Tony DiFebbo, a World War II veteran from Ticonderoga, poses with his guardian, Kaylee Couture, prior to making a North Country Honor Flight to Washington, D.C.
Tony DiFebbo doesn’t like a lot of attention, so being part of the North Country Honor Flight recently had some uncomfortable moments.
“Everywhere we went people wanted to shake our hands; they saluted us,” the World War II veteran said. “It was an amazing feeling. It was very emotional.”
The flight took 31 veterans, including Ticonderoga resident DiFebbo, to Washington, D.C., for a tour of the World War II monument and other sites. But it was more than a sight-seeing trip. It was a way of honoring and thanking members of America’s Greatest Generation.
“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done,” DiFebbo said of the trip. “They (Honor Flight officials) were fantastic. They made us feel really special. They deserve so much credit. It was wonderful.”
North Country Honor Flight is a non-profit organization created to honor the North Country’s veterans. It flies veterans to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at their memorials. Top priority is given to the senior veterans who are World War II survivors, along with those veterans who may be terminally ill.
The veterans left Plattsburgh Airport following a ceremony that included military, police, firefighters, Boy Scouts, veterans groups and politicians.
“Today you will experience, and already have since early this morning, bugle calls, crowds cheering you, service men and women saluting you, motorcycles rolling thunder, police escorts, flashing lights, flags waving, tears flowing, handshakes and hugs, fire trucks with air horns blasting, a reception when your honor flight aircraft lands at BWI (Baltimore-Washington International Airport) — and in a few short hours you will arrive in Washington, D.C., at your memorial,” Danny Kaifetz, North Country Honor Flight executive director, told veterans prior to leaving.
“All the crowds, the flag waving, the hugs and handshakes and salutues and motorcycles and fire trucks, the tears and the joy, all of which is something I hope you will never forget, but you know what?” Kaifetz said. “That is just the interest on the debt this country has owed you for 68 years.”
Each veteran was given a North Country Honor Flight jacket with his name, a shirt and hat. Each was also assigned a guardian to assist in any way needed.
DiFebbo’s guradian was Kaylee Couture of Dannemora.
“What a sweet girl,” DiFebbo said. “She was so kind, so wonderful.
“The wonderful care, guidance and attention given to us by our guardians was so impressive,” he said. “They deserve a medal. They guided us through the cheering crowds everywhere and kept us so upbeat. It was humbling to have people everywhere treat us with honor and respect and reach out to us with their thank yous.”
While in Washington the group toured the World War II memorial, visited the Iwo Jima monument, toured Arlington Cemetery and witnessed the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The veterans were honored with a dinner at an American Legion Post before returning home. On the the flight home each vetersn was given was package of thank you letters written by area students.
DiFebbo, age 87, graduated from Ticonderoga High School and was drafted in 1944. After basic training at Fort Bragg, N.C., he was assigned to the 99th Infantry Division.
He shipped out to Europe aboard the Queen Elizabeth in a snow storm. He eventually found his way to Belgium — and the famed Battle of the Bulge.
Out of site of the enemy, artillery units sent forward observers to the front line to direct their fire. It’s considered one of the most hazardous jobs in war. DiFebbo’s job was to string communications wire from forward observers back to the men firing the guns located a few miles away.
“That was the first time I’d ever seen guys all shot up,” DiFebbo recalled. “They were missing arms, legs...it was terrible. It was one of the worst things I ever saw in my life.
“And there was snow up to our waist in some places,” he added. “It was so cold and everyone had cold feet. Those Army boots were worthless.”
The Battle of the Bulge was Germany’s last offensive of the war. It began Dec. 16, 1944, and ended Jan. 25, 1945. Fought in bitter cold and snow in the densely-forested Ardennes Mountains region of Belgium, American troops were pummeled by German artillery. With over 800,000 men committed and over 19,000 Americans killed, the Battle of the Bulge was the single largest and bloodiest battle American forces fought in World War II.
“I wasn’t there at the very beginning of the Bulge,” DiFebbo said. “I was a replacement. I saw enough, though...
“I never felt scared,” he added. “I was 18. I didn’t know enough to be scared, but let me tell ya — you sure as hell took cover when you heard that artillery.”
DiFebbo’s unit advanced and eventually crossed into Germany at the famed Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen.
In March 1945 the U.S. Army launched Operation Lumberjack. Designed to reach the west bank of the Rhine, American troops quickly advanced on the cities of Cologne, Bonn and Remagen. Aware that the Rhine posed the last major geographic obstacle to Allied troops, Hitler ordered the bridges over the river destroyed, but Americans arrived first and took the span.
“That was a big deal,” DiFebbo said. “Once we had the Remagen bridge we were able to get into Germany.
“It wasn’t easy, though,” he added. “I had a couple of friends shot at Linz (near Remagen). That’s where I saw the first jet fighter. They really hurt us.”
Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker April 30, 1945, and German troops began to surrender. The final units gave up May 8.
“I’ll always remember May 8,” DiFebbo said. “It was a snowstorm, I think it snowed the whole time I was over there. We were huddled together in a (fox) hole trying to stay warm and we got word Germany had surrendered. Just like that, it was over, but we were really happy.”
DiFebbo stayed in Germany until July when he was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division and started training for combat against Japan in the Pacific.
Before being sent to the Pacific, DiFebbo was given a 30-day leave to visit Ticonderoga. While he was at home, the United States dropped the atomic bomb and Japan surrendered Aug. 14.
“That was quite a day,” DiFebbo recalled. “There were church bells, whistles blew, people were in the streets. It was a happy time.”
DiFebbo remained in the Army through 1947, becoming a sergeant. He then worked a year in the local paper mill before taking a job with the Ticonderoga Power Company. In 1948 he married his late wife, Jean. Ti Power was bought by Niagara Mohawk the next year and DiFebbo stayed with the company until retiring in 1985.
Occasionally DiFebbo thinks back to his Army years and his old friends.
“When I think back I think about the guys, not all the other stuff. I made good friends in the Army,” he said. “I used to send Christmas cards to those guys, but then they started coming back. They’re aren’t many of us left anymore.”