Local WWII veteran recalls D-Day 73 years later

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PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - George Panella, 90, lives a quiet life in his Panama City Beach home. Seventy-three years ago to the day, as he prepared to storm the beaches of Normandy in the world's largest amphibious invasion, his life was anything but quiet.

“As far back as we could look forward, and as far back as we could look backwards, you could see nothing but ships,” Panella said. “You looked up in the sky, you could see nothing but planes. We overwhelmed them.”

Panella was an 18-year-old Navy seaman in the third wave of troops set to land on the beaches, but it didn't go as planned.

“We couldn't land because of the chaos on the beach,” he said. So we unloaded the seventh [of June], then went back to England, reloaded, and our next spot was Sword Beach, which was the English beach head. Suddenly, as we were unloading our troops and our tanks. We started to get bombarded with German 88's. So as soon as we unloaded we had to abandon ship.”

Once on the beach, his boyish curiosity almost led to their demise.

“We were young kids, you know looking around looking to pick stuff up. I'll never forget there was a German Lugar that I wanted so bad. I saw this English soldier just sitting there and he said don't, it's all booby-trapped. Don't pick anything up. Thank God for him; if he hadn't told us, I'm sure there were a lot of young kids that would have been hurt. Because they were booby-trapped."

He was lucky to escape that fate, but came face-to-face with those who were less fortunate. One moment involved an injured American soldier. It's stayed in his mind all of these decades later.

“One person was totally wrapped in cloth, but he could talk. And he said something about uh, 'You know where am I and what am I on?' I said, 'You’re on an LST (Landing Ship, Tank), we're taking you back.' He said, 'I came over on LST 266.' I said, 'Well we're taking you back.' And I could cry now when I think about it. He was caught in a tank, and that's almost like being caught in a furnace. I don't think that will ever leave my mind.”

In the days after the invasion, he said he didn't hear a lot among his comrades about the invasion. But he does recall an incident involving the dangers of crossing the mine-littered Channel.

“There was a ship that pulled just ahead of us when three ships decided to go back to England,” he said. “As the one ship pulled ahead of us, it picked up a mine and blew the whole back end of it off. And when our crew went over to help, they said some of the bodies were fused together from the blast. Fortunately I didn't see that.”

His greatest fear was never dying, but he said he tirelessly worried about something else.

“It wasn't fear of being hurt or getting hurt or anything like that, it was more that we would screw up, that we would make a mistake,” he said. “I felt sorry for the older people, the ones with wives and families.”

Seventy-three years later, he recalled the character that would later dub his generation, the greatest.

“As soon as we became 17 or 18, we immediately joined [the military],” he said. “We appreciated from hearing our parents speak of why they came to this country, it made us want to go even more. We felt we owed this country something, and we wanted to pay it back.”

During his time in the war, George Panella earned two battle stars. He got out in 1946 and went on to become a mechanic.