Hamden World War II veteran honored by French for military service
HAMDEN — In a photograph on the wall of Michael Comis’s modest apartment on Mix Avenue, he looks like a boy. His cheeks are red, his hair is short and curly, and the three yellow stripes sewn onto the shoulder of his uniform signify his rank.
The photo was taken in New Haven shortly after Comis, a sergeant, was discharged from the Army. He was 21 years old, and World War II was over; he spent 31 months in the service, 26 of them overseas.
Comis, now 88, on Friday received another medal to place in the glass case where he collects them. Among his two Bronze Stars and his Purple Heart, his Infantry Combat Badge, his service medals and his division patch, Comis will add the medal of the Chevaliers of the Legion of Honor.
Comis’ appointment as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor was made by the president of the French Republic, a title awarded every year, Comis said, to scores of American World War II veterans who served in France. Comis traveled Friday to the French High School of New York in New York City to receive the honor. Students, staff, French officials, veterans and their families gathered to remember the Americans who fought to liberate France from Nazi Germany.
“It felt so good. I’m telling you, I felt so honored. It was great,” Comis said. “It made you feel like a million dollars, just sitting on the stage watching all the people there clapping.”
During the war, Comis lead a 60 mm mortar team for the 36th Infantry Division. He was only 18 years old when he boarded the Susan B. Anthony, a transport ship headed to North Africa. Comis said he was on the deck of the ship when a German bomb narrowly missed it as they passed through the Strait of Gibraltar.
Before dodging German munitions, Comis lived the sort of life that earned his generation its moniker, “greatest.” Born in Ansonia on Aug. 22, 1924, he lived through the Great Depression, and said he remembers many days without food. He got his first job, he said, during junior high, working in a drugstore after school and on weekends, seven days a week. It wasn’t so bad, he said; he could drink the soda and the owner sometimes would buy him a sandwich. But as he grew older, the world changed.
“I remember reading about Hitler preparing and all that. But our guys, we didn’t think we’d go into the war until it just happened. Then we were all struck when Pearl Harbor hit,” Comis said. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt got on the radio and we were all saddened by it. It hurt us all. We were all ready to go into the Army. All of us were ready to go into the Army.”
On March 19, 1943, Comis was drafted into the Army. Before long, he was on board the Susan B. Anthony, headed toward Allied-controlled North Africa.
From North Africa, Comis was deployed to Italy, where he fought in four major battles and saw heavy combat: Anzio, Naples-Foggia, Cassino and Rome-Arno. His company was held in reserve during the battle at Rapido River, a bloody engagement in which an entire company of the 36th Division was wiped out. Comis said he watched the battle unfold, and that if his company hadn’t been reserved, he likely wouldn’t be alive to tell the story.
On May 30, 1944, Comis was wounded during the battle of Anzio, for which he received his Purple Heart. He said he took shrapnel to the knee and head, and was flown to Naples and treated at the 300th General Hospital.
From Italy, Comis was deployed to France. It was his service there that earned him his Chevalier medal. Comis landed at Saint Raphael in the south of France, about a month after the D-Day landings in Normandy. “One LST was bombed, and if you go there now it’s still in the harbor, they say. There was sporadic fire and the people come running up to us, saying ‘Viva la America. Viva la France.’ I was behind a little wall. I says, ‘Get away, they’re firing at us!’ But they come up to us like that. ‘Viva la America. Viva la France,’” Comis said. “They were so happy to see us after being four years under German rule. They were so glad we came to liberate them, you know.”
Comis said the friendly nature of the liberated French lasted long after that initial landing.
“As we went through different towns, they were so happy,” Comis said. “They’d be along the road over there. They’d give us wine and cheese.”
Comis recalled one occasion during which a man had set up a cart, cutting pieces of cheese from a wheel “like this,” Comis said, his arms spread wide.
Comis said he participated in a total of seven major battles as he fought with the 36th on his way into Germany. In a small German town, he said a friend of his, Platoon Sgt. John Vieli, was killed, shot in the neck by a German sniper.
“I was so damn mad, I put the three mortars up. We were in the courtyard and had a baby carriage with the shells in there. I was up there directing, seeing with my binoculars, and I could see him at the end of the town where he was, the son of a bitch. We fired — boom boom boom, fire, fire, fire — keep going, fire. We finally hit that building. Because I was so damn mad. Vieli was one of the best soldiers,” Comis said. “We knocked out that building. Boy, that was bad. Boy, that poor guy.”
As for Veterans Day, Comis said: “Remember to say a prayer for all the members that gave up their lives during the war. That’s number one. Say a prayer for all of them. And say a prayer for all the veterans, wherever they are, all over the world. And say God bless America. God bless us.”