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Handshake from rescued soldiers beats medal for this WWII sailor

George E. Lang always has been of an independent mind.

At 15, he moved out of his parents' Fruit Belt home and in with an older sister because he and his father could not get along.

By 16, Lang quit school and worked at the Bell Aircraft plant on Elmwood Avenue. He says he wanted money.

He also wanted wheels and bought "a 1928 Oldsmobile convertible."

But he says he wanted something else after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941: He wanted revenge for the surprise attack. And working at a defense plant, even advancing to foreman, was simply not enough.

So he enlisted in the Navy.

"I wanted to kill the enemy," Lang said of the anger he felt.

His first voyage across the Atlantic took him to Scotland. He trained on landing craft that would be used in several invasions.

"The first was at Algiers," Lang said of the November 1942 amphibious attack.

Yet his training had not prepared him for what he witnessed.

"It scared the hell out of me. I saw 18-year-olds dying in front of me," he said.

As he recalled what he had seen, Lang stopped, his emotions getting the better of him all these years later.

*******

George E. Lang, 93
Hometown: Buffalo
Residence: Java Village
Branch: Navy
Rank: gunner's mate 3rd class
War zone: World War II, European Theater, China Burma India Theater
Years of service: 1942 - 1946
Most prominent honors: European Theater Medal, 5 battle stars;  World War II Victory Medal
Specialty: gunner's mate

*******

In July 1943, about two hours ahead of the Invasion of Sicily, Lang says he assisted in delivering a group of Army rangers charged with blowing up a bridge.

"They took off in rubber boats from our landing craft, and before they made it to the beach they were shot up. I never saw them after that. They probably got killed."

From Sicily, the Allies moved north onto the Italian peninsula at Salerno.

"None of the invasions were pretty, and Salerno was just as bad as Algiers," Lang said.

After that, he and other members of the Navy's scouts and raiders went to England to prepare for what would be WWII's biggest amphibious assault – the Invasion of Normandy.

"Two months before the invasion, we had a mock invasion for all of the green troops. It was in the English Channel, and some German torpedo boats spotted the convoy and shot the hell out of it. They sunk quite a few ships. They killed something like 500 American soldiers and sailors and we had the lousy job of picking up the bodies," Lang said.

World War II sailor George E. Lang, right, and a Navy buddy on leave in India, as they gear up for amphibious assaults that sometimes resulted in hundreds of U.S. casualties. (Photo courtesy of Lang family)

During the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944, Lang served with 11 other crew members on a landing craft control boat. Their assignment was to deliver tanks to Pointe du Hoc between Utah and Omaha beaches at Normandy.

"The tanks were supposed to be able to float, and every one of them sunk," Lang recalled.

To make matters worse, the crew came under heavy fire from the well-entrenched Germans.

"Smalls arms fire shot up our radar antennas," he said.

Luckily, the crew was unscathed.

After Normandy, Lang was part of the Invasion of Southern France.

"That was not half as bad as Normandy," he said, explaining that "the coast wasn't fortified."

After that, it was back to the United States to train for warfare in the China Burma India Theater.

"We went up the Ganges River and they took our Navy uniforms and gave us Army uniforms. They told us we were going to the Gobi desert to train the Chinese."

He ended up in Burma, providing small arms training to Nepalese Gurkha soldiers.

After that mission, Lang and the other sailors boarded a plane bound for Shanghai. It was during that flight the plane's crew chief announced an atom bomb had been dropped on Japan.

"He said to us, 'You lucky sons of b------, the war is over.' I was happier than a pig in s---."

Back home, Lang returned to Bell Aircraft, where he worked for less than a year. He then found work at Twin Coach, where he painted airplanes and buses at its Cheektowaga plant. In time, he took a job at the Wyoming County Highway Department, building and painting bridges.

Retired since 1985, he says he was married for half a century to the former Josephine Galioto and that they raised "one beautiful daughter named Susan."

Lang often thinks about his military service. He says he can't help it.

"So many guys," he said, and choked up over those who never made it home.

But a moment later, regaining his composure, he continued:

"We picked hundreds and hundreds of soldiers from the water. We never got any medals for that, but a few of them shook our hands, and that was the greatest medal you could receive."

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