NORTH SEWICKLEY TWP. -- After almost three years of fighting during World War II, Guy Prestia and other members of the U.S. Army's 45th Infantry were going to Munich, Germany, when their orders changed.
They got orders to "swing down to a small place called Dachau," Prestia, now 94, of North Sewickley Township said.
"What's going on in Dachau, we had no idea. We didn't know what was there," he said. "What we saw down there, we were not prepared for. None of us."
The men of the 45th had been through tough fighting in Sicily, Italy, France and Germany and were "hardened soldiers," Prestia said.
He'd celebrated his 23rd birthday on April 26, 1945, and three days later participated in the liberation of Dachau.
"We had seen a lot of people getting killed, we had seen a lot of people getting wounded badly. We had seen so many things, but when we saw that, it was something we could not take," he said of the Dachau concentration camp.
A lot of the men cried at the sight of the emaciated men, women and children, who were alive at the camp, and some vomited at that sight, plus the scores of bodies that were found there, and some, including Prestia, did both.
"We just cried and we vomited because we could not understand how a person could be that evil," Prestia said.
There were more than 2,000 bodies on 39 flatcars. They were men, women and children, some naked, some partially clad in the blue-and-white-striped clothing they were given as prisoners.
The survivors were "nothing but skin and bones," Prestia said.
"They were just like walking dead people," he said.
The Americans were ordered not to give them food because it would do more harm than good for the prisoners. They gave the people candy and cigarettes as medics worked to treat them.
The Germans had been trying to kill the prisoners before the Americans advanced to the camp, and some were forced to make a death march farther south to evade liberation and the American soldiers found pots of poisoned soup that was meant to kill more prisoners.
"We got there just in time," Prestia said. "If we'd have got there a day later, it would have been bad for a lot more people."
The sight of Dachau and the smell there are things Prestia won't forget as long as he lives, he said.
"It was then, at that point in time, that we really found out why we were fighting in the war. We knew that Pearl Harbor was attacked and all that, (but) we didn't understand what had been going on there (at Dachau). We realized that's what we were fighting for. To get people to be free," Prestia said.
Prestia had worked as a machinist in Ellwood City for two years before he was drafted and assigned to the 45th Infantry. He landed in North Africa on June 22, 1942, as the fighting there was winding down.
"They were getting us ready to invade Sicily," he said.
That invasion was in the midst of a bad storm, with 13-foot-high breakers making for rough seas. They landed in Higgins boats on the island and to board them the soldiers climbed down rope cargo netting from a larger ship, Prestia said.
"I remember one fellow was a couple rungs up ahead of me, and he let out a yell and came down and hit my shoulder and came down between the assault boat and the ship," Prestia said.
That man and several others fell into the sea, and there was no way or time to retrieve them, Prestia said.
"It was just a lost cause," he said.
Prior to landing on Sicily, the soldiers were ordered to "fix bayonets" -- Prestia, who operated a Browning automatic rifle (BAR) didn't have one because of the heft of his gun -- then the boat he was on hit a big rock and jarred everyone.
"Some guys got stuck with a bayonet from the guy behind them," Prestia said. "That was a crazy order."
They pulled each other ashore from atop the rock, and one of the men was injured so badly he died about 20 minutes after being taken onto the beach, Prestia said.
During the second night in Sicily, the men, who had been alerted to a potential attack by German paratroopers, heard airplanes flying over in the fog.
"You couldn't see your hand in front of your face," Prestia said. "Everybody started firing up in the air. I don't know how many magazines I fired."
When dawn broke the next morning, they saw paratroopers hanging in the trees. It turned out, they were firing at members of the 82nd Airborne.
"That regiment lost 227 men, just by that mistake that people made," Prestia said. "You're not supposed to shoot your own people."
The incident was probed, and it was determined that several factors, including the storm and the fog caused by it, poor communication and green troops were to blame for the fatal mistake.
"There were too many things that went on, and that's what happened," Prestia said. "A lot of things happened like that. War is a bad thing. Lots of times the strategy doesn't work out as it's planned."
He learned he had to follow orders and trust the generals in charge, he said.
There was more heavy fighting in Sicily, along with some lighter -- if not lucky -- moments.
In Palermo, Prestia remembered hearing a plane fly overhead that turned out to be a German dive bomber. The target was likely a large hotel, the biggest building in the town, but it missed its target and left a big crater in the road in front of it.
Inside the hotel that night were Bob Hope and other United Service Organization (USO) entertainers who were set to perform for the troops.
"We wondered why would they come to the front lines. They took a big chance," Prestia said.
He also saw Marlene Dietrich and other performers during his time overseas, he said.
After the Sicilian campaign, they crossed the Strait of Messina to the Italian mainland and invaded at Salerno. Prestia remembered times of heavy fighting and casualties.
"There was a lot of shelling," he said.
Going through Turin, he saw Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, his mistress and another man hanging upside down in the streets.
"The people there, his own people, were throwing stones at the bodies. They spit on him; they called him names," Prestia said.
Afterward, his unit made an "end run" to Anzio.
Prestia was the BAR man of a three-man team that included Roy Zuber and Clarence McKay.
"When we were up there in Anzio one morning," Zuber was shot by a sniper.
The bullet hit and cracked his helmet, then ricocheted across his face, knocking out one of the man's eyes.
"It was kind of weird to even think about it or even talk about it," Prestia said. "The nerves from his eyeball (were) dangling and his eyeball was going up and down like a yo-yo."
Zuber grabbed it and "shoved it back" into his head. They remained under fire and sought shelter in a cave, Prestia said.
"For three days he suffered there in that cave," Prestia said.
They got him to a medic and he was treated and a little while later, Prestia came across him in a different unit; he recognized Zuber by his walk.
"I walked up to him and as soon as I saw him I laughed in his face," Prestia said. "Why I laughed -- he had one brown eye and one blue eye. They didn't have another brown eye of that size. He looked comical with one brown eye and one blue eye."
Years later, after the war, Prestia and his wife were vacationing and were near Petersburg, W.Va. -- Zuber's hometown -- and they looked him up. They spent an afternoon talking about old times, Prestia said.
By then, he had two brown eyes again, although a scar remained on his face where he was hit.
"They did a good job on him," Prestia said.
After Italy, Prestia and the 45th fought in France and on to Germany. During the winters, he remembered how they dug foxholes under the snow and slept back-to-back to keep warm. It warmed up in spring and by that time they were in Germany as the war waned and they liberated Dachau.
After the war ended, Prestia remained in the Army of occupation in Germany and was able to visit his grandparents in a small town in Italy.
"Grandma saw me, said I looked like my dad when he left. I was 23," Prestia said. "I was down there for a week."
He brought his family a pack full of food that included sugar and it was the first time they'd tasted sugar in four years, his grandmother told him.
Prestia thinks of his war experiences often, and when he thinks of Dachau he can still smell the place.
"That smell at Dachau never leaves you. That's something that never goes away," Prestia said. ___
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