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Sandy Conti, 834th Engineer Aviation Battaion (EAB)

Sandy Conti

Photos

Sandy served in Company C of the the 834th EAB and landed on Omaha Beach on D+1.



At the time the Japanese attacked Pearl harbor, Sandy was enrolled at Columbia University in New York City pursuing his masters degree in French. He tried to enlist in early December 1941 but the Army was so inundated with volunteers that his group was told to wait until they were called. He finally enlisted in April 1942 and reported to the US Army Recruiting Center at Whitehall Street. After initial processing at Fort Dix, New Jersey, Sandy was assigned to the Army Air Corps and sent to Miami Beach, Florida for boot camp training. His unit trained at Flamingo Park in Miami and as he recalled, "It was a beautiful lawn. We did a lot of marching. We stamped out every blade of grass in the place so it was a desert when we left."

After boot camp, Sandy and his unit boarded a train for Westover Field in Massachusetts and he was assigned to Company C, 834th Engineer Aviation Battalion (EAB) on his arrival. His group joined the cadre of engineer troops who had already arrived from Fort Belvoir, Virginia. It was at this time that he learned he was to become an engineering soldier and they finished their training there.

Mario and Sandy in England, 1943
Mario and Sandy in England, 1943

It was at Westover Field that he was issued his first rifle. Up until then, his unit had trained and even performed guard duty with nothing more than broomsticks. Sandy remarked once that "If we were attacked we were going to hit them over the head with broomsticks." It was also at Westover Field that Sandy met his lifelong friend and fellow Brooklyn denizen, Mario Lebano. Though they both had grown up in the same area of Brooklyn they had never met but they soon realized that they had the exact same birth date and had entered the Army at the exact same time. Their close friendship lasted until Mario's death in 2005.

Following training at Westover Field, the 834th EAB shipped out to England on 6 August 1942 aboard the "West Point" (previously named the "SS America"). The 834th EAB was one of the first US troops to be stationed on English soil. They arrived in Liverpool 11 days later and made their way to Matching Green, Essex.

The unit was to build a full sized airfield for the Eight Army Air Force Bomber Command at Matching (AAF Station 166). The 83th EAB completed the field in October 1943 when it was turned over to the Might Eighth Air Force. The 834th EAB then began training for the Normandy invasion. They participated in amphibious landings and practiced building combat airfields and hangers in southeast England as part of Operation Fortitude (the secret plan to deceive the German forces about the invasion locations for the impending European invasion).

On 1 April 1944, the 834th EAB relocated to Great Barrington, England and became part of the IX Engineer Command. Sandy, along with all the other men of the battalion continued invasion training and preparing their equipment for the landings. The 834th EAB's role in the invasion of Europe was to "reconnoiter, locate sites, and build emergency and advanced landing fields."

Sandy's unit was scheduled to land on Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6th but due to heavy enemy action, they remained in the English Channel until the next morning. Around 9:00am on 7 June, Sandy landed on the Omaha Beach of Normandy. The site preselected for the 834th EAB's first airfield was still in enemy hands so the unit improvised and began building an airfield right on the cliffs of Omaha Beach at St Laurent-sur-Mer . The men of the 834th EAB completed this airfield on the morning of 9 June and transport planes began using the field to bring in supplies and take wounded soldiers back to England. The field, initially called E-1 and later renamed A21C, became the first airfield built by Allied forces on the European continent following the Normandy invasion. For their accomplishments during this phase of Operation Overlord, Sandy and the men of the 834th EAB were award the Distinguished Unit Citation for "outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy."

In early August 1944 following the breakout at St Lo, Sandy was part of a reconnaissance team that headed south into Brittany to find suitable locations for airfields in that area. The team was actually out in front of the infantry and armored units and became in many places the first US troops to enter some Breton towns. For this heroic action, the members of the team were awarded an oak leaf cluster for their Distinguished Unit Citation, a rare honor.

Building combat airfields was really a heavy equipment job. Sandy once observed that "with heavy equipment you can lay out a field in no time. Where the GIs come in is, before you put the equipment on the field you've got to check it for mines. And by the way, there were hundreds of them." The 834th EAB continued throughout the war building and recovering airfields across Belgium, Germany, Austria and even into Czechoslovakia. In fact, the 834th EAB had the distinction of building the first airfield of the invasion at St Laurent-sur-Mer and the last airfield of the war in Europe at Plzen, now in the Czech Republic.

During the war, Sandy was able to make good use of his linguistic skills by serving as translator for the officers of the 834th EAB. In fact, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) tried to recruit Sandy but his skills were so important to the 834th EAB that he remained with the engineers. After V-E Day, Sandy returned to the United States aboard a Liberty ship that left from the port of Le Havre. The trip took over a week to complete and encountered a hurricane during the crossing.

Sandy Conti, 1945
Sandy Conti, 1945

On returning to the United States and mustering out of the Army, Sandy returned to Columbia University and finished his studies in French. He received his Master of Arts in 1949 and went on to become a teacher.

Sandy was a Golden Eagle Life Member of the 9th Air Force Association and contributed many articles about the aviation engineers to it's publication, "The Ninth Flyer." He was also a major source for the definitive book on the airfields built in Normandy entitled "Les Aérodromes Normands de la Neuvième U.S. Army Air Force." He spent the rest of his life helping others understand the important work and herculean accomplishments of the men of the IX Engineer Command during World War II.



Sandy's obituary in the New York Times. Published June 7, 2007

Santo “Sandy” Conti

CONTI--Santo “Sandy” Joseph, Linguist, D-Day Veteran, Painter, Photographer, and New York City high school teacher died on January 29, 2008 in New York City. He was 89. His death was announced on his WWII unit's memorial website: ixengineercommand.com. Sandy Conti was born on December 17, 1918 in Brooklyn, NY. From an early age, Sandy's classmates and teachers recognized his talent for learning foreign languages. Despite the Great Depression, he graduated from New York University with a degree in French Literature. Sandy served with the U.S. Army Air Corps, 834th Engineer Aviation Battalion, Company C from April 1942 to October 1945. On the morning of D-Day +1, Sandy and his unit landed in Normandy on Omaha Beach. Before D-Day, the Office of Strategic Services tried to recruit Sandy, but the officers of the 834th—knowing that his linguistic skills would be needed after the invasion—would not relinquish him. During his service as a translator, he regularly worked with members of the French Resistance. As a reward for his services, the U.S. Army assigned him to the University of Grenoble for additional language training. Among his fondest memories of the war were talking with Ernest Hemingway at Mont Saint Michel, and flying in an airplane for the first time over the French countryside. After the war, Sandy resumed his education at Columbia University and received a Masters in French Literature; Dwight Eisenhower signed his diploma. He was an instructor and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. Because of his close friendship with William Dean Fausett, the painter, Sandy split his time between New York City and Dorset, Vermont. During his time in Dorset, Sandy worked as a set designer and photographer for numerous opera productions. After spending 17 years teaching Foreign Languages for the New York City Board of Education, Sandy spent his retirement learning about emerging digital technologies, trading investments online, attending productions at the Metropolitan Opera, and contributing information to World War II historians and journals.

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