NORTH FORT MYERS, Fla. — Several years ago Robert Shelato wrote a book about his life. The first part is about growing up in a small Indiana town during the Great Depression. The second part is about D-Day and the 2 years he spent helping liberate Europe.
"War is just terrible," Shelato says. "I wouldn't wish that on anyone."
At 94-years-old, Shelato is still pretty active. We sat down with him two days before the 75th anniversary of D Day in his North Fort Myers home, just after he played a round of golf. He remembers, with remarkable clarity, what he felt as a 19-year-old on June 6, 1944.
"Everything was aimed at the war," he says. "They were all working for the war effort."
What we now know as the daring, heroic, and history-changing liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation was, at the time, anything but a sure thing.
Robert graduated high school exactly one year earlier. And from England, he watched young men his age, leave for a brutal fate on the beaches of France. He remembers feeling a sense of adventure.
"I was as excited as everyone else. Everyone was anxious to get involved."
Robert got his call, with other reinforcements, a few weeks later. Sgt. Shelato worked with engineers who were called in to build or fix bridges. It was his job to make sure the area was free from the Nazis.
"The most dramatic thing that happened to me was, I was riding in a truck full of explosives," Shelato says.
"There was a German plane that was just putting all his ammunition into our truck. And he put five bullets into the driver that was driving, and I'm sitting beside him. And when the instrument panel started to explode, I could smell the tracer bullets, and I immediately jammed the door open and fell onto the highway and rolled off of the highway into a snow drift. And that saved my life."
June 1944 was the beginning of one close call after another.
"We were in a French barracks and the Germans had been living in this French barracks. And they had moved out, but they booby-trapped all the stoves," Shelato says. "We went in and before I could get into my room, the room next to me exploded."
Shelato says he traveled through France, Germany, and Luxembourg. It was his last stop, where he saw firsthand, that death was not the only consequence of war.
"We built two displaced 10,000 person centers for people that were wandering around the countryside, and the only thing they had was the clothing on their back and maybe a bag or a sack," he says. "And that was their worldly possessions. And there was just thousands of these people wandering around the countryside."
After the war, Shelato moved to New York and started a family. He retired in Southwest Florida and went back to Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
He says June 6, 1944, is a day he still thinks about.
"It was a dramatic moment in history. And all the world was focused on that event, the invasion of Europe. And I was part of that."