Of all the medals and awards that Steve Melnikoff received as a 23-year-old fighting his way across Europe, the Combat Infantry Badge means the most to him. It signifies the bearer “had intimate contact with the enemy,” he said.
And Melnikoff certainly did.
When he landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day-plus-1 — June 7, 1944 — victory was far from secure. His unit was part of the bloody campaign to capture the French town of Saint-Lo through fields marked by thick hedgerows that provided perfect cover for German troops.
He remembers the battle for Hill 108 — dubbed Purple Heart Hill — for its ferocity. His job was to take up the Browning Automatic Rifle should the man wielding it go down. The Germans had shot and killed his friend who was carrying the BAR, and Melnikoff picked it up. About an hour later, he too was shot. As he went down, he looked to the side and saw his lieutenant also come under fire.
“He’s being hit by the same automatic fire, just standing there taking all these hits. And when the machine gun stopped firing he just hit the ground. He was gone,” Melnikoff said.
“That is what happens in war,” he said, speaking from his Cockeysville, Maryland, home.
For decades he didn’t talk about the war and knows some men who went to their graves never speaking about it again. But he feels an obligation now to talk about what he and others went through. In his hundredth year, he works closely with The Greatest Generations Foundation which helps veterans return to battlefields where they fought. This year on June 6, he’ll go back to the cemetery and pay his respects.
“This prosperity and peace that we’ve had for all these years, it’s because of that generation,” he said. “It can’t happen again and that’s why I go there.”