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KEVIN CULLEN

70 years later, a story of epic survival endures

We are sitting in a Denny’s, in Lawrence, and Frank Miniscalco is remembering. It is June 6, 1944, and he is floating down, in complete darkness, into a small village in Normandy.

Miniscalco and the rest of the soldiers from Company D, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, had been training for a year, cloistered in England, and they were antsy.

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“We just wanted to do something,” he said.

Five days before the invasion, officers told the men of Dog Company what they were about to do, and they didn’t sugarcoat it.

“We knew,” Frank Miniscalco said, nodding. “We all knew.”

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They knew many of them were going to die, and no one said a word as the plane took the long way around the English Channel. Even when German bullets began pinging off the side of the plane, like rain on a metal roof, no one said a word.

Frank Miniscalco, a 21-year-old kid from East Boston, jumped into the blackness. It was five hours before the landing craft would hit the beaches below. Miniscalco and his band of brothers from Dog Company dropped behind enemy lines to clear the roads that the 4th Infantry Division would use after landing at Utah Beach.

“I landed in six inches of water,” he said. “The Germans had flooded the villages, to slow us down.”

Miniscalco fought his way across Normandy for a week, rarely sleeping. He fought house to house in Carentan, then heard the whistle of a shell and felt a searing pain in his foot. He spent about six weeks in a hospital in England, then rushed back to his unit in time to parachute into Holland as part of Operation Market Garden.

“Not a cloud in the sky,” he says, remembering the jump near Eindhoven. “No wind.”

But as he and his unit advanced across Holland, a shell ripped his left leg apart. Frank Miniscalco’s war was over.

Four years ago, a Malden cop named Kevin Molis went to great lengths to put up a monument to Walter Gunther Jr., a Malden guy who was killed in action on D-Day. Molis found Miniscalco and invited him to the unveiling.

“Walter was my lieutenant,” Miniscalco said. “He was a quiet guy.”

Gunther’s parachute got stuck in a tree in Sainte-Mere-Eglise and the Germans shot him, as he hung there, helpless.

Molis is now Malden’s police chief, and every year, as the anniversary of D-Day nears, he drives up I-93 to the modest ranch in North Andover where Miniscalco lives and presents him with a bottle of 21-year-old single malt Scotch. It lasts the whole year.

“Frank,” Molis said the other day, handing over the bottle, resting a hand on the old soldier’s shoulder, “if this country was on the level, you’d be able to walk into any store and walk out with one of these without paying. But, then, if you did that, I might have to arrest you.”

Miniscalco laughed and took the bottle.

On this, the 70th anniversary of an extraordinary feat of unfathomable courage, some of the men who fought through D-Day have made what is, for most of them, one last pilgrimage to Normandy. Miniscalco never went back to France. Never had the desire.

Nor does he consider himself special.

“Surviving war,” he says, “is luck.”

Two buddies from his unit, one from North Carolina, the other from Texas, made it through France and Holland unscathed, then were killed in Bastogne.

Another, Hilton Udell Head, made it all the way to Germany, to the Kehlsteinhaus, Hitler’s palatial retreat in the Alps. Head was a doctor in Texas and died three years ago, at 88.

Last week, Frank Miniscalco was looking out the window of a Denny’s, remembering his buddies from the 506th. Some died in battle. Some died in their beds.

“Surviving war,” he said again, “is just luck.”

Surviving may be luck. But honor is earned, and Frank Miniscalco will be honored, forever.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.
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