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WWII vet who spent 11 months burying dead soldiers to be honored at Patriots Day Parade

World War II veteran George Ciampa is recognized in a ceremony on Nov. 7, 2017.

SUPERVISOR JANICE HAHN/FACEBOOK

By ERIKA I. RITCHIE | The Orange County Register | Published: March 3, 2018

LAGUNA  BEACH (Tribune News Service) — Burying dead soldiers was tough to understand for an 18-year-old Army serviceman, but decades later, the somber task and the liberation that followed became an inspiration to World War II veteran George Ciampa and his efforts to help future generations recognize the cost of freedom.

Ciampa, now 92, who served in the 607th Graves Registration Company, will be the Honored Patriot on Saturday, March 3 during the 52nd annual Patriots Day Parade in Laguna Beach.

Picking up the dead

Ciampa vividly recalls gathering dead soldiers every day for 11 months, in hot weather and freezing cold, from the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge to the end of the war in Europe near Berlin.

His job was to document the dead, recover personal effects, wrap their bodies in mattress covers and bury them in temporary graves. Over a total of five campaigns, it was estimated that his company handled 75,000 bodies, Americans and Germans.

His first taste of war and death came in April, 1944, when his company landed in England and prepared for the Normandy D-Day invasion.

During a practice landing exercise, three of the four large landing crafts that went before him were sunk by a German submarine. Instantly, 800 men were lost, he recalled this week.

On June 6, when he and his company stormed Utah Beach, it was their job to recover the bodies.

"The job of burying the dead was a tough, tough job," Ciampa said. "There was a stench and you wore the same uniforms. If you were lucky, you had gloves. One day, I couldn't handle it but a lieutenant told me to get out there and suck it up. I mentally tried to detach myself from it."

At the Battle of the Bulge, the Army's largest campaign, Ciampa handled frozen bodies.

"We were close to shelling, artillery was flying over us, the enemy was fighting toward us and we were picking up bodies killed by buzz bombs," he said. "It was a very difficult job but we had to do it."

Later, Ciampa was awarded five battle stars; the Meritorious Unit Commendation wreath; the Croix de Guerre for bravery in carrying out his duties in the face of enemy fire in Normandy; and the Légion d'Honneur, the highest French decoration.

More recently, the longtime South Bay resident was recognized as Los Angeles County Veteran of the Year in 2017.

"Those of us in the Graves company and the combat medics, we knew the high cost of freedom," Ciampa said. "We understood what that meant."

Sacrifice of dead soldiers meant liberty for others

But the sacrifice of those soldiers –  many age 18, 19, 20 and 21 –  that Ciampa buried, wasn't only to preserve America's freedom.

"We liberated the German people from a terrible regime," he said. "We protected the freedom of countries we liberated."

After the war, Ciampa was assigned to the 233rd Salvage Collection Company that worked near Mannheim, Germany. There he became aware of the plight of hungry German children and the war's impact on them.

"These children loved us," Ciampa said. "We gave them attention and food and let them climb on our Jeeps. I still see all those German kids and their faces."

Sixty-one years later, Ciampa would use those images for documentary subjects.

In 2006, the former Los Angeles Times newspaper man formed a nonprofit foundation called "Let Freedom Ring" through which he has produced five films.

For his first film, Ciampa took history teachers from Torrance, along with Battle of the Bulge veterans, to Belgium. There, the teachers heard stories from resistance fighters and veterans.

He's also told stories of Europeans who have adopted some of the remaining graves of American soldiers at the Henri-Chapelle near Aachen, Germany, and other permanent cemeteries.

When Ciampa goes back to the cemeteries in Germany, Belgium and France, he often pauses.

"I wonder, did I handle that particular body?" he said. "It bothers me when people visit the graves and have no idea that many were so young."

Ciampa, who now lives in Palm Springs, appreciates the recognition from the Laguna parade and those who will come to see him.

For those watching, especially children, he said he hopes to make an impact.

"See that man, he was in the war and helped bring liberty to our country and others," Ciampa said. "That's what I hope grandparents and parents tell their children."

Retired Marine Col. Charlie Quilter, vice-president of the Patriots Day Parade, said it's that dedication to sharing his story that, in part, led to this year's honor.

"We did break tradition this year in that George Ciampa is not from Laguna Beach like our previous Honored Patriots of the Year," said Quilter, a decorated fighter pilot who served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, Bosnia, Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom. "We found his story very compelling and now in his 90s, he is still trying to educate young people about the real costs of war."

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(c)2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)
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