Thousands of American soldiers died during the assault on a five-mile stretch of beach in northern France 75 years ago, but for Steve Melnikoff, the invasion known as D-Day was just the beginning.
The young private from Baltimore spent June 6, 1944, in a transport ship just off Omaha Beach, .50-caliber shells screaming above his head. He went ashore himself the next day, threading his way among bodies and dodging more shelling.
For the next 11 months, he manned a machine gun in some of the bloodiest warfare in U.S. military history, earning four Bronze Stars, four promotions and two Purple Hearts as he helped the Maryland-based 29th Infantry Division defeat German Führer Adolf Hitler’s war machine.
Melnikoff is to share a stage with U.S. President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and other veterans and dignitaries Thursday at Colleville-sur-Mer, the cemetery for American soldiers near Omaha Beach, as part of a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the invasion that changed the course of World War II.
The retired engineer says he’s lucky to have survived the war at all, let alone go on to live a happy life and see his contributions become widely acclaimed.
But he doesn’t want to forget the deeper meaning of the occasion.
He spoke with The Baltimore Sun days before leaving for his return trip to France.
“The people you see in Colleville, they’re the ones that took the hit for me,” he said in the living room of his modest home. “I’m here because of them. And not only those guys, but the 400,000 Americans that gave their lives in World War II in Europe, in the Pacific, in the Army, in the Air Force, the Navy, the merchant marines and on and on.
“They’re buried all over the world. They’re the ones that made it possible for us to live the life of peace and prosperity we’ve had all these years. We need to remember.”
For a man who’s to turn a century old in five months, Melnikoff is the picture of vigor with his healthy tan, spry bearing and talkative personality.
He plays golf three times a week, drives his car and makes frequent speaking appearances at schools and at veterans’ gatherings. Late last month, he could be seen hauling sacks of mulch to his backyard, where he keeps beds of peonies and roses.
Marylander Waverly Woodson Jr. was among roughly 2,000 African American troops believed to have hit the shores of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
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Melnikoff was born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, in November 1919, the son of Ukrainian immigrants. He found a job in his teens working on Navy ships with the Bethlehem Steel Corp., then based in Qunicy, Massachusetts.
When the company moved to Baltimore, so did Melnikoff. He continued laboring on warships — work considered so important he was given three deferments before getting drafted in 1943.
Shipped to an infantry replacement training center in Texas, he learned to be part of a different kind of war machine. Within five months, he says, he and his classmates could fire every infantry weapon, from .30-caliber rifles to 60 mm mortars and heavy machine guns.
In Cornwall, England, he became part of Company “C” in the 175th Regiment of the 29th Infantry Division, a Baltimore-based unit with roots dating to the Revolutionary War. There, he trained in secret for the looming invasion of Europe.
Strictly speaking, Melnikoff wasn’t part of the D-Day invasion. Two other 29th Division regiments, the 116th and 115th, hit the beach first as the 175th looked on from the English Channel. But when the 175th came ashore in landing craft on D-Day Plus 1, they found themselves marching through a hellscape of bodies and wreckage to the cliffs beyond.
They gained positions under heavy fire, securing the foothold the Allies needed. Scholars say few survive the kind of experiences Melnikoff faced for the next several hundred days.
“The worst, most intense kind of combat that took place in World War II, he was in,” says Joseph Balkoski, a Baltimore military historian who has written eight books on the conflict. “Most of the guys who carried the rifles, who did the spear point of the fighting — I won’t say they were all killed, but they were all casualties, and gigantic numbers were killed.
“Steve was a true fighting soldier, and the fact that he’s alive and kicking 75 years later — that’s a real anomaly.”
There were several times he nearly didn’t make it.
On June 17, during the bloody six-week campaign to take the town of Saint-Lo, Melnikoff looked on as his friend and artillery mate was blown up by enemy fire. Two hours later, Melnikoff was hit in the neck as he came through a hedgerow. And as he fell, he saw his first lieutenant hit by so much automatic weapons fire the bullets held his body upright for several seconds.
“He was dead before he hit the ground,” Melnikoff says. “That’s a sight I’ve never forgotten.”
The 24-year-old Marylander was airlifted out to be hospitalized, then returned to action in August, just in time to be sent with the rest of the 29th Division toward Brittany to help secure the French seaport at Brest.
He took a shoulder full of shrapnel during an unexpectedly savage campaign. Doctors never took it out.
“They said it was more dangerous to get in there and cut up the muscle and ligaments and, so it stayed in,” says Melnikoff, who received a second Purple Heart for the injury.
Eight months of combat later, Melnikoff — by then a senior sergeant — was with the 175th when it met elements of the advancing Soviet army at the Elbe River in Germany on May 2, 1945, a connection that meant Hitler’s forces had been cut in half. The war ended within days.
Back in the United States, the veteran built on his former life. He qualified for a mechanical engineering program, earned a degree through the G.I. Bill, met his future wife, Joyce, and scored a supervisor’s job at Bethlehem Steel, where he worked for 31 years.
They raised three children. Joyce died 11 years ago, after 59 years of marriage.
To Melnikoff, what made his cohort the “Greatest Generation,” as they’ve become known, was less their valor in war than how survivors turned their trauma into success.
“With the help of the G.I. Bill, we changed the culture by going to college,” he says. “That’s what built the middle class.”
He returned to Omaha Beach for the first time in 2004 — “if you don’t come back, those ghosts never go away,” he says — and has gone back six more times, thanks mainly to the Greatest Generation Foundation, a support group for veterans.
D-Day veterans are a fast-dwindling group, with some estimating their numbers only in the hundreds now. A mere 30 were expected to make it to France for the 75th anniversary.
The average survivor at the 80th will be well over 100 years old.
Melnikoff expects to be there at 104, helping to ensure the history he and others helped make is not forgotten.