Reflections of A D Day Vet: Edward Zilli Turns 100…

Written by: Rodney Wilson
Ed Zilli

On the short elevator ride to the 7th floor of the Parker Center, I reflected on the article that I would be writing about Edward John Zilli, a D Day veteran who soon would turn 100 years young.

Quickly I did the math. February 8th of 2023, he would turn 100. D Day was on June 6th, 1944. Barely a private when he crossed over the Atlantic on the Queen Mary, on D Day he found himself leading a landing party headed for Utah Beach, “and the hell that way ahead” according to Ed.

Back to the math, 2023 minus 1944?

D Day was 79 years ago, and Ed was 21 years old. Considered a bit “older than the others”, it made him a prime candidate for a leadership position.

The elevator door opened, and I was escorted to a corner apartment. One step inside the door and I am quickly engulfed by photos and memories of Ed Zilli’s 100 years, medallions and metals that define his years in the service. Family photos, many in black and white, adorned most of the wall space. There were also china cabinets that were filled with family heirlooms. It was a 12 foot by 12 foot mini museum that I was honored to visit on this day. The curator was Ed Zilli, and soon I was sitting across the dining room table from one of the few D Day veterans still alive to share the stories of that day, referred to as the longest day because of the many who died on that beach while trying to establish a foothold for the invasion of France and trek into Germany.

Ed’s son in law, Ted Bolton, shares the story of the beginning of the journey to Utah Beach.

“As part of the US Army’s 4th Infantry Division (known as the Ivy Division), Sgt Edward John Zilli had crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary, landed in Scotland, rode a blacked out train to a small village in England, had several months of additional field training, and now found himself crossing the English Channel on an LST heading for Utah Beach in Normandy, France. Ed grew up on Long Island New York, right on the ocean, and was a great swimmer so he wanted to be as high on that ship as possible. When I asked why he replies, “I could swim like a fish, and I figured if that ship got hit and was going down, I wanted to be able hit the water and not be trapped inside.” He went on “you know a lot of my guys weren’t good swimmers, so I told them if you end up in the water dump your gear, everything including your rifle. It’s no good to you if you’re drowned.”

Ed lives just out the back door of Margie’s Art Glass studio. Margie (Zilli) Bolton is Ed’s daughter, and between Ted and Margie, they aid with Ed’s everyday needs, albeit, for being 100 years old, Ed does well.

In my 45 years as a journalist, I have gravitated toward the stories of veterans like Ed. My curiosity about D Day and Utah Beach partially stemmed from a visit to the WWII Museum in New Orleans. I was privileged to visit with four Canadian Forces veterans who were on Sword Beach. Tears would flow down their cheeks when they talked about D Day. Ed did not know much about Sword Beach but did share that an entire group of Canadian commandos who were deployed to take out a German gun battery “were wiped out. Not one of them survived,” said Ed. “Can you believe that? Not one of them survived.”
Ed describes the landing at Utah Beach as chaotic. “You didn’t know where you were, or what you were to do. You’d meet up with someone and ask them for advice and they didn’t know. Yeah, it was total chaos.”

Ted continues Ed’s story, as he talks about how common sense thinking would not only help Ed survive but was the drive behind his entire life.

“It was that kind of common sense thinking that helped him not only survive the war, but to excel in both his military & law enforcement careers. The “Ivy Division” was the first unit to land on Utah Beach. Once his feet hit the beach Ed spent the next twelve months in almost constant motion, involved in some of the most notable events of the war. After fighting his way off the beaches of Normandy and through the hedgerows of France, he helped liberate Paris. Sgt Zilli says, “There was no time to enjoy Paris that summer. We were moving and fighting constantly, but I sure had some good times in Paris the following summer!” After liberating Paris and eastern France, it was on into Germany, fighting in the Hürtgen Forest, and later the Battle of the Bulge in the frigid winter with only light jackets.”

Of particular interest to me was Ed’s relationship with General George Patton, who led the 3rd Army in the aforementioned Battle of the Bulge. “Georgy? Yeah, he was a great guy. He was a great leader,” Ed reflects. “Without him we would have lost those battles.”

Ed Zilli WWII

The war would finally end, and Ed’s description through Ted gives the details of the final days.

“Then on May 8th, 1945, he and his men were only a few miles from Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, home of the world famous Pilsner Urquell Brewery, when word of the German surrender reached them. I ask what did you think when you heard the war was over? Zilli’s eyes light up and he says, “Hell, we were so close to getting that great beer, you know, just one more day and we would have been there! I mean, of course we were all happy it was over, but we had been thinking about that beer for days, and it was just a few klicks away….”

Nobody truly knows how many D Day veterans are still with us. What Ed can tell you, and there are several pauses as he talks about the assault on the beach, is that the Germans had machine gun positions dug through the cliffs, and that hundreds died that day on Utah Beach. “We got to the beach and dug ourselves a pit in the sand. And we just laid there, didn’t move, and then it got dark. The night was long.”

Once fighting their way off the beach, they moved inland. There were still many more battles to be fought, the once being most famous was The Battle of the Bulge, and Ed was there. Rumors of an end to the war were circulating through the American troops, but in a last ditch effort the Germans mounted on last push, which of course failed. Soon rumors became reality, and May 8th ended the war in Europe.

“We were the occupying army” says Ed “and our job was to go town to town and if necessary, take prisoners.” In one case, Ed was encouraged by his commanders to meet up with what was left of a German force. Not knowing what he was walking into, perhaps a trap, Ed cautiously drove his jeep into town where he met the German officer in charge. “I pointed to his gun, and he pulled it out of his holster and handed it to me. It was then that I discovered that not only German troops, but German tanks were surrendering to him. I still got that gun.” He laughed when I asked him what he did with the tanks. “I think we gave them gas so they could drive the tanks into town.”

Sgt. Edward Zilli would return to the United States after the war, only to re-enlist and head back to Germany. In his memorabilia are maps of Germany showing the landscape of Germany, and which country would occupy that area. It was a less stressful time, and many of the occupying US Army men would end up meeting and marrying a German girl. “See over there, that’s a picture of my wife. She’s German you know.” Beside that photo is another of Ed, his wife Margaretta and his two girls Margie and Miriam.

Ed Zilli with his wife Margaretta and daughters Miriam and Margie Circa 1987

Ed’s return to the United States, and his time as a Suffolk County Long Island cop, is another chapter. I guess you can have several chapters of your life when you are 100. He and his wife would eventually move to Florida, after that they would join their daughter Margie in Minot.

“It isn’t too bad around here” according to Ed, “the people are friendly and it’s quiet.” I can only think that compared to being a cop in New York, Minot could seem like a ghost town.

There is never an end to a story that has been written over 100 years. There are only new chapters maybe told for the first time, and more than likely told many times after that. The photos on the wall, the memories recorded on sheets of paper, cards, and newspaper articles, they are all just snapshots taken to preserve a moment in time. To Sgt. Ed Zilli, we owe our gratitude for the day he stepped onto a beach in France, to protect our freedom. He could have been one of those who never came home. But if you sit down and chat with Ed long enough you realize that it was determination, pure American red blooded kid from the country determination, that got him to 100 years. Happy Birthday Ed!

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