By Paul Wood
CHAMPAIGN — On D-Day, Cpl. Samuel Conte’s landing ship went to the wrong part of the beach, and sent its troops off too far from the shore, most carrying heavy packs and struggling not to drown.
Other people might have had it even rougher on June 6, 1944, but Conte did his share.
Along with Bronze Star citations, Conte earned two Purple Hearts for separate injuries in the biggest European battles of 1944.
And fought on.
Gen. George “Patton didn’t have you sent home unless you lost an arm or a leg,” Conte recalls.
Conte and his siblings had grown up near Chicago in the Maryville Orphanage in Des Plaines, where they spent the Depression in even harsher conditions than most of the country.
After Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army and trained in Mississippi.
“Killing still wasn’t in me yet,” Conte says. “But combat is a matter of kill or be killed.”
Once trained, he was assigned to a company for the invasion of France.
Stuck between Utah and Omaha beaches, the soldiers fought their way up the beach and into France.
Conte eventually joined Gen. Patton’s Third Army.
“I’m the only one in my company still alive now,” he says after the decades have passed, but many lost their lives in the late months of 1944.
Carrying an M-1 rifle with a grenade launcher, he trudged across Western Europe — Belgium, Luxembourg, Bastogne — into Germany and stopped in December 1944 for the Battle of the Budge.
Once, he says, he dug a foxhole and covered himself with leaves, only to wake up the next morning and find himself behind enemy lines.
“I don’t know why I didn’t get killed,” he says. “I didn’t expect to return.”
Conte still has survivor’s guilt after getting through the long war while his revered older brother Mike died in it.
It still amazes him that Mike, who was an instructor and supposed to be in the infantry, ended up in one of Patton’s tanks that ran out of gas ahead of supply lines.
The tank was blown up by the Germans.
“He was only in one battle. I don’t understand it, because I was at Normandy and at the Battle of the Bulge, and I came out of it,” Conte says.
There was also a Conte brother in the Navy and one in the Marines.
For all of Conte’s feelings that he didn’t do enough, like his lost brother did, he accomplished an enormous amount for his country, according to his citations.
The first citation for a Bronze Star with oak leaf cluster describes action in August 1944, where the “infantry was counter-attacked by a numerically superior enemy.”
His citation continues, “Cpl. Conte advanced alone to the position of a reserve company 300 yards distant. Though wounded, he guided the company back to the battalion in time to repulse the enemy counter-attack.”
Another citation commends Conte for a Dec. 15, 1944, action in Germany “under heavy fire … over a route containing mines and booby-traps.”
All four men with him were wounded, and Conte administered first aid despite his own wounds.
“Other people needed help. I did the best I could,” Conte says.
Of his two wounds in the campaign, “both of mine were flesh wounds,” he insists.
Now 92, he spent a career in administration at Great Lakes Naval Station north of Chicago before retiring in Champaign recently to be near family.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at email@example.com.