One day in May, a limousine rolled up to the clubhouse in Brick’s Greenbriar development. The driver was there to take John Santillo, 96, to the French consulate in New York so he could receive an honor decades in the making – the Legion of Honour award, the nation’s highest military honor.
Santillo, who served in North Africa in the battle of Kasserine Pass, also landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and crossed the Rhine, going door-to-door in German towns confiscating weapons that could be used against allied forces.
Santillo is one of about 500 soldiers from the initial Normandy landing force still living, and in May was awarded the Legion of Honor medal by the French government, the highest honorary distinction in France rewarding “eminent merit rendered to the nation.”
He was honored in his hometown of 24 years Tuesday night, when Brick Mayor John Ducey presented him with a key to the city and the township council voted unanimously to name a day in his honor and present him with a proclamation.
A smiling Councilwoman Marianna Pontoriero told Santillo he had aged “like a good bottle of wine” after showing a photograph (also contained in this story) of Santillo at 22-year-old.
“Not bad for 22,” Santillo said. “But not bad for 96 either,” he added, before plenty of claps and cheers.
According to a profile provided by the National Guard Museum of New Jersey, Santillo first saw action when his unit landed in Oran, Algeria to support operations around Casablanca before fighting in the battle of Kasserine Pass. In January 1944, the 237th Engineer Combat Battalion – of which Santillo was a member – was sent to England on what Santillo remembered as a rough journey on turbulent seas. The ship he and his fellow soldiers sailed on was sunk by a German U-boat on its way back to North Africa. Santillo was told at the time that an enemy submarine had stalked the transport on its way to England, but could not catch it, and had lain in wait to sink it on its return voyage.
After arriving in England, Santillo began preparing for the D-Day invasion. After surviving Normandy, he faced gunfire from German troops and aerial bombardments against his positions. The Germans even bombed his unit on Christmas day, 1944, as he opened presents sent by his mother back home in Newark.
Upon returning home, Santillo had to wait about a year before a job opened up at Prudential Insurance Company, where he worked for 36 years before retiring. He moved to Brick 24 years ago.
“I was so flabergasted to get this award,” Santillo said. “I never had anything like this in my life. I guess God kept me alive during the war so I could have this day.”
“I’m so grateful and thankful to all the veterans, our mayor and the council people here who honored me today,” he continued. “I’m honored. God bless you all.”