Luciano “Louis” Graziano is believed to be the last living eyewitness to the unconditional surrender of Germany in Reims, France.
The momentous event at the headquarters of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower on May 7, 1945, marked the end of World War II in Europe. Graziano, then 22, felt relieved, but otherwise he didn’t quite realize the magnitude of being there.
“I didn’t think too much about it at the time,” Graziano said. “It was just my job to be there. I took it as it came.”
Graziano, a New York native who lives in Georgia, is now 96 years old, and his recollections of the formal surrender are in demand. Earlier this summer, he spoke at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library during events commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion.
The National D-Day Memorial in Bedford invited him to visit, which is where he spent his Tuesday afternoon.
Before Graziano found himself in the war room at a little red schoolhouse in Reims, he had to fight. Graziano got drafted at the age of 20, so he left the hair parlor where he worked in New York and set sail for Europe.
Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, ordered the D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. Graziano, a master sergeant, and hundreds of thousands of other Allied troops crossed the English Channel on June 6, 1944.
Graziano was part of the third wave of troops landing at Omaha Beach. He drove a gasoline truck off the landing ship tank onto the shore. He jumped out with a machine gun as Germans shot down upon them from a cliff overhead.
“I had to lay on the ground with dead soldiers,” Graziano said.
He eventually made it to the top of the bluffs behind the beach, giving his fellow soldiers words of encouragement as they advanced.
Graziano lost two of his men that day. Their names are inscribed on a wall at the D-Day Memorial in Bedford.
Months later, Germany launched a large-scale offensive on an 80-mile front through the Ardennes region of Belgium that became known as the Battle of the Bulge. After 43 days of brutal fighting, the Germans were defeated, their fate sealed.
The battle was during a particularly cruel winter. Graziano’s job was to help locate a company of Gen. George S. Patton’s troops who had gotten lost. Graziano and others found the whole company, but by the end of the mission, Graziano’s feet were frostbitten. He was taken to the hospital.
“They said they would have had to cut my feet off, but I got there just in time that they didn’t have to,” he said.
To this day, he said, he still feels some pain.
When Graziano arrived in Reims, the Army assigned him to take care of all the buildings Americans were using. Among those structures was the little red schoolhouse, which is how he wound up there during the formal surrender in May.
After the war, Graziano settled in Georgia with his wife. He met Women’s Army Corps Staff Sgt. Eula “Bobbie” Shaneyfelt during the war. Together they had five children. His wife died in 2007.
Graziano returned to cutting hair. One of his daughters now runs the business, but Graziano has loyal customers.
“Some of these women won’t cut me loose,” he said.
Earlier this year, he published a book, “A Patriot’s Memoirs of World War II — Through My Eyes, Heart and Soul.” He wrote it for his children, he said, not realizing it would ignite public interest in his insights.
“I didn’t know there would be all of this,” Graziano said surrounded by TV cameras and tourists at the D-Day Memorial waiting to shake his hand.