Philip Alterizio holds the Legion of Honor medal he recently received from the French government for his service during World War II's liberation of France. He and his wife Maria, sitting next to him, live in Madison.

REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- MADISON -- Philip Alterizio, 88, has a new medal to add to his collection of memorabilia from his military service in the European Theater during World War II.

During a Feb. 10 ceremony, Alterizio and 12 other WWII veterans received the highest honor of France - the National Order of the Legion of Honor -- from France's consul general in Atlanta.
But during a recent interview at his Madison home, Alterizio didn't want to talk about the Legion of Honor or his experiences as a WWII Soldier in Italy, France, Rhineland and Germany.

Rather, he wanted to talk about today's servicemembers.

"I want to tell all the troops, and especially the troops at Redstone Arsenal, I really do admire them so much," the sprightly veteran said. "I went on an Honor Flight (a program that took veterans to see their memorial in Washington, D.C.), and the Soldiers were there when we left at 5 in the morning and when we got back at 9 at night. I want you to let them know how much we appreciate them. They are the real heroes today and I don't think people realize that."

Alterizio considers himself among those fortunate to return from some of the worst fighting of WWII. He doesn't like talking about the war, only saying it took years to fight off nightmares and flashbacks from those months in 1944 when his unit - part of the 44th Infantry Division - made its way across Europe. And yet, he doesn't consider himself a war hero of that era, and he is rather reticent about accepting praise for his service.

"I am dedicating this medal to all the young men who died in France. I'm a caretaker of this medal for all of them," he said.

Alterizio was recognized with the Legion of Honor after one his two daughters learned about France's program to recognize WWII veterans from the European Theater. Diane Cardwell, who lives in Atlanta, submitted a copy of her father's discharge papers and completed an application.

A few months later, Alterizio received a letter of nomination approved by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and then a letter from the French consulate in Washington, D.C., notifying him of the ceremony in Atlanta.

"I'm just an average guy and all this attention we're getting is really something else," he said. "In Atlanta, I was with a bomber pilot, staff sergeants, a couple of privates and a Navy veteran who was on a destroyer during the invasion of Normandy."

During the ceremony, French consul general Pascal Le Deunff spoke to each veteran individually and told the audience of family and friends about their veteran's service during the war. He then pinned a medal on the chest of each veteran.

"He told us that 'All you boys are heroes. For years we felt hopeless and you boys never gave up. You brought us hope,'" Alterizio recalled. "It must have been terrible to be under the German occupation."

As a private first class during the war, Alterizio received several other honors for his service. But the Legion of Honor is the most significant.

"The only medal I have from the war that is significant is the European Theater of Operations medal with four Bronze Stars. Those stars signify service in Italy, southern France, Rhineland and central Europe."

Alterizio was 17 when he joined the New Jersey National Guard.

"It was 1939 and during the depression. Me and a couple of guys wanted to do something, so we joined the 113th Infantry. It was something to do," he said.

In September 1940, his Guard unit was put into federal service with the 44th Division, a combination of the New Jersey and New York National Guards. His federal service included training at different schools. But after the U.S. was pulled into the war by the attack on Pearl Harbor,
Alterizio was in a unit detached from the division and attached to the Eastern Defense Command to provide ground forces for the defense of the East Coast from New York to Philadelphia. During this time, Alterizio spent a lot of time with his unit patrolling the beaches of Long Island, N.Y.
In 1944, he joined the VI Corps to Italy, where he was part of the Allied push through Naples and north into southern France.

"What I saw was nothing like what the 88th Division and the 10th Mountain Division saw in the mountains of northern Italy. We saw a lot of fighting and a lot of sad things. The children we saw were skin and bones. There are a lot of things we forget and we want to forget," Alterizio recalled.

In September 1944, Alterizio was among Allied forces that marched from southern France into the country's northern section. He was reassigned to the 103rd Division Military Police. While in France, he was part of some of the war's heaviest fighting and saw some of the worst concentration camps.

"One of our units found the bodies of dead prisoners half buried, their bodies burned by gasoline that had been poured on them and lit," Alterizio said. "When I got there, our general said 'No Soldiers were to touch the bodies.' ... It was too gruesome to see those bodies piled up like that. I used to get flashbacks and have bad dreams."

But the final push into Germany was anti-climatic, with many of the Germans quickly surrendering to U.S. troops.

"They didn't have the fight in them anymore," Alterizio said. "We didn't have to fight for Germany. The war was basically over around two weeks before that when the 88th Division came through Italy. So, the Germans were just surrendering."

Alterizio returned to the U.S. with other troops via naval ships.

"We went by the Statue of Liberty and a sign was hanging from it that said 'Well done,'" he said.
It wasn't long before Alterizio left the Army.

"My brother had been wounded in the hedgerows of Normandy and my father had had a small heart attack. My family wanted me to get out of the Army," he said. "They said 'If you stay in, we don't know what will happen to your father.' That was back when we always did what our parents said, so I got out."

But Alterizio didn't like wearing civilian clothes. It was a difficult adjustment for him as he went from job to job. He was not happy again until he met his future wife, Maria. They moved to Florida in 1956, where Alterizio worked in the airline industry until his retirement.

In 1962, Alterizio took his wife to Europe to see the places where he had fought.

"Everything had changed. But we had a good time anyway," he said with a laugh. "We rented a little Volkswagen and drove through 10 different countries. We went to so many places where no one spoke English."

Today, Alterizio and his wife Maria live in Madison near one of their two daughters, Madison City school board president Sue Helms. They have three grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

Alterizio, who was accompanied at the ceremony in Atlanta by daughter Diane Cardwell, said the French consul general told the WWII veterans at the Feb. 10 ceremony that France officials are making efforts to present the Legion of Honor to as many WWII veterans as possible.

"They are trying to escalate this because they want to present these medals before the veterans all die," Alterizio said. "You don't have to do anything heroic to be recognized. You just have to have been part of the group that helped liberate France. It takes so many different types of people and jobs to keep the Army going, and to do something like we did in France to end World War II."

Alterizio is proud of today's interest in World War II. But he said that interest will wane as WWII veterans pass away, much like it did with World War I.

"They don't teach in schools the things I saw and did in World War II," he said. "I want people to remember how hard it was in World War II, not only for the Soldiers, but also for the civilians. Can you imagine being a mom back then and opening the paper every day to see the names of thousands of young men killed in the war'

"At the World War II memorial, there are 400 gold stars and each one represents 100 men killed. I want people to remember because that's why we are free today. Freedom isn't free and the people should remember that."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16