ROSS A. MUSCATO

The Right Message … At The Right Time … In The Right Way

FEATURE STORY

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Local hero

61 years later, a small-town sacrifice is remembered

By Ross A. Muscato, Globe Correspondent  |  June 6, 2005

Growing up it was a sort of anthem, one not repeated often but enough so that it was something with which all of us — me, my brother, my sister — were familiar. We knew the line, and we knew his name. We knew what he wrote in that Christmas card.

We knew of his sacrifice.

The line in the card, the card itself, and my mother’s fondness for repeating the line mingled to produce a beautiful and slightly haunting lesson. Even as children, the line transmitted to us a feeling of youth, a feeling of innocence and innocence lost, a time of great souls, a time of heroic conduct, a time of extraordinary sacrifice, a time of great deeds and epic achievement. The line reminded us that young men from small towns helped save the world.

The line also seemed to tell a tale of tragic misconception — of a young man holding a sunlit and positive perspective, even as he was about to go off to die with his comrades.

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My mother was disposed to drama — still is — and occasional jingoism. I remember her raising her voice and uttering the line: ”Greetings from Merry Ole England.” It was part of a story she told about Vincent P. Labowicz Jr.

”Greetings from Merry Ole England” was the salutation in a Christmas card (now lost) that Labowicz sent in December 1943 from a military base in England to my uncle (my mother’s older brother) George H. Creighton, who was stationed in the Pacific. Labowicz attached a photo of himself to the card. Labowicz, known to my uncle as ”Lab,” and my uncle, known to Labowicz as ”Bull,” were childhood friends who grew up in the small town of Maynard. The world was at war when Labowicz sent the card. In that both he and my uncle were able-bodied and in their 20s, each wore the uniform of the US military.

The card was sent, and the line written, before the Allies had bridged the English Channel. Germany still controlled most of Europe. If the horror and hell of Nazi killing and oppression were to be dislodged, rivers of Allied blood would flow to do it.

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Vincent Labowicz Jr. — he really wasn’t a Jr., but for some reason he included the Jr. in his name — accomplished at almost everything he did, and a natural leader, was a first lieutenant in the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division, of the US Army. Labowicz was trained to lead his regiment into battle. As the generals devised strategy for the invasion of Fortress Europe, the plan called for the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division, to be one of the first units to hit the beach at Normandy.

This year, as Memorial Day approached, I resolved to finally learn more about Vincent Labowicz. I drove from my home in Easton out to Maynard and sat down with Vincent’s younger sister, Mary King. Mary and her husband, Dick, are lifelong residents of Maynard.

Mary is the youngest of the four Labowicz children. Born in 1933, Mary was just a kid when Vincent went into the service. Vincent, the oldest, was born in 1917. Helen was born next; she’s now 86. John, 85, served in the Coast Guard during World War II and participated in the D-day invasion.

”We are a hundred percent Polish, our family,” says Mary, retired from Digital Corporation. ”My mother and father were both from Poland, and came to Maynard, which had a big Polish population. A lot of Poles worked in the woolen mills here in town.

”It’s funny, my father was eager to become Americanized, but my mother preferred to keep tight to her Polish culture, and not go outside of it too much. Like all of us, she attended St. Casimir’s, the Polish Catholic church in town. But she socialized almost only with her Polish friends, and she shopped at only at Polish-owned stores.”

Mary laid out photos and letters and a newspaper clipping; she handed me a book published by The Times of London that is a tribute to and memorial for the 28,000 Americans, from all branches of the military, who gave their lives in World War II while based on English soil. Families of all 28,000 received a copy.

I learned that Vincent was a star all-around athlete at Maynard High School, from which he graduated in 1935. He attended Milligan College in Tennessee and transferred to Northeastern University, where he earned varsity letters in football and basketball. I learned that he was popular with the ladies.

Labowicz left Northeastern to go into the Army. He trained at Fort Benning in Georgia and Fort Bragg in Kentucky. Sometime in 1942 he arrived in England.

”One doesn’t realize how pretty England is without come [sic] over here,” Labowicz wrote in a letter home to ”My dearest Folks,” dated Oct. 15, 1942. ”The grass is very green here, and when you go up in the hills and look the valley over it sure is beautiful. . . . All and all it sure is a beautiful place. Some times I wonder if I ever will go back to the United States. . . . Please don’t worry about me because I am in very good health, and I wouldn’t miss coming over here for the world. So please folks don’t worry about me because it’s useless and won’t get you anywhere. So please don’t worry.”

At the end of the letter, Labowicz writes, ”I guess I’ll close now until I have another chance to write. So may God Bless you all and watch over you all till I get back. Oceans of love to” — and Vincent names off a list of family members.

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Labowicz was on one of the ships that set out to sea from England on the evening of June 5, 1944, to make the 12-hour crossing to northern France. He was among the 176,000 Allied soldiers who carried with them the ”Order of the Day,” a directive written by Allied Expeditionary Force Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower, which read, in part: ”The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”

The assault on the beaches was scheduled for the early hours of next day.

June 6, 1944, would be D-Day.

Supporting the invasion were more than 2,727 ships, 2,606 smaller ocean vessels, and about 11,000 aircraft. Operation Overlord was, until that time, the largest amphibious invasion in history.

Through cold, wet weather, and over turbulent seas, Labowicz and his men were en route to Omaha Beach, a stretch of land that would soon bear the moniker ”Bloody Omaha.”

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Operation Overlord was a success — with a famous and terrible toll. Before June 6 was over, all five landing beaches had been secured. The cost to gain that foothold in northern France was more than 4,000 Allied dead out of a total Allied casualty figure of 10,000.

A combination of factors — chief among them a terrain advantage for the German defenders, Allied mistakes, and poor execution — made the landing at Omaha Beach the most hellish and costly ground at Normandy for the invaders to take.

At Omaha Beach, unlike the other landing areas, the Germans were perfectly positioned, perched on 100-foot cliffs overlooking the Allied forces’ advance toward shore. On those cliffs, the Germans manned machine gun nests and mortar batteries, many ensconced in thick concrete bunkers that were impervious to the heavy bombing from sea and air that the Allies had used to soften up and weaken the defense before the full-blown invasion. As well, the plan to fire rockets onto the beach to create foxholes in advance of the landing was not well executed; all the rockets fell short of land. A tactical mistake made in the approach to Omaha was that the floating apparatuses that contained the tanks so important for taking out German gun installations, and spearheading movement inland, had been released too far out in the churning seas. The result: 27 of the 32 tanks sank, taking many men with them.

The 116th Infantry Regiment was sailing into hell. Vincent Labowicz would lead his men into that hell.

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It is amazing that any Allied soldier survived Omaha. The largely unprotected approach, landings, and crawl over the sand were done under a downpour of fire and metal. Many never made it to the beach; they either drowned or were killed by bullets or explosions while still at sea. No matter where they were, the Allied soliders were easy pickings.

Mac Evans, a soldier who fought with the 116th that day, wrote about the terror, the confusion, the human sacrifice.

”Right and left, there was chaos all up and down the beach — people dying, burning vehicles, weapons full of sand,” recalls Evans. ”There were dead, the dead floating in the water, the dead the waves would deposit on shore. There were dead all over.”

By the end of the day, the 116th had been decimated: 341 men had been killed, 241 were wounded, and 26 were missing. Yet when June 7 dawned, the Allies held Omaha Beach and the cliffs above.

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Labowicz’s mother needed to know how her son died. She put a notice in Foreign Service magazine, a publication of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in which she requested information from anyone who served with her son. A letter arrived, most likely in the first week of December 1946.

The letter is dated Nov. 29, 1946. It is from a Curtis C. Moore Jr. of Roanoke, Va. Here are excerpts:

Dear Ms. Labowicz,

I knew your son very well. ”Laby,” our nickname for him, joined our outfit in England around April 1943. I was in the mortar platoon at that time and ”Laby” was my platoon leader. We got along very well together. There were about thirty-five men in our platoon and all the fellows thought that ”Laby” was a swell guy. . . . The last time I saw your son he got in one boat and I on another in England when we sailed for the invasion. I shook hands with him when we parted and saw each other for the last time.

Two days after D-Day, I found out from some of the other fellows that ”Laby” was killed. He died in one of the boys [sic] arms whose name I can not recall, from a machine gun fire (bullet) in the chest and he never regained consciencness [sic]. I hope this letter will be some comfort to you. Please do not think that ”Laby” suffered any. I know that he did not. May God bless you. Your son was a brave and good soldier.

”My mother changed a lot after Vincent was killed,” says Mary, who was 11 years old on June 6, 1944. ”You could not even mention his name, ever, or she would break into sobs. She had loved to dance, but after Vincent died she never danced. And, you know, we did not have a Christmas tree again.”

For years, George Creighton, who died in 1993, kept in his wallet the photo that Labowicz sent him six months before D-day.

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It is midafternoon on a weekday in late May 2005. It is raw, cold, drizzling — like D-Day. I stand, along with Mary and her husband, at the grave of Vincent P. Labowicz Jr. at St. Bridget’s Cemetery in Maynard. Vincent was first interred in France, but after the war, at the request of his mother, he was brought home. A wake was held at Maynard High School.

The headstone reads:

1917 Vincent P. Labowicz, Jr. 1944

1st lieutenant 29th Div.

I stand at the final resting place of a hero.

Vincent, greetings from the Republic you died to defend and the freedom you died to preserve. And thank you.

Ross A. Muscato of Easton is a co-author of ”Street Soldier: My Life as an Enforcer for Whitey Bulger and the Boston Irish Mob.”

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Written by RM

August 29, 2009 at 11:03 pm

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