SIERRA VISTA — Sierra Vista’s Jerry Consiglio was one of the lucky ones.
Arguably the oldest living member of the Greatest Generation in Sierra Vista, Consiglio — who survived two of the bloodiest battles of World War II — turns 99 on July 28.
Not many were as fortunate as Consiglio.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says that 240,329 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II were still alive in 2021 and estimates that 234 veterans are dying every day. By 2032, they will be nearly gone.
Additionally, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has said the number of living U.S. World War II veterans will be 168,278 by Sept. 30 this year. There were 5.7 million in 2000, according to U.S. Census Bureau information.
Today, the former U.S. Army sergeant still drives, hits the gym three days a week, hasn’t taken any medications for eight years and is as sharp as a whip. But he hates talking about the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge that left almost 250,000 dead in 1944. More U.S. service members died during World War II than the number of veterans of that war are still alive today.
You won’t get much out of him when it comes to reminiscing about the “Bulge,” the largest and bloodiest single battle fought by the U.S. in World War II, as well what he went through at Normandy and Utah Beach. During the invasion, American armies suffered 124,394 casualties, of whom 20,668 were killed and 10,128 went missing during the Allies’ subsequent months-long march toward Germany, which represented the final phase of the war in the European theater.
Seventy-eight years later, it’s still too emotional for Consiglio to look back that often, if at all.
“I try not to think about it, but it still comes back to me and tears me up,” he said, shaking his head, unable to avoid tears. “What I saw and went through there … We got the worst of it at Utah Beach. I never want to see anything like that again.”
Instead, it’s the immediate present and his daily life that Consiglio focuses on, which have kept him alert and active: A wonderful, 45-year marriage with his wife, Nancy, going regularly to the Cochise Health and Racquet Club and Wednesday morning breakfasts with long-standing friends in a group called the “League of Extraordinary Seniors” that he never misses.
And then there’s his hobby of building and repairing antique clocks of mostly elderly women he refuses to take money from for fixing.
At 99 years young, the guy couldn’t be happier.
“He’s the type of guy you just like from the moment you meet him,” said one of his breakfast pals, Bob Latulipe, who has been friends with Consiglio for about 15 years. “Just a real nice guy who would give you the shirt off his back. You won’t find them much nicer than Jerry. War-wise, he‘s been through it, but no, he doesn’t talk a whole lot about it.”
It’s still too agonizing to talk about remembering bodies being blown up all around him, the barrage of guns, explosions and screams at Normandy while taking on fire moments after driving a jeep onto the war-torn beach like Consiglio did.
Instead, he jokes a lot now, keeps a cheerful demeanor and simply loves keeping busy, whether it’s fixing old clocks, clearing out moss that grows in his trees at his home, or taking on a gardening project. He’d rather talk about his Nancy.
“She has carried me. She knows me better than I know myself. But she has her moments,” he joked.
At nearly 100, he is a non-stop doer who never liked sitting still. He designed and built his Snead Drive house 30 years ago — along with six others — and knows where every pipe and wire is located. Staying active is one of Consiglio’s lifelong traits and may account for why his blood pressure is perfect and has no heart issues.
An auto mechanic after the war who worked for Buick, he was so talented that General Motors tried to hire him to work on its new Dynaflow transmission when he was only one of 162 candidates to score 100 on a company test. He eventually opened his own shop before moving to California, where he manufactured the first nitrogen warhead for Aerojet, which was then owned by General Tire.
“I was an outstanding mechanic,” he said.
But even talking just a little bit about fighting in World War II after almost eight decades turns him from cheerful to somber as quick as the snap of a finger. He still chokes up about it.
He has every right to.
“I was a three-strip buck sergeant, and I’m proud of that,” said Consiglio, who was also an Army reservist for six years. “But when Korea came along, it was time for me to get out.”
Drafted at 21 in 1943, Consiglio did his basic training in the Mojave Desert, then went to Camp Aberdeen Maryland, and onto Virginia where he boarded a ship for England. He spent nearly a year there before taking a ship to the Normandy coast on June 6, 1944, a day he says is burned in his memory.
“We left pretty early in the morning,” he recalled. “They put me in a jeep when we landed. I drove it off into about 2 feet of water and I got on the shore, I jumped off the jeep and got underneath it.”
But there’s a little more to the story than that.
His friend Latulipe remembers Consiglio told him that as soon as he drove onto the beach, he immediately took on fire, took shelter underneath the vehicle until a warrant officer drove off with the jeep, leaving Consiglio exposed to gunfire and fending for himself. Shortly after, he marched to Cherbourg, France, to prepare for the next war campaign.
Armed with a carbine, he came eye-to-eye with a young German soldier holding a German Mauser.
“He couldn’t have been more than 15, looked pretty scared and I told him to drop the gun and just go, run off,” he remembered. “I didn’t have the heart to shoot him, but I kept the Mauser. I never told that story to anyone before, not even to my wife.
“Everyone praises me for what I did during the war, but I didn’t do anything anyone else didn’t do.”
Happy birthday, Sergeant. You did everything many couldn’t do in two of the world’s worst battles.
Here’s hoping a lot more birthdays are coming your way.