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'God had his hand on me': Springfield WWII vet recalls Memorial Day past, D-Day landing

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For years, Jasper Madonia and his wife, Rachel, had a Memorial Day tradition.

Attend the Field Mass at Calvary Cemetery, stop at Hardee's to get a hamburger and then go to Camp Butler National Cemetery where they would sit for an hour or two.

Jasper Madonia said most of his family is buried at Calvary. Three of his brothers-in-law, Bill, Albert and Frank Leckrone, all World War II veterans, are buried at Camp Butler as is his sister, Angela, and his brother-in-law, Robert Fox.

Especially at Camp Butler, Madonia would remember his own service in World War II. Madonia served in U.S. Army Fourth Division Infantry in the ordinance and artillery section and was present at the Allied Landing at Normandy, France at Utah Beach in 1944.

"Of course we were thinking of all the ones who had died," Madonia recalled in a recent interview at his home. "Those are some of the heroes and all of our heroes still buried overseas."

COVID-19 has curtailed some of the Memorial Day events, including those for the public at Camp Butler and the Field Mass at Calvary, but Madonia's thoughts still turn towards soldiers he served with.

On Saturday, Madonia, who turned 100 years old Jan. 11, will be recognized at a D-Day commemoration at American Legion Post 32, 1120 Sangamon Avenue, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., with a short ceremony at 10:30 a.m.

There will be a silent auction, free food and a live radio . Donations will benefit the post.

According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, there are fewer than 1,000 D-Day veterans believed to be living today among the estimated 300,000 surviving World War II veterans.

Of the more than 150,000 Allied troops that landed at all five Normandy beaches, there were a little over 4,400 casualties on D-Day alone, by most accurate counts, including heavy losses at Omaha and Juno beaches.

Madonia, who grew up on the north end of Springfield and was one of 11 children in the family, enlisted in the army in 1943 when he was 22 and working at Bridge Jewelry, where he would spend 70-plus years working and being a part-owner.

Madonia was assigned to the 4th Infantry Division after basic training and spent several weeks in small instrument training in Aberdeen, Md. He did additional training at camps in Georgia and Florida, including amphibious training, before being sent overseas in in January 1944.

While Madonia was still at Camp Gordon (now Fort Gordon) in Augusta, Ga., he came home to marry Rachel Leckrone on July 5, 1943.

"I'd never been away from home," Madonia. "I felt kind of lonesome and homesick (being overseas). Of course, since I got married, that made it worse."

Unaware of the lead-up to D-Day, Madonia said the 4th Division spent most of its time training in the English Channel in amphibious DUKWs, or ducks, that could transport ammunition and personnel in the water or over land.

Madonia and others in the 4th Division, including Bill Shea of Springfield, the longtime owner of the Route 66 Museum, were aboard LSTs (landing ship, tanks), which carried tanks, vehicles, cargo and landing troops and could come directly onto shore with no docks or piers.

"When we left (for overseas), we knew we were going to do something, but I didn't know what it was," Madonia admitted. "You couldn't even see the water, there were that many ships, battleships and LSTs."

Madonia's company landed on Utah Beach, one of the westernmost spots, around 6 p.m. on June 6. Paratroopers, he said, had been the first ones in in the early hours.

"The worst part of that was sitting in the channel waiting to go in, because the German shells were landing pretty close," Madonia recalled. "We never took a direct strike. We were pretty lucky. What was going through my mind was, what were we going to get into?

"The only thing I can figure is that we must have hit them by surprise by going into Utah Beach, either that or our infantry moved in pretty fast. It was kind of clear for us."

On shore, Madonia and one of his best friends from the army, saw two planes circling the beach. Madonia didn't know if they were Allied or German planes, so "we jumped off our truck and dove under the truck.

"That was the stupidest thing (we could have done) because it was full of ammunition," he said.

Madonia spent the night on the beach by building a foxhole, lining it with a discarded parachute so sand and dirt wouldn't get in his face.

"We could still hear bombs dropping (in the distance), but we weren't very close to the fighting," Madonia recalled.

In hindsight, "everybody thought (that D-Day was the beginning of the end of World War II)," Madonia said. "Of course, all we could think of was getting back home."

After pushing further into France, the Fourth Division went into Belgium, Germany and Luxembourg, when the war ended.

Madonia recalled running into several of his Springfield friends while serving in Europe, including one of his best friends from the north end, Albert "Al" McGlennon, Al "Babe" Greco and Anthony "Tony" Manuele.

"A buddy of mine were window-shopping in Paris (on a pass)," Madonia recalled. "Some guy tapped me on the shoulder, I turned around and it was Tony Manuele. We took a picture together. I still have that picture in my wallet."

After the war, Madonia returned to Bridge's. He had a heart attack in 1975 and was intensive care at the hospital when his heart stopped beating completely.

"There happened to be a doctor going down the hallway and they got him and they gave me shock treatment and brought me back," Madonia said.

Madonia has been a parishioner at Blessed Sacrament Church for over 70 years, where he has also ushered, said the Rev. Jeff Grant, the church's pastor.

"He's extremely friendly," Grant said. "An usher is someone who can make you feel comfortable, especially if you're not in a familiar place, someone who is accommodating.

"That's Mr. Madonia."

Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin said he still remembered the first time he knocked on Madonia's door campaigning in 2011. He called Madonia "a gentleman who conducts himself in a very dignified manner.

"From my own military experience (in the Illinois Army National Guard, including three deployments overseas) and those in my family, I have tremendous respect for all veterans who have endured the challenges of combat warfare," McMenamin said. "It's an experience one can't forget."

Madonia said one of his most memorable experiences was being on a 2010 Land of Lincoln Honor Flight, that took him to the war memorials in Washington, D.C. Madonia's cousin, Mike Palazzolo, was his guardian that day.

"It was an honor to be there," Madonia recalled. "You thought back to all of the ones who were lost and, of course, how lucky we were to come back home. God had his hand on me, I guess."

Madonia's wife, Rachel, died in 2018. Madonia's son, John and his wife, Donna, live in Haskins, Ga. A granddaughter, Angela Mull, and her family live in Cumming, Ga.

Madonia's sister, Nancy Ryan, lives in Springfield.

Sam Montalbano, a Korean War veteran whose volunteer work has largely centered around veterans causes, said he has gotten to know Madonia over the past 15 to 20 years.

"We wanted to do a couple of things, raise some money (for American Legion Post 32) and do something for Jasper (as part of a D-Day commemoration)," Montalbano said.

Memorial Day, Montalbano said, "honors those who have passed away, military or otherwise. It's a day of remembrance. It's just a day off for some people, but it doesn't have any meaning (for them)."

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