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June 6, 2013

Packing for D-Day

Presentation on 69th anniversary of historic landings showcases gear used by soldiers

By Brian Louwers
C & G Staff Writer

» click to enlarge «
From left, Joe Coppens, of Warren, Sam Fittante, of Warren, and Josh Kuligowski, of Utica, posed together after a presentation about the gear used by U.S. troops on D-Day. Coppens and Kuligowski are volunteers with Eastpointe’s Michigan Military Technical & Historical Society. Fittante, 88, served in the 63rd Infantry Division during World War II and was wounded during the fighting around Stuttgart, Germany.

WARREN — When 156,000 Allied troops hit the beach or parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, Sam Fittante wasn’t yet with them.

Fittante, now 88, of Warren, got to France a few months later, but he said he carried much of the same gear when he served in a reconnaissance unit of the U.S. Army’s 63rd Infantry Division that marched into Germany and saw bitter fighting in the closing months of the war.

The equipment used by soldiers on D-Day was the focus of a presentation offered by volunteers with the Michigan Military Technical & Historical Society, in Eastpointe, and hosted by Warren’s Miller Branch Library at the Warren Community Center on June 6, the 69th anniversary of the historic invasion.

“It was very interesting because a lot of that equipment, I remember using myself,” Fittante said, dressed in his original service uniform that still fits after all these years.

Looking at the clothing, tools, weapons and accessories piled on long tables in the library for the hour-long presentation, it was hard to imagine an invading force carrying so much into battle, much less effectively fighting while carrying it.

Volunteer presenters Joe Coppens, of Warren, and Josh Kuligowski, of Utica, took on the roles of soldiers in the 82nd Airborne and the 1st Infantry divisions, respectively, dressed in the clothing and carrying the gear that the soldiers would have relied on as they jumped into France or waded ashore on Omaha Beach under withering enemy fire.

Coppens said the typical paratrooper would have boarded the plane with up to 100 pounds of equipment — layers of clothing, rations for three days, a gas mask, shovel, explosives, modest toiletries, and of course, weapons and lots of ammunition.

“These were little guys, coming off the Depression,” said Coppens, 33. “You could be looking at a 120-pound guy carrying 100 pounds of gear.”

Kuligowski, 24, outfitted as a Browning Automatic Rifle gunner would have been on D-Day, would have carried at least 60 pounds of gear down the ramp of a landing craft and into the surf, including the 15-pound rifle and more than 17 pounds of BAR ammunition.

Most of the items brought to the presentation by Coppens and Kuligowski were from their own personal collections.

Kuligowski said his interest in World War II began with a single item — a T-handle U.S. Army shovel — carried by his grandfather who took part in the Normandy invasion.

Coppens said he’s been collecting memorabilia and pieces of military history since he was 5 years old. He was named after his grandfather, who served in the 1st Marine Division and saw action in the Pacific during World War II.

Though he never met his grandfather and couldn’t hear his stories, Coppens said speaking to surviving veterans is part of what drives those interested in preserving the history of World War II.

“The veterans or stories like that, they’re what really makes it personal,” Coppens said.

Asked after the presentation what his most-valued piece of equipment was during the war, Fittante admitted it was probably his rifle.

“I think so. The (M1) carbine was the one I used most of the time,” Fittante said.

The Michigan Military Technical & Historical Society Museum is located at 16600 Stephens in Eastpointe. For more information, visit them online at www.mimths.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/MichiganMilitaryMuseum.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Brian Louwers at brianlouwers@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1089.