CENTER FOR U.S. WAR
VETERANS' ORAL HISTORIES
World War II
World War II Oral History Interview
US Army, 237th Engineer Combat Battalion
Date: May 23, 2012
Interviewer: Carol Fowler, William Elwell
Summarizer: Karville E. Biggs Jr.
John Santillo was born in Newark, New Jersey in March 1922, and was working for the New Jersey Department of Transportation when he was drafted into the United States Army in 1942. He was sent to Camp Carson, Colorado for basic training and was then assigned as a truck driver to the 2nd Battalion, 49th Engineer Regiment, a unit formed at Camp Carson. Following training, the battalion, later re-designated as the 237th Engineer Combat Battalion, was transferred to Newport News, Virginia, to board a troop transport for a twenty-one-day journey across the Atlantic to North Africa.
Santillo’s unit landed in Oran, Algeria and subsequently supported operations around Casablanca, and at the battle of Kasserine Pass. In January 1944, the 237th was sent to England on what Santillo remembered as a rough journey on turbulent seas. He remarked that the ship he and his fellow soldiers sailed on was sunk by a German U-boat on its way back to North Africa. Santillo was told at the time that an enemy submarine had stalked the transport on its way to England, but could not catch it, and so had lain in wait to sink it on its return voyage.
Following a landing in Liverpool, the 237th began training for the invasion of France by conducting practice amphibious assaults on mock landing areas along the British coastline. Santillo remembered when he began to sense that D-Day was approaching: “When May  started to come around, we could smell that the invasion was coming; because, we saw all the 82nd Airborne paratroopers were coming in.”
On June 6, 1944 the 237th landed on Normandy’s Utah Beach, along with the 4th Infantry Division’s 8th Infantry Regiment. The mission of the engineers was to clear a pathway through mines and obstructions to facilitate an infantry advance inland from the beach. Santillo had a vivid recollection of the events of that day, and how scared he was as he stepped off the landing craft and into the water washing up to the beach. He was worried that he might fall into a shell hole under the water, a fear compounded by the fact that he couldn’t swim. Santillo asked his friend to pull him up if he went under the waves.
Santillo recalled the landing operation as being very tumultuous, with artillery shells and bullets flying overhead as he and his comrades made their way across the beach. Eventually the engineers moved inland, through areas flooded by the Germans. After spending the night at Pont Hebert, they moved forward again, passing dead American paratroopers hanging in trees, with their weapons still clutched in their hands.
As the combat engineers pressed on into France, they encountered surviving paratroopers who said they were returning to England to prepare for another operation. Santillo mentioned that the airborne assault had been chaotic, with paratroopers dropped at the wrong location, and one even getting caught on a church steeple in the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise. Although casualties were heavy, the chaos confused the Germans and aided the invasion effort in the end.
After pushing yet farther inland, Santillo and his company used pontoon boats to ferry paratroopers across the Douve River, an operation conducted under enemy fire that lasted well into the night. On completion of that task, the engineers moved on to Saint-Lo, where Santillo encountered a friend from home. The two had met previously in England prior to the invasion. This time they were under enemy fire; and, as they embraced, a shell hit nearby, and they tumbled into a foxhole.
Continuing the drive towards Germany in support of combat operations, the 237th reached Bastogne, Belgium in December. As Christmas approached, Santillo was stationed in a machine-gun defensive position with a friend; and, he recalled the lieutenant approaching with a big bag slung over his shoulder. Santillo said, “hey lieutenant, you look like Santa Claus with that bag,” and the officer replied, “yeah Santillo, and this whole bag is for you!” As Santillo began to dig into his Christmas goodies, Italian food sent by his mother, German shells began to land nearby. His first reaction was to save the newly arrived groceries; and, he recalled saying aloud, “please God please God, not the food not the food!” Eventually, the engineers were ordered to withdraw from their position; Santillo remembered that the horizon was suddenly filled with planes dropping bombs on the enemy.
In the spring of 1945, the American army crossed the Rhine River into Germany, and Santillo recalled that the local civilians were initially terrified of the Americans. He remembered going from house to house asking people if they had any firearms, as well as reassuring them that he was not there to harm anyone, that he just wanted to confiscate weapons which might be used against the Americans. One of the arms Santillo confiscated was a double-barreled shotgun that he kept as a souvenir and sent home. The locals protested that they did not like Hitler, although of course that might be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. Santillo remembered one person asking, “have they killed Hitler yet?”
The war ended in Europe in May 1945, and the 237th returned to France to await transportation to England, and then back home for discharge. After landing in Newport News, the same port he left for North Africa from in 1943, Santillo was sent to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he was discharged, turning down an offer to join the regular army. He was awarded the European-African-Middle Eastern service medal with Bronze Arrowhead, the Good Conduct Medal and the Victory Medal for his service.
After returning home and a following a period of unemployment, John Santillo worked for a while at Port Newark before being hired as a courier by Newark’s Prudential Insurance Company on June 3, 1946. He worked for Prudential for 36 years until retiring in July 1982.
Over the years since his service, Santillo has attended many WWII veteran reunions. At the time of his interview, he was looking forward to returning to Normandy on the 75th Anniversary of the landing in 2019. Santillo wanted to see the monuments erected there, as well as how much has changed since his initial visit, and to pay respect to the men who died over there. In May 2018 Santillo, at that time one of an estimated 500 survivors of the original D-Day invasion force, was awarded the Legion of Honor medal by the French government at their embassy in New York, the highest honorary distinction in France rewarding eminent merit rendered to the nation.
John Santillo passed away on December 9, 2020.