Locals attend D-Day 80th anniversary ceremonies

Anthony “Tony” Pagano of Sparks, right, and Holocaust survivor Leon Malmed of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., hug each other after returning to Reno on June 8, 2024. They were part of a group that attended D-Day observances in France.

Anthony “Tony” Pagano of Sparks, right, and Holocaust survivor Leon Malmed of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., hug each other after returning to Reno on June 8, 2024. They were part of a group that attended D-Day observances in France.
Photo by Steve Ranson.

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Two men, two life experiences evolved in Europe because of World War II.

The worlds of Army soldier Anthony “Tony” Pagano of Sparks and Holocaust survivor Leon Malmed of South Lake Tahoe, Calif., intersected June 6 at the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in northern France.

The 98-year-old Pagano and 86-year-old Malmed were flown to Normandy along with 68 other men and women for the week by American Airlines. They returned to the Reno-Tahoe International Airport on June 8 to group of well-wishers holding signs and waving small American flags.

Pagano and Malmed linked up May 30 with others who contributed to the war effort. Their whirlwind week first took them to Dallas, home of American Airlines, for a dinner and entertainment from a big band playing all the familiar tunes from the 1940s and the Victory Belles, who perform at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

The following day, the group left for Paris to begin their week in France, culminating with the journey’s final leg at the beaches of Normandy.

“Wonderful. It was an exciting itinerary,” Pagano proclaimed June 8 after returning to Reno.


A Normandy reunion

Malmed, who was a child during the war, said he was grateful for the various welcoming comments from dignitaries and the appreciation expressed by the French people.

“It was a very, very emotional speech given by President Emmanuel Macron of France,” Malmed said. “It was nice to see the people have not forgotten.”

Malmed, who was born in France, said the people showed their appreciation for the veterans and others who contributed to the war effort. Malmed later served in the French Air Force for four years beginning in the late 1950s. He had been drafted during the French-Algerian war and trained as an airplane mechanic.

The group visited the Eiffel Tower and participated in le Ravivage de la Flamme, which honors fallen French service members at the Arc de Triomphe. Another show of reverence came at a wreath-laying ceremony at the Suresnes American Cemetery, the final resting place for 1,541 American soldiers killed in World War I.

Pagano reflected on their visits to Paris and Normandy, where thousands of American soldiers are buried.

“There’s a lot of sadness at the cemeteries,” Pagano said.

The sorrows of 80 years ago caused Malmed to return to his youth. As a boy, his family lived outside of Paris. When the Nazis stormed into France in 1940 and marched down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Malmed was 4. Less than a year later, the Nazis arrested his parents and deported them to Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Poland. He and his sister Rachel listened to lies perpetuated by their German aggressors.

“At the time, our father, a small man, and mother were taken away,” Malmed recalled.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” his father said as he was being taken away.

Malmed distinctly remembers a Nazi soldier assuring them not to worry, that their captors would take good care of their parents.

“They never came back,” Malmed said.

Their 5-year-old cousin and more than 260 children were also deported to Auschwitz and, like Malmed’s parents, they never returned.

Malmed and his sister survived, hidden by family members and friends.


Different paths in life

Malmed immigrated to the United States 60 years ago with his first wife and an 18-month child, and he later studied at UCLA and Stanford University. He lived in the San Francisco area for more than 30 years, holding positions in the chemical engineering field, before relocating to Lake Tahoe.

Malmed won national cycling titles in 2002 by competing in the 85-89-year-old division and wrote a memoir, “We Survived … At Last, I Speak.”

Pagano, who enlisted in the Army on Nov. 15, 1943, said he traveled to Fort Benning (now Fort Moore), Georgia, for specialized training in combat engineering before the Army suspended the program. Once he finished his training, the Army transferred Pagano to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, before his unit shipped out to Europe months after D-Day, arriving at Normandy in October 1944. The New Jersey native, who left the service with a rank of staff sergeant, was assigned to the 87th Infantry Division. He then became a combat engineer in the 1255th Engineer Battalion. According to records, only four engineers including Pagano remain alive. Lt. Gen. George Patton commanded the Third Army.

“I had stayed at Omaha Beach for two days, but I had to go to Cherbourg to pick up my Jeep,” Pagano said.

Days after the soldiers landed in Normandy, the different units began to spread out in France. The Third Army remained in northern France and began its trek toward Belgium and to an eventual Battle of the Bulge from Dec. 16, 1944 to Jan. 25, 1945. More than 19,000 men died, many of whom freezing to death, and another 75,000 were wounded in the densely-forested region between Belgium and Luxembourg. The battle has been called the deadliest single World War II battle for American troops.

Pagano’s battalion eventually liberated the last town in Luxembourg, but the overall toll was high, especially emotionally, for the New Jersey native. He picked up fellow wounded soldiers in his Jeep despite the constant barrage of German artillery fire.

“There was lots of sadness,” said Pagano, who was 19 years old. “I remember seeing these Stars of David. These were friends of mine.”

Twelve of his buddies, many of whom Pagano had known in high school, were killed and buried at the 50-acre Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial, the same graveyard where Patton is buried. The cemetery serves as the final resting place for 5,074 Americans.

Pagano, who became a physician after the war, reflected on the heroism of the medics, who put their lives on the line to save others. He said 12 of his friends — all medics — were killed. He said people don’t realize the highest rate of deaths in the Army involved the medics.


Never forgetting

Of the 4,414 Allied troops killed on that day, 2,501 were Americans. Thousands of people from different generations remembered the fallen during the week with words and buglers playing taps, a final call for the veterans.

“That’s a big emotional thing when they play taps at the cemetery,” Pagano added.

Pagano’s unit marched eastward into Germany and on May 7, 1945, near Gotha, they heard Germany had unconditionally surrendered. Pagano returned home in February 1946 and was discharged a month later.

Even 80 years later, Pagano offered reflection of the fallen warriors. Pagano paused, his eyes welling up with tears. His voice growing softer, a little more unsteady.

“Young people don’t think about death but they think of the young men who died.”

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