World War II veteran Eugene Russo, who turns 100 this month, at his home in Lawrenceville, Ga.

World War II veteran Eugene Russo, who turns 100 this month, at his home in Lawrenceville, Ga. (Arvin Temkar, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

(Tribune News Service) — During World War II, as Eugene Russo lay in foxholes, he would pray for God to let him live just one more day. At 100 years old, that is still his prayer.

“I think I’ll get to be 101, maybe even 102,” said Russo, pointing to the sky. “Whenever this guy is ready for me. A doctor in New York once told me I’d live to see the high 90s because I’ve been so healthy. I tried to call him not long ago to tell him my age but couldn’t get him. I think he died.”

Russo was born in the Bronx into a family of four siblings. His mother died when he was 2, and the family, including his father, two brothers and two sisters, moved to Irving, New York. When he was 19, he and his brothers were drafted into the Army.

“I don’t remember being scared. Hard to be scared of anything at 19.”

The trio of brothers trained at Camp Upton in Long Island, then splintered into different directions for special training. Russo spent 1943 at Camp Bowie in Brownwood, Texas, then took the U.S.S. Vernon from Massachusetts to England, arriving in July, mere weeks after D-Day and the Normandy invasion.

“I seen a lot of action then,” said Russo. “They put us on landing craft tanks to cross the Channel and as soon as we landed on Omaha Beach, the Germans were firing at us from their pillboxes [bunkers], so we knocked them out and kept going forward.”

Russo traveled to France and marched beneath the Eiffel Towel on his way to the front lines in Germany.

“I remember a lot, you know. I seen some terrible things,” said Russo. “In the middle of the night, a friend and his crew got wiped out by a battery. Seven guys, just like that. I lucked out. We kept seeing airplanes after that. I looked up and saw two English planes, spitfires, in a dogfight against a German plane, right there above me. I seen airplane bombers spot us and turn around to attack, shooting guns with shrapnel that shot out right in front of my eyes. I remember crossing the Rhine River and seeing a church standing there in the middle of nothing, completely untouched.”

Russo describes an attack when his crew was surrounded by German tanks. His sergeant yelled for everyone to get down, every man for himself. As he jumped into a foxhole, Russo heard a loud noise behind him. American fighter planes had swooped down and wiped out the German tanks.

“We got out fast, marching orders, and saw German soldiers and body parts lying all around,” said Russo. “Pure shock.”

A photograph of World War II veteran Eugene Russo from 1943.

A photograph of World War II veteran Eugene Russo from 1943. (Arvin Temkar, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

World War II ended on May 7, 1945, and on May 9, Russo was accidentally shot in the kneecap by an American soldier.

“I didn’t feel no pain,” said Russo. “They shipped me to a hospital in Frankfurt with two military police officers who never left my side. A German doctor operated on my knee. I was coming out of anesthesia when he put the bullet in my hand as a souvenir.”

After a monthlong stay in the hospital, Russo returned home, reunited with both of his brothers.

He tried to work for General Motors and passed the physical, but when an examiner saw the scar on Russo’s knee, he said he couldn’t hire him. He feared Russo would get injured on the job and require compensation.

So he went to work as a brick layer and stone mason. He had friends who were plumbers and electricians, so he learned those trades from them and began building houses, too, a career he continued for 60 years.

He never married or had children, but always lived with family, first one brother and then the other until they died. Since 2013, he has lived with his nephew Nat Galassi and his wife Olga, both 85, in Lawrenceville, Ga.

Nat grew up idolizing his “Uncle U.” He lived with him as a teenager and followed in his footsteps professionally.

“Uncle U was in my wedding party and over the years he used to ask Olga if she’d take care of him one day when he’s old and gray,” said Nat. “She always said yes and now it finally happened. I think he chose Olga because she’s such a good cook.”

The three share a ranch-style home with four bedrooms and an oversized kitchen.

Russo attributes his longevity to healthy living. It helps that he likes to cook — eggplant, fish, lasagna and Italian braciole are some of his specialties.

“I take one pill for blood pressure and that’s it, not even a multivitamin. If you eat good food, you don’t need that stuff. I eat fruits, vegetables and no sugar or salt. I cut those out when I was 70 or 80.”

Russo smiles wide and points to a mouthful of teeth, then lifts his World War II veteran hat to reveal a headful of white hair. All original, he said. He began bodybuilding in his teens and continued until his late 70s.

A healthy outlook on life has been a contributing factor, too.

“He has huge confidence, always wants to be the best, always wants to win,” said Olga, who plays multiple games of Scrabble with Uncle U each day. “He’s always optimistic and gets up even if he’s feeling sick, never complaining or talking negatively. He also likes his vodka every day. Vodka tonics, martinis, bellinis, whichever, and wine for dinner. A drink a day keeps him going.”

Russo nods in agreement, then deadpans.

“You know my secret? Don’t die.”

Russo drives himself to the Collins Hill Branch library most days. He reads multiple newspapers for a couple hours to stay informed on current events, then drives to the grocery store or home.

On Sunday nights they host big Italian meals for the entire family. The Galassi’s have four children, 11 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.

“They all love their Uncle U,” said Olga. “He’s always there with a card or a gift, always loving them. It’s like our kids and grandkids are his, too. He got his own family at the end of his life when he moved in with us. And he’ll be buried with us, too, one day. Our names are already on the wall.”

When asked what wisdom he’d impart to younger generations, Russo is quick to answer.

“Go to school, learn,” said Russo. “And not just the technology stuff — pen and paper. I don’t like technology, and I don’t like AI. I can’t keep up with it all, they’re going too fast. Everyone used to talk to one another, but now there’s a computer in everyone’s hands wherever you go. It’s awful. Too fast of living is no good. Why not slow it down a little?”

Russo is grateful for the life he’s led and especially proud to be a veteran. When he wears his veteran hat, he is often the recipient of kind gestures from strangers. His groceries have been paid for anonymously at Kroger, breakfasts at Waffle House are often treated, and the family’s dinner was covered at a restaurant one day by a good Samaritan who came over and hugged him.

“And I had filet mignon!” said Russo. “People are too good to me.”

Russo is a lifelong Catholic. He leads the prayer before every meal, including when the kids and grandkids come over, all hands clasped to create a big circle. Nat often finds Uncle U in his bedroom, both morning and night, praying on his knees.

“God’s my buddy,” said Russo. “I talk to him all the time. He’s given me this life and I’m thankful. I’ve had a good time.” ©2024 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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