CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
World War II Oral History Interview
US Army, 78th Infantry Division
Date: March 16, 2017
Interviewer: Carol Fowler, William Elwell, Kristine Galassi
Summarizer: Kristine Galassi
Frank Mercurio was born in September 1923 in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Before his military service, he worked in a shipyard as a welder. One day in April 1943, Mercurio received a notice requesting him to report to his local draft board, where he passed a physical examination and was drafted into the United States Army. At the time he was drafted, four of his brothers were already on active duty. Mercurio was now on his way to join the war as well. “Five boys left and five men came back; we were very lucky,” he recalled.
Mercurio was sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for basic training, and then on to Camp Davis, North Carolina for training as a radio and searchlight operator. Searchlights were assigned to anti-aircraft batteries for night defense against enemy aircraft. He remembered that his training had been very rigorous; yet, he realized later that it had prepared him well for what was to come and was thankful for it. Mercurio spoke briefly about the adjustments he had to make transitioning from civilian to military life. He added that his faith and a positive outlook were important to him and helped him get through the war.
In October 1944, Mercurio, assigned to an infantry regiment, boarded HMS Queen Elizabeth in New York City, along with 15,000 other men of the 78th Division, and traveled in very cramped quarters to Southampton, England. After further training, the division sailed to Le Havre, France, landing in November 1944. The brutal winter of 1944 combined record low temperatures with the massive German attack in the Battle of the Bulge. The 78th Division’s infantry regiments, including Mercurio’s 310th, were sent forward to assist the defenders, and the Germans were pushed back as the American army advanced to the Rhine River.
Mercurio’s unit traveled across Belgium and France on foot, and his company commander, a Captain Lutz, sought shelter for his men from local civilians during the cold nights. Although they usually used abandoned homes, on occasion soldiers were quartered with a family. Mercurio recalled a time when his company came upon a house where only a young woman and baby were present, and that Lutz, through an interpreter, told the woman that she could stay in the house for the night. They all slept well.
Mercurio and his fellow soldiers relied on C-rations for sustenance, although an occasional “Red Ball Express” supply truck would get through with more substantial rations and ammunition. When food was temporarily scarce, the soldiers survived on “D-ration” chocolate bars, developed and manufactured by the Hershey Company for the army in 1937.
After a sniper shot and killed his company’s radio operator, Mercurio, who had training in radio work, was ordered to replace him. He recalled that the radio, a SCR-300, was carried on a heavy backpack and had an antenna that often served as a target for enemy fire, and had led to the death of the previous operator. Shortly thereafter Captain Lutz was shot in the leg and evacuated to the rear, and Mercurio returned to the role of rifleman.
The 78th Division’s 310th Infantry Regiment crossed the Remagen Bridge over the Rhine River on March 10, 1945 and moved on deeper into Germany. The division was part of the force that encircled the “Ruhr Pocket” and ended the war in Europe in Marburg, Germany. Mercurio described the large number of Germans, who knew the war was over, surrendering during the last weeks of the conflict. The 78th Division remained on occupation duty in Germany until May 1946, including a stint in Berlin, where Mercurio marveled at the destruction wrought on the city by the war, as well as the wretched condition of the surviving civilians. On his way home, he traveled through Paris. Mercurio remembered the incredible gratitude the Parisians expressed toward the American soldiers. He boarded a “Liberty Ship” in France; and, after a ten-day trip, Mercurio landed back in America, where he was formally discharged from the United States Army in June 1946 at Fort Dix, leaving his backpack and uniform in the barracks when he left.
He couldn’t leave the memories. Mercurio recalled that: “Some of the memories [of the war] are so painful that most of us never want to re-visit them.” He added that sometimes it is necessary to remember those tragic times, to work through them to heal. More than two years after Mercurio had returned from the war, he almost always felt the presence of an armed German soldier right behind him, ready to shoot. His perspective on war was summed up as “War is legal murder.”
Although difficult memories have returned on and off throughout his life, Frank Mercurio, who was awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Purple Heart and a series of campaign ribbons, remained proud of his service to his country, and he said that his patriotism was a constant in his life.