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A Mile in Their Shoes

A Mile in Their Shoes

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2014, Aaron Elson

   

A Mile in Their Shoes

The Online Version

2014, Aaron Elson

Lou Putnoky

Coast Guard veteran, USS Bayfield

    Lou Putnoky served with the Coast Guard aboard the USS Bayfield in four invasions, including D-Day.

Edison, N.J., April 16, 1994

    Lou Putnoky: In 1939 I lied about my age and got into the Civilian Military Training Corps. I spent two summers at Fort Dix. If you went four years, you became an officer in the Reserves, in the infantry. After two years, however, I said, "I’m not going to any infantry," and I immediately switched. When I enlisted in the Coast Guard, I never even told them about this training so that they wouldn’t get any ideas.

 

    Aaron Elson: You must have been about 15 when you went to the CMTC.

 

    Lou Putnoky: That’s right. I had my mother sign for me. As long as she signed, and I lied about my age, it was okay to go. When you’re young, you’re enthusiastic about things like that.

 

    Aaron Elson: What soured you on the infantry?

 

    Lou Putnoky: We went on a 15-mile hike this one summer, down in Fort Dix. It was over a hundred degrees, and we had one canteen of water. That was the thirstiest I have ever been in my life, until this day. They say that if you haven’t been thirsty, really thirsty, you don’t know what it is to really have a drink of water. If you haven’t really been hungry, you don’t know what it is to sit down and enjoy a meal.

    Until this day, when I’m real thirsty, my mind goes back to that day in Fort Dix. We trained with the 16th Infantry. We had to go 15 miles with full packs, and then they brought us our meal by Army truck, and they brought us water. They gave us a pretty good meal, considering it was field training. They had butter in ice water so that it wouldn’t melt. It was a 2,000-man training group. You drank out of these rubber lister bags, and I couldn’t quench my thirst until 11 or 12 o’clock at night.

    We drank the water that the butter was being cooled in. You just couldn’t get enough. That’s how wrung out we were. This was my second year. The third year is when the war broke out and they eliminated this whole program. Then they went right into full training.

    I graduated from high school in June of 1941. Pearl Harbor was on December 7th, and like all young people at the time I figured I’m going to have to go into the service eventually, so I was looking at the services. There were three and a half million people in the Navy, and another three and a half million or so in the Army.

    Good Lord, little old me. I thought I’d get lost in either of those. Then the Marines had so many. So I started looking, and I always admired the Coast Guard. I knew that the Navy took them over during the war, and it was harder to get into the Coast Guard than it was to the Navy. I’ll bet you have no idea what the total amount of people in the Coast Guard was in World War II. It was in the neighborhood of 125,000. So I thought I’d give the Coast Guard a shot.

    When we got over to England, our ship got the attention of Admiral Moon, who was looking for a flagship. He picked the Bayfield. When he came aboard, he had additional staff, so we fell under the admiral’s staff. But we had a Coast Guard captain, Captain Spencer, who after Normandy and Southern France ended up being made an admiral and going to Washington.

    After the Normandy and Southern French invasions, we were coming back for repairs to Norfolk, and he addressed us.

    He said, "I’m being transferred, and there’s only a handful of people being transferred off your ship, because you are so well-trained and you are so badly needed."

    He said, "We’re going to be in port for 30 days for repairs. Half the crew will go home the first 15 days. When they come back, the second half will go home."

    Then he said, "I shouldn’t tell you this, but I know you can handle it. Go home, get everything in order, and when you come back your ship is going to the Pacific," and he told us with a lump in his throat, "You will not come back until the war is over."

    Then we went out, we made Iwo Jima and Okinawa, as flagship once again. And when I say flagship, that means carrying an admiral attached to your ship, and that flagship is in charge of that whole task force until those men get ashore. Once they get ashore, they come under their own commanders, but it was that admiral’s job to get those men on that beach in the safest way he possibly can.

    It proved to be a real job, and a beautiful job they did. I’m more amazed today as to what happened during World War II than I was at the time. And they accomplished all this without computers. Today we can’t move without computers. That was all done by hand, calculations and everything else and your personnel records following here and there. It was so ancient, and they did such a magnificent job when you stop and think about how complex it was – what they accomplished in both theaters of war. I think they could never do it today.

    The way the American public backed the servicemen during World War II was phenomenal. If you got off the ship and you were in the States and you went out to the highway and you were thumbing a ride, every car would stop. Everybody had their heart behind the war program. It was something to behold, and to feel. I know when I tell my son the story, once in a while, because once in a while he gets me talking, he’s still amazed by it.

    I can never forget that feeling of coming home and visiting the plant and seeing the women that took the place of the men, and seeing women crane operators in the plant. It had 2,000 employees. Of course this is all gone now [showing an enlarged photograph], this is all bulldozed, this is all warehouses now. And this was there for 100 years.

    Aaron Elson: Which plant was this?

    Lou Putnoky: This was the U.S. Metals refinery here in Cartaret. We produced one-eighth of the world’s copper. We always had between $30 million and $40 million in precious metals. That was a byproduct that we had gotten from the smelting operation.

    Lou Putnoky: I washed socks with Caesar Romero. He was on our sister ship, the Calloway, and we were on Ellis Island, and I went in there to wash socks and who’s there but Caesar Romero. I said, "Caesar, you’ve got dirty socks, too?"

    He said, "I sure do." So we washed socks together. Victor Mature was in the Coast Guard, too.

    Here’s a photo of Danny Delanowitz, a very good friend of mine from Brooklyn. We had a German helmet, and every once in a while when things would get dull, we’d get Danny and we’d put a big raincoat on him. We’d put the helmet on his head, he’d get a comb and put it under his nose, and then in German he would imitate Hitler. He had him down to a science, and he was always good for a laugh. God bless him, he had such a good way about him.

    These are the first six Japanese prisoners taken on Iwo Jima. They had their heads shaved, and they were aboard our ship. There were a few others. But Iwo Jima, you figure between American and Japanese casualties, 26,000 men died. Twenty six thousand men. I mean, it’s mind boggling.

 

    Aaron Elson: This is the flag at Mount Suribachi?

 

    Lou Putnoky: This isn’t the actual one, although maybe it is. I saw that the following morning. When we saw that flag up there it sure made us feel good, because that was their observation point. They had the island all zeroed in. Actually, being perfectly honest, that whole operation was a bit of a fiasco because they never guessed that there were that many Japanese dug in there. That operation was supposed to last at the most two weeks, and it was supposed to be maybe one-tenth of what it was.

    One out of three Americans that hit the beach was either wounded or killed. The beach was black gravel. And you just got so high, and you couldn’t get any further in the beginning. They would just lob mortar shells in there, and they’d bounce off the beach, about a foot high. You had to get inland and get the hell off of there. There was just no protection. The Japanese were fierce fighters, and they were dug in so deep, and they expected this invasion so they were prepared for it, and they were taking their toll, unbelievably so. We just had to get Mount Suribachi because that’s where all their observers were. After that they were just shooting blind, and they were still hitting Americans. In fact, I remember one of my details there. I was on the bow lookout, it was towards dusk, and I hear bup-bup-bup. I didn’t think anything and I look behind us and I see a couple of flashes in the water. And I thought, that’s strange. Then I hear another bup-bup-bup. And I got on the bridge. I said, "You’d better move," of course we never dropped anchor, we just drifted and floated. I said, "They’re trying to get our range." Slowly we just pulled out of the area.

 

    Lou Putnoky: In Normandy you had a 20-foot drop in tide, from high to low tide. I saw ships on the sand, with smoke coming out of their stacks. In the meantime, the whole harbor was mined by electronic mines. The Germans set up these magnetic mines. For instance, when the minesweeper came in and swept it, let’s say he swept it 15 times, that mine could have been set up for 18 sweeps. So the minesweeper would say okay, I’m not getting anything, so you go in there and all of a sudden a ship would blow up here, a ship would blow up there. It was horrible. And you’re out there in this area, you never know when you’re going to trip one of these mines.

    Here’s an interesting picture. This is a ship that was sunk right alongside of us. See the silhouette? These are bombs dropped by enemy planes, and this is all antiaircraft fire. The whole sky was lit up. This appeared in Liberty magazine, but they could never mention the name Bayfield. They didn’t want to give it away, so that was eliminated off the caption. Of course we knew it was our ship. The photographer gave me a copy of this. This is a fantastic picture, that whole sky, now all the shrapnel came raining down like hail. These 20 and 40-millimeter explosives would explode up there and then come raining down, that’s the main reason for the helmet, to protect you from those shrapnel pieces.

 

    Aaron Elson: Did it really look like that?

 

    Lou Putnoky: It looked worse. It lit up the whole sky. These are tracer bullets, and you could smell the cordite, because your ship was also contributing. You could smell it and the explosions. I don’t even know what you’d compare it to. Have you ever seen the finale of a fireworks display? That’s the closest to the sound, especially when these 90-millimeter guns and five-inch cannon would be going off. You could feel the heat in the back of your neck.

 

    Aaron Elson: How long would the firing last?

 

    Lou Putnoky: Until the enemy plane was gone from the area. If they were a wave, it would be a burst of maybe half a minute. Then it would ease up. Then another plane would come, then you’d get another ten, fifteen seconds. It would be in spurts. But you never knew what’s happening, and that’s the part that’s so trying on a serviceman. Of course, in a case like this, all your troops have to be below decks, and this kills them. I’ve seen Marines at Iwo Jima who were screaming because they heard the gunshots coming and everything else. They’d say, "We’re trapped like rats!" We had to lock the hatches to keep them down there because they wanted to see when they got hit. They’d say, "I want to get off this fucking ship. I want to dig a hole, because at least on land I know what I’m doing." So they don’t want to have any part of our life and we don’t want to have any part of their life. Of course we saw, and we felt better, but they didn’t see and they only heard. This drives a man nuts. It makes old men out of young ones, believe me.

    Aaron Elson: I didn’t know that the Germans got that many planes over the Channel. I was under the impression that the Allies had complete control of the skies.

    Lou Putnoky: So much so that we shot down our own planes also. In fact, one of the pilots that was picked up by one of our landing crafts was brought aboard our ship, and he was cursing a blue streak. He was a young pilot. I wasn’t actually there but some of the radio men told me. They went up to Admiral Moon, and Admiral Moon says, "Take it easy, son. You weren’t supposed to be here." See, he came out of an overcast sky. "We feel bad about you being shot down. Calm down." And he settled down. He was lost up there, so he broke out of the clouds, and when he broke out of the clouds, we were told anything up there is going to be enemy at this particular point.

    There was another incident that happened during Normandy. It happened to me personally.

    On D-plus two or three we got a radio message for help from a PT boat. First of all, Ill tell you how the PT boats came over. This was Commander Buckley’s squadron from Corregidor. He’s the one that got MacArthur off Corregidor. So because of this gigantic invasion, they brought that whole squadron over to Normandy. And one of the boats called our ship for assistance. He said they’re broached on a reef. So real fast we hustled up a crew, and two landing barges. The plan is to pull alongside, and we’re going to try and broach on each side and tie the PT boat up, and bring it onto a safe shore, because it was laying off an enemy shore.

    So we’re heading over, and it’s laying two or three hundred yards off an enemy shore, and just the skipper is with it because he told everybody else to get off.

    The skipper is sitting in the bow, and he’s got a Navy machine gun in his lap. I can understand why he stayed with his boat. He knew if he lost his boat – he was a lieutenant junior grade – he would end up being a subordinate somewhere else, and god knows how long it would be before he got another boat, so he was staying with his boat. I admired him for that.

    We pulled up on each side, real fast, and tied up, and from a distance the battleship Nevada was lobbing shells in to cover this rescue. We pulled out with full power on both landing crafts and we were able to back him off the reef. We brought him over maybe a mile and a half, onto a secure beach.

    Everything is going pretty good. We’re coming over to our beach, and it just so happens one of our planes had been shot down. This plane is going down, I see the pilot parachuting, he’s heading right for the beach that we’re heading for. This is all adding to this picture of the strangest day I ever had.

    We broached this PT boat, we backed off, in the distance this pilot landed, and then we headed back. On our way back, an LST loaded with wounded hits a mine and blows up in the distance. We picked up six survivors, and other landing barges picked up some of the others.

    Now we have to get back, because it’s getting late. As we’re heading back to our ship we get hailed by the battleship Nevada. We went over, and they said, "We had a man overboard," and asked us to look for him.

    We made two passes around the Nevada, and we motioned to them that we couldn’t find anything. Then we said we have to leave.

    We went back to our ship, and they said, "Where were you guys? We thought maybe something happened to you."

    Then, it was a strange thing. I don’t know what made me even ask. I said to the radio operator, "There was a man overboard. The next time you’re talking to the Nevada, ask them where the guy’s from," because in the service you always asked that sort of thing.

    That night I’m having a sandwich in the mess hall, and the radio operator said, "Hey Lou, that guy off the Nevada, he’s from Jersey, from Carteret. His name is Duffy."

    I said, "Oh, God." Just like that, it hit me. I knew the kid because I had gone to grade school with him. He didn’t go to high school. But I knew the kid. He said John Duffy. I felt weird.

    What happened is they lowered a gangway, and whenever any small boats came alongside the Nevada, it was his job to guide that boat in. The seas got rough, slammed him up against the ship, and he slid under. He must have had on his life jacket, but the seas were too rough. We never found him.

    After the invasion of Normandy we had Southern France, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and I got discharged and went back to my job as timekeeper down at U.S. Metals, so this is two or three years after the war. We’re doing payroll, and this man comes into the office, Scotty – I knew this boy’s family. They lived on Chrome Avenue; there was a row of company homes. But you never spoke about any of this, especially when someone was killed in the service or missing. And I knew that this was his father. He was a little man, a very good-natured individual. He had two sons and his wife was an invalid; she had a back problem.

    One day a friend of mine, who happened to be on that payroll, asked him, "Where are you going Scotty?"

    He said, "I’m going on vacation. Two weeks."

    So okay, he gave him the slip to get his money. As he left the office, this friend of mine, Dan Donovan – he was in Guadalcanal during the war – he says, "Hey Lou, you know where that guy’s going?"

    I said, "No."

    He says, "He went there last year, and he’s going again this year. He’s taking his vacation and he’s going to England. Then he’s going to take the ferry over to France, and he’s gonna start going from hospital to hospital, and different churches. He’s going to go look for his son."

    I said, "You mean he doesn’t know what happened?"

    "No. All he got was a missing in action telegram from the Navy."

    So I stopped everything. All of a sudden I got this picture in my mind. I ran out, and I caught him at the railroad tracks as he was crossing over. I said, "Scotty!" I don’t even … I hate to talk about it because it upsets me sometimes. I said "Scotty, you’re going on vacation?"

    He said, "Yeah."

    I said, "You lost a son in Normandy?"

    He said, "Yeah."

    I said, "Your son was on the Nevada?"

    He looked at me real strange, and said, "How do you know?"

    I said, "Scotty, they never said anything?"

    "No, I just got missing in action." It was hard for him to talk.

    I said, "Scotty, I don’t know how to tell you this. I was there." And I told him the story. And I felt every single emotion that this man felt, and it upset me terribly. He was elated, relieved, just knowing. See, a person doesn’t know when you get a missing in action what that does. It would take a serviceman that’s had some experience about something like this. And this little man with his little bandy legs, he turned and he jogged all the way home, across the field from the plant. And he never took his vacation.

Contents                       Lou Putnoky, Page 2