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Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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For war heroes, some journeys take a lifetime

PORT RICHEY — There are memories Alphonse Lara wishes his 89 years could erase.

Specifically, the memory of June 6, 1944, on the shores of Normandy, France.

The bodies. Explosions. The pillbox at the top of the hill where a Nazi soldier inside fired bullet after bullet at Lara and his mates as they unloaded from boats in the English Channel.

Lara was a member of the U.S. Army’s 294th Joint Assault Signal Company that landed at the beach in Normandy on D-Day — the largest air, land and sea invasion in history.

“I haven’t forgotten a lot of things,” Lara said from his Port Richey kitchen table. “A lot of things I’ve tried to forget.”

On Sept. 17, Lara will be part of a group of World War II veterans flying from the St. Petersburg airport to Washington, D.C. to tour the memorial opened in 2004 to honor those who fought and supported that war.

It’s part of the Honor Flight Network, a nonprofit program that helps transport veterans to Washington, D.C., free of charge to see their respective memorials.

Also on that flight will be Zephyrhills resident Al Laezza, 91, who was in the same 300-man unit as Lara. The two men, who both moved to opposite ends of Pasco County from other states later in life, never knew each other.

They’ve since met and have shared their experiences at a Wesley Chapel Applebee’s.

Laezza was a supply sergeant and landed on Normandy after Lara, a radio operator who called in air and naval strikes.

He also has been filled with haunting memories. There were bodies strewn along the beach as well as in the choppy waters — infamously turned red by the bloodshed.

“I’ll never forget it because when we finally got ashore during the invasion, we climbed up this hill and the Jeep in front of us hit a mine and blew up,” Laezza said. “And here I was in my Jeep with my driver, loaded with ammunition, so that really tore me up. I swear, I’ll never forget it.”

His driver, obviously alarmed, turned to him and shouted: “What do you want me to do, Sarge?”

Laezza’s reply was: “Just keep going and hope we don’t hit another mine.”

He later discovered that their long drive through the night to the command post was through “Enemy Hell Territory” infested with Nazi soldiers, he said.

Despite the searing images, both are anxious — in a good way — for the trip.

“I’m glad I’ve been picked to take this trip; this is wonderful,” Lara said.

Laezza, who spent 20 years in the Army and 25 years in Civil Service, never said much about that experience to his children, some of whom were born in Europe. Nor has Lara, who joined the Army after high school and ended his military career after three years, later working as an electrician, among other jobs.

“I learned more about his (experiences) in the last year than growing up,” Ed Laezza, Al Laezza’s son, said. “He just never talked about it. We always asked questions as kids and he just said it was rough.”

Ed Laezza will travel with his dad to Washington.

It was the same experience for Adele Werner and Diane Lara with their dad, Alphonse.

“I’m so proud of him,” Werner said. “I can’t image at 18-years-old what they were going through on that day. I see 18- and 20-year-olds now and I think, oh my God, I try to picture them in flak jackets and full gear and racing up onto the beaches being shot at. … Those were babies.”

Diane Lara, who will travel with her father, remembers watching the movie “Saving Private Ryan” with him. Alphonse Lara said he never planned on watching the film and the few scenes he took in were spot on, minus a few details.

Lara, while watching the movie, essentially narrated the scenes through his own experiences. He told his daughter what he went through and moments later, it was depicted on the screen.

“It was one of the best moments I’d ever had, connection-wise, with my dad,” Diane Lara said.

It’s a war often described as a “defining” moment in American history. More than 400,000 Americans died during that war, and Tom Brokaw dubbed them “The Greatest Generation” in his 1998 book of the same title.

“I’ll never forget it,” Laezza said as he began to cry. “It was the greatest moment of my life.”

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