny on the west bank of the Merderet River.
Tony and three of his fellow paratroopers landed next to one another near the tiny village of Hebert, inland from Utah Beach and about 8 kilometers from St. Lo. There were a total of 16 paratroopers aboard Tony’s C-47, and five or six of them (including their jumpmaster and only officer, Lt. Parks) were captured by the Germans and imprisoned for the remainder of the war. One or two are still unaccounted for. (Five of those sixteen are still alive today.) Later records indicate that only one of the 2004 members of the 507th actually landed in the planned DZ.
Throughout the confusion, the indomitable spirit of the paratroopers in the days and weeks following D-Day enabled the 82nd Airborne to seize La Fiere Bridge and push westward to cut off the Cotentin Peninsula. The La Fiere Causeway and its bridge were extremely heavily fortified with massive numbers of German troops, machine guns, artillery, and other weapons. Dante and several of his pals were in the fierce battle to take that 500 yard span over the Merderet River. It was pure slaughter and mayhem, with bodies piled everywhere. The 82nd Airborne alone had more than 500 troops killed or wounded in that single battle for that one bridge. Dante Toneguzzo was struck by shrapnel there on June 8th and later received the Purple Heart for his injury, which was not serious enough to remove him from combat. Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, Chief Historian for the European Theater of Operations has said that La Fiere, “was probably the bloodiest small unit struggle in the experience of American arms.”
During the next five weeks they fought fierce battles at places such as Chef du Pont, Le Motey, Vindefontaine, Amfreville, La Haye du Puits, Renouf, Bonneville, and Cauquigny. After 36 days of continuous combat, the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions returned to England aboard LSTs Of the 2004 men of the 507th PIR who jumped on D-Day, fewer than 800 were left to board those LSTs on July 12, 1944. PFC Dante Toneguzzo was among the lucky ones.
In August, 1944, General Matthew Ridgway, the 82nd Airborne Commanding General, was promoted and took command of the newly formed XVIII Airborne Corps which included the 17th, 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. The 504th PIR which sat out the Normandy drop because of depleted ranks suffered at Anzio was now at full strength. Since the 17th Airborne Division was now training in England and in need of another parachute regiment to full out its ranks, it was determined that the battle-tested 507th PIR would be permanently assigned to it. The 17th Airborne Division under General Miley's command would not participate in Operation Market Garden in September of 1944. Instead, it was held in strategic reserve while completing their training.
The Germans launched their last great offensive in Belgium on 16 December, driving west through thinly held positions, and catching the Allies unprepared for this beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. Maj. Gen. Troy Middleton's VIII Corps was giving way, and he desperately needed reinforcements.
The 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions had recently disengaged from operations in Holland and were training and refitting in base camps in the Reims-Suippes-Sissonne area of France. PFC Toneguzzo and fellow paratroopers with the 17th Airborne Division were in training at base camps in Wiltshire and Surrey, England. The 17th AD troops flew from England on Christmas day and were eventually trucked to Belgium, where they assisted in saving the American troops surrounded and under siege at Bastogne.
Initially, the 507th PIR and the 193rd Glider Infantry Regiment (GIR) were kept in reserve in anticipation of a German counter attack. However, once the 17th Airborne Division cleared the western side of Bastogne of all German units, the 507th PIR and the 193rd GIR turned eastward and led an attack across Luxembourg to the Our River. During this phase of his combat experience, PFC Toneguzzo and the 507th PIR fought at places such as Flameierge, Bertogne, Houffalize, Clevaux, and the Ardennes. Indeed, they were in the midst of the horrific combat and freezing blizzards that the Battle of the Bulge has been known for. On February 10, 1945 the 507th PIR was relieved and returned to its base camp at Chalons-sur-Marne in France.
In early February 1945, the tide of battle was such as to enable an accurate estimate as to when and where the 2nd British Army would be ready to force a crossing of the Rhine River. It was determined that the crossing would be in conjunction with an airborne operation by XVIII Airborne Corps.
The sector selected for the assault was in the vicinity of Wesel, a town at the juncture where the Lippe River flows into the Rhine just north of the Ruhr, on 24 March 1945. “Operation Varsity” would be the last full scale airborne drop of World War II, and the assignment went to the 17th Airborne Division with the 507th spearheading the assault, dropping at the southern edge of the Diersfordter Forest, three miles northwest of Wesel. That was Pvt Toneguzzo’s final jump, three miles on the east side of the Rhine in Nazi-held territory. He and his fellow soldiers fought at Munster and Fluren, among other places, for the next 17 days.
Operation Varsity was a textbook success, winning the “Ruhr Pocket.” All of the units had performed in an amazing fashion shattering, the German defenses in four and a half hours. In the ensuing days the 17th Airborne would lead the thrust into the heartland of Germany. On April 10th the 507th captured Essen, the home of the Krupps Steelworks. Pre-attack estimates were that there were approximately 100,000 German troops guarding that area. The 507th took that many prisoners, however; and there were tens of thousands more Germans who were casualties during the battles.
When the Germans surrendered, PFC Toneguzzo only had 83 points, and 85 were needed to be discharged. Most of the 507th paratroopers had sufficient points to return to the U.S. and sailed to New York in September. Tony and others who had only joined the 507th in England and others from the 82nd Airborne were assigned as Honor Guard to the Army of Occupation in Berlin, a duty Tony rather enjoyed. The food was good, and he found great pleasure in seeing the sights of Germany. In December of 1945 Tony had enough points and was shipped home to Newport News and then taken by train to Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. He was honorably discharged there on November 17, 1945.
Tony recalls that he never particularly cared for the military with all its rules and regimentation, and that fact often got him in trouble. In fact, once during each of his three years in the Army, he had a major problem with a superior NCO or officer. The last one, while he was in Ruhr Pocket, cost him a demotion from Sergeant back to Private First Class. As a result of all three, this highly decorated war hero never received the Army Good Conduct Medal, a rather ironic fact.
Tony was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on July 4, 1945. He was actually submitted for the Medal of Honor, but a superior officer who didn’t particularly like Tony, downgraded the submission. The DSC citation reads in part: “… for extraordinary heroism in conjunction with military operations against an armed enemy, on 9 April 1945 near ESSEN, GERMANY. When his platoon was pinned down by intense machine gun fire from two (2) mutually supporting pillboxes, Private First Class TONEGUZZO arose, on his own initiative, and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, in the face of heavy automatic weapons’ fire, stormed the nearest pillbox. He threw a hand grenade into the emplacement, killing two enemy and causing nine others to surrender. Then, still alone, he unhesitatingly moved against the second pillbox, again exposing himself to intense machine gun and sniper fire. He threw another grenade which killed one enemy and forced five others to surrender. The extraordinary heroism, personal courage, and devotion to duty displayed by Private First Class TONEGUZZO were a great inspiration to the men of his platoon, and were materially responsible for their advance to the final objective…”
Various states had programs to ease military veterans back into civilian life after WW II, and Ohio’s plan was simply called “52-20.” It meant that for a period of 52 weeks after his discharge, or until the veteran found a job and began working again, he was paid $20 a week. That was a lot of money in those days. Tony and his buddies partied almost every day and night, and they still had money left over at the end of the week.
One day Tony attended a dance after being asked by Louise. It was a Sadie Hawkins dance, a tradition in which the gals asked the guys to a function. Tony was smitten, and his partying days abruptly halted. He soon began his own concrete construction business, one which became his career and life’s work. Tony and Louise were married on April 24, 1948, and they raised two sons and a daughter.
Tony Guzzo built and ran his own company for 29 years before retiring from Del Col Guzzo, Inc. (cement contractors) in March of 1979. He worked an additional nine years with a friend in his concrete business and finally fully retired in 1988. Tony and his wife travelled extensively, and he has been back to Normandy half a dozen times for various visits and ceremonies. He is listed in the Hall of Heroes at Ft. Bragg and is featured prominently in the large 507th PIR display at the Museum of Aviation at Robins AFB (Macon, GA.) Dante was among 13 war heroes inducted with the first class into the Ohio Military Hall of Fame for Valor in 2000. Sadly, in December 2006, Tony’s wife, Louise, passed away; and he still misses her tremendously.
Tony has always been a big fan of our museum, but old age and failing health have prevented him from visiting as often as he’d like (and we’d like him to.)
I went to visit Tony on his 89th birthday but have neglected to visit him since then. This past Veterans Day he put his picture in the Columbus Dispatch stating that it was his 90th birthday. (He told me that he wanted to tell people that he was still alive.) Thanks to your note, Matthew, I went to visit him this morning and spent a half hour with him. He sincerely enjoys getting visitors. He's pretty much stuck in this assisted living place because he's in a wheelchair now; but it was his decision, and he enjoys it there. And they enjoy having him. He would appreciate a visit from anyone. I am trying to make arrangements for all the veterans (or anyone else there who is interested) to have the center's bus take them to Motts Military Museum for a tour. We have a lot of groups from assisted living homes visit the museum, and they all truly enjoy it.
I just read in the obits in the Columbus Dispatch today that Mr Toneguzzo passed away on December 31st. Its very sad to see the Greatest Generation dwindling every day.
I totally agree. I am going to Dante's calling hours this afternoon. We need to honor his sacrifice and legacy. If nothing else, folks need to sign the on-line guestbook to show their appreciation for his life.
Ron, thank you so much for allowing me to reprint your story about this hero. Like so many other from the Greatest Generation, I wish I could have met them and talked for a few hours. May he rest in peace.