A local World War II hero has lived to see his 95th year.
John Provini of Newington was a Navy machinist’s mate on LST-515, which led a fleet of ships in what some have come to know as “D-Day’s Disastrous Rehearsal,” or Exercise Tiger.
What was intended to be a mock landing off the coast of southern England on April 28, 1944, resulted in the deaths of as many as 1,000 American servicemen. Provini and his fellow sailors rescued 70 men from the icy waters after the Germans had discovered the fleet during a misallocated radio exchange and torpedoed three ships, sinking two and badly damaging the third.
The 515 was still afloat and was ordered to flee by Allied commanders, but the captain turned the ship around and launched boats to rescue survivors.
Nearly 75 years later, Provini can still recall pulling up countless sailors from the water - some living, some dead.
Everyone involved in the event was ordered to stay quiet, as U.S. commanders feared Germans would discover the D-Day plans. The event remained largely a secret until 1984, when the ABC television network broke the story on “20/20.”
Afterward, survivors met up in Chicago for the first time since the war.
As he stood waiting for the bus to his hotel, Provini noticed another man waiting beside him. The two got to talking and learned this was not their first meeting.
“He picked me up like a toy, and said, ‘You pulled me out of the water!’ ” Provini remembered.
This is one of those memories that will always stick with him, even as others fade.
After that first reunion, he and fellow survivors stayed in touch over the years. Many have since died or are can’t be reached, leaving Provini as what he calls “the lone ranger.”
Nowadays he and Helen, his wife of 73 years, enjoy their new great-grandson, doing puzzles and life’s simple pleasures.
Provini smiles when he recalls a personalized record she sent him overseas. It was akin to a love letter, in audio form. His best friend, who was the ship captain’s assistant, received the mail and decided to have some fun.
“He put it on the loudspeaker for all to hear,” Provini says.
After the war in Europe ended, he was recruited to play guitar for the Navy orchestra.
His short-term memory is failing, but his long-term memory is very much intact.
“I remember the good, the bad, I remember it all,” he says.
Provini celebrated his 95th birthday on Sept. 1 and the weekend was filled with calls and visits from family and friends.
“I think the secret to living to 95 is to have a young lady for a wife,” he says, grinning at Helen.
She cares for him with the help of a nurse’s aide, and the couple’s daughter, Cheryl Jean, visits often from New York.
His favorite part of the day is breakfast, when he makes himself a fruit cocktail and cereal.
“I really look forward to breakfast,” he adds.
It’s a mission, exercise and operation in itself, according to his family.
“We set everything out for him and he assembles it however he wants,” his daughter explains. “Sometimes it takes him the whole morning and by the time he’s done, it’s lunchtime.”
Provini has shared his war stories on television and received hundreds of letters from admirers thanking him for his service. He is also known to share a profound thought or piece of sage advice every now and then.
“In life there’s always happiness and sadness,” he says. “And a whole bunch of in-between. As long as you can keep it all in balance, you can get by.”
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097, or firstname.lastname@example.org.