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Follies of a Navy Chaplain

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Tanks for the Memories

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They were all young kids

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Love Company

A Mile in Their Shoes

A Mile in Their Shoes

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Nine Lives

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2014, Aaron Elson

   

A Mile in Their Shoes

The Online Version

2014, Aaron Elson

Lou Putnoky

Page 2

    Lou Putnoky: Just before the Southern French invasion, Admiral Moon committed suicide aboard our ship. He was the highest-ranking serviceman to commit suicide during World War II. But it was kept very quiet, because they didn’t want the enemy to know. He shot himself with a .45. In fact that’s documented in a book. There’s an incident that happened in April of 1944, just before the Normandy invasion. It was the final training exercise. The name of it was Exercise Tiger, and a book was written about it by a British author. His name is Nigel Lewis. It’s very enlightening. And it was kept quiet for many, many years.

    Aaron Elson: Were you participating in it?

    Lou Putnoky: Yes. Our admiral, and our task force was involved. The reason why this was hushed up was because the British fouled up. See, the British, it’s a hard thing to say – they’re good sailors, but the one thing that trips up the British is tradition. They get involved in these little traditional things that are extremely dangerous to warfare.

    There were about five LSTs coming over, and one of their escorts had gotten into a little bit of an accident and had a little hole in the bow, and they radioed back to their base. You see, the British answered to the British admirals. It was a strange coalition that took place. Because of pride and tradition, it got to be very touchy, so you had to use kid gloves. They called their admiral, and their admiral told them to come on back, and nobody told Admiral Moon. So they go back to port, and it left this whole group of five LSTs exposed.

    Now these LSTs were only a short distance, maybe 80 miles from the French coast. And there were these E-boats – an E-boat is over 100 feet long, they’re narrow boats equipped with two torpedoes and 40-millimeter and other machine guns and cannons, and they could do about 25 knots. So they went out on the prowl, and they were devastating some of our shipping lanes, because they would sneak in, torpedo a couple of ships and then leave. They were black; you couldn’t see them, and in the confusion of darkness …believe me, the confusion during war is the thing that kills you.

    So they picked off and sunk three of our LSTs that were loaded with troops. Altogether we lost in the neighborhood of 750 men.

    And they kept this so quiet. We knew aboard our flagship that something was going on in the distance, but we were getting it in dribs and drabs. I didn’t find out until I read the book. I knew that there were a couple of LSTs, only because of what the radio operators had picked up. And the radio silence is very, very strict during a condition like this, and everything is in code. You can’t get this kind of information until after, and this was kept quiet for in the neighborhood of 40 years. It’s one of the biggest disasters of World War II.

    Lou Putnoky: If you saw the picture "The Longest Day," we had aboard our ship General Roosevelt, "Lightning Joe" Lawton Collins, and another two-star general. We were going to Normandy on June 5th, and that night there was a cloudy sky but you had the moon breaking out every so often. We were standing on the fantail of the ship. We weren’t at general quarters yet but close to it, so we were just talking, and we knew that it was some Army personnel that were with us. We knew that it happened to be an officer because we could see from the shadows, and all of a sudden the moon broke out and it lit up the fantail of our ship. That’s when we looked and we saw the star, it was General Roosevelt. So we immediately apologized. We said, "General, we didn’t realize you were a general," because he was talking so nice.

    "Oh, son," he says, "don’t let that bother you."

    Olga Putnoky: [While Lou is talking on the phone with a former shipmate about an upcoming reunion] This has been so funny, because Lou has been getting calls from all over the United States. The best part of it is, in 48 years I’ve never been able to get him to go to Las Vegas. I’ve been dying to go. He’s been getting calls from all over the United States, and the conversation will start out, "Are you that tall, skinny, curly headed kid?" And Lou will say "Are you the redhead that I pitched the football to and fell off the dock," and so forth. It’s the nicest thing, it’s wonderful.

    Aaron Elson: How did you and Lou meet?

    Olga Putnoky: Lou and I lived in Carteret, and we belonged to the same church. I was five years old and he was six. I was in the church play, and he and his mother were sitting in the first row. He said, "See that dark-haired girl? When she grows up I’m going to marry her." And we went to different schools. I went to Woodbridge and he went to Carteret. We started to date; nothing serious until after he got home from the service.

    Aaron Elson: And you have how many children?

    Olga Putnoky: We have two. We have Bruce, he’s 44, and Diane, who’s 40. We’ll be married 48 years in May. We just had four 50th anniversaries of close friends. And our children were invited to all of them. They just could not get over it. Lou’s parents were married over 70 years. His dad was 102 when he died. We had him for six years, taking care of him. Most of our friends have been married since around the time we got married. Lou’s closest friend, his shipmate, called this morning from Long Island. We’re godparents to his children.

    We don’t live for just today. I think that’s the thing of it. Today’s youngsters live for today. I was at a checkout line of a supermarket a couple of years ago. There were two very pretty young girls, and one said to the checkout girl, "I hear you’re getting married. What made you decide?"

    She said, "If it doesn’t work out, I’ll get rid of him." I was just shocked. I didn’t say a word, I just listened, but what fools. Don’t get married if you have that kind of an attitude. But we’ve just been very lucky in our relationship."

    Aaron Elson: Did you work in a defense plant?

    Olga Putnoky: I worked in U.S. Metals. I was the first girl hired in personnel. They hired me in 1941, and I stayed on until ’49.

    Aaron Elson: Did they make ammunition?

    Olga Putnoky: Oh, yes. Our bosses used to go to New York, or North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, to recruit labor. All the boys and the men from around here were in the service, and they [U.S. Metals] were a very big copper industry. We had the war bond rallies. It was really nice. I have some pictures of the women who worked there. They had such an attitude, these nice, quiet old ladies. Even the elderly women came to work, and they put their noses to the grindstone and worked. We had a lot of women during the war. And then slowly as the men came back, they were replaced.

    Lou Putnoky: Admiral Moon flew back to Washington after the Normandy invasion. When he came back aboard, the guys noticed that he was a little bit nervous, high strung. But other than that they didn’t pay much attention. I think it was two days before the Southern French invasion. He [pointing into his mouth] mmph, he shot himself. And the rumors aboard ship were, well, battle fatigue. They said he got into an argument in Washington in regards to the Southern French invasion, and they didn’t want to follow his plan. He wanted to go up and hit the tougher beach at St. Rafel, and their plan was to hit around Marseilles. Marseilles was like a horseshoe, a natural harbor, and he said, "If we hit in here, they’ve been there so long, they’re just gonna cut us to ribbons. We’re better off hitting a tougher beach. We’re experienced enough, we can go in there," and sure enough, we hit the St. Rafel area, which was a tougher beach. But it was easier as far as casualties were concerned.

    Aaron Elson: So they did hit the beach that Moon had wanted.

    Lou Putnoky: Yes. But I definitely feel, now that I’ve read about this Exercise Tiger, that this played on his mind. In fact, there was one incident that happened during Exercise Tiger. Admiral Moon was up on the bridge, it was still dark, and there was either a DE [destroyer escort] or destroyer. It’s hard for me to give you the picture. During a time like this it looks like one big mass of confusion, because ships are big and long, and they’re drifting. As we’re drifting in a little bit of moonlight, with all these other crafts there, this DE or destroyer cut across our bow, and you’ve got radio silence, and they were communicating mainly by lights. But this ship got real close, and the admiral went out and he had the megaphone, and he hailed this ship. He could make out the number, and he shouted, "Ahoy 624. You are out of position. Return to your position."

    And they came back with their megaphone, "Who are you?"

    And he answered, "This is Admiral Moon. I’m in charge of this whole fucking task force."

    Lou Putnoky: One day we’re standing on the fantail, and this redheaded kid from Brooklyn says, "I’ve got this awful urge. When I was a kid, I used to make kites." And we had some orange crating, some wood. He says, "I’m gonna make a kite." So he gets a couple strips of wood, and we got string, and a couple of socks to weigh the tail. Somebody’s playing chicky [lookout]. We let this kite go off the fantail, which is the perfect place to fly a kite. We’re letting it up, and we tie it to the rail.

    Now we notice all the other boats. We see this activity happening all around us, and we see a big grin like on the faces of their crews. Here’s a flagship and they’ve got a kite flying with a couple of socks for a tail.

    Everybody knew what was going on except the staff and the officer of the day of our ship. All of a sudden here comes the o.d. on the run. "What the hell’s going on?" He got a knife and he cut the kite loose, and you could see it going down. You could almost see the hysteria, everybody is laughing. But he didn’t want it to happen on his watch. The admiral would call and say, "What the hell is going on? I’m a goddamn flagship, you’re making a fool out of me." It was like the movie "Mister Roberts." When I saw that kite, it was something that you should put into a movie. And everybody enjoyed that moment.

    There was another little incident. When we were at Saipan, every so often to ease the tension we’d have a beach party. You’d load the landing craft full of men and you’d go on the beach. They’d give you two cans of 3.3 warm beer, just to get off the ship, because after a while that steel got to you.

    It was a rough day, and there was this one lieutenant. He wasn’t too well liked, and he was in charge of the boat crew. And they had this real cocky little Southerner, who was the coxswain of the boat. As he’s going to shore, the spray would come up, and because the barge was flat, you’d hit it and the spray would come and everybody would get sprayed. The coxswain was here, and you’d turn your head and the spray would hit you in the face, and the lieutenant was right alongside him. So the lieutenant says to him, "Watch what you’re doing." He’s reprimanding him. These two didn’t get along.

    The coxswain saw another wave coming, and just before that he caught some water in his mouth. As the next wave hit, this lieutenant turned his head, and the coxswain would turn so that literally he was only a few inches from the lieutenant. Then, of course, everybody closes their eyes except the coxswain. And when the officer closed his eyes he’d go "Pffft!" He sprayed his face with a mouthful of spit. We were dying laughing. Everybody knew what was going on except the officer. Every spray, "Pffft!" To this day the lieutenant doesn’t know that this guy, his nickname was Spooky, that Spooky was spitting the spray right in his face.

    Aaron Elson: What can you recall about Yogi Berra?

    Lou Putnoky: He was a coxswain on one of the rocket boats. He was attached to the admiral’s staff. Let’s figure they brought maybe a hundred men to supplement our crew of 500, and Yogi Berra was attached to Admiral Moon’s staff. He latched onto our particular group because that’s where the action was, and he said to us that the admiral was such a nice man. He said that when he was in England, with thousands of sailors, he was able to recognize men and he would stop his jeep with the two stars and he would pick up seamen that were part of his ship. He didn’t know them by name but he knew them by looks, and he would pick them up in the staff car, which was very, very unusual. But this was the kind of man he was, very well-liked.

    Yogi was very personable. Of course it always would come up in conversation when you had new people, "What are you gonna do after the war? What did you do before the war?"

    And he said, "Oh, I played ball, at Norfolk, in the minors."

    And we looked at him, with his bandy legs. What the hell kind of ballplayer is this; are you pulling our leg? Were you a batboy or something? And we never paid much attention. He didn’t elaborate on it too much. It would come up every now and then, and we would kid him about it.

    Then after the war I’m looking through Life magazine and I recognize his picture. I knew him as Larry Berra, not as Yogi. And I said, "Larry, good God, he did play ball!" And he was a fantastic, phenomenal ballplayer. He could hit any kind of wild, crazy pitch. You never knew what the hell he was gonna hit.

    Other than that, during Normandy I remember him pulling alongside our ship with his rocket boat. And I know, like everyone else, he was deathly scared.

    Aaron Elson: When you say like everybody, what was it like being so scared?

    Lou Putnoky: It’s a crazy thing that happens. Today you could be a hero, tomorrow you could be a bum. You don’t know how the hell the damn thing hits you, or when it hits you. We had a very, very close hit by a bomb in Normandy. We had these open toilets. I could never get used to that. We’ve got four toilet seats in a row, with running water, in a trough. No partitions. And there were two sections, half a toilet seat made up one, half another.

    This 500-pound bomb came, and it just missed us at general quarters. It sprayed us. We got shrapnel aboard, and it knocked all these toilet seats off the toilet. This is the vibration, the shock. Those four pieces literally fell off. I was at my general quarters station, and I would have sworn that we got hit. I’m on the radio and I look down, and literally, my knees were like rubber. I couldn’t control them, actually couldn’t control them. They were just shaking. That was my own personal reaction. Because I visualized my crew members being mutilated. I would have sworn that we took a hit.

    One time I felt something similar. I had a fender bender in an automobile, and I stopped and I had a dent. And it’s very strange; I couldn’t control my legs at all.

    Aaron Elson: In the invasion of Iwo Jima, did the Bayfield come under any kamikaze attacks?

    Lou Putnoky: Yes, but kamikazes hit us more in Okinawa. In Okinawa, we came in in three columns. Because we were the flagship we were in the middle. The ship directly to our left was hit and sunk by a kamikaze. It came in about six feet off the ocean, hit it right in midship and it slowly sunk. Other escort vessels came in and picked up the survivors. We couldn’t get involved because we had to continue with the operation.

    Aaron Elson: What goes through your mind at a time like that?

    Lou Putnoky: You’re so young at the time; you could never do it at our age. Once you have a family, you’re not worth a darn anymore. But because you’re young, you get so caught up in it. But I did notice one thing. You get very, very superstitious. When I went to Europe I had $5,000 [life] insurance. The limit was $10,000. After the Normandy invasion I went down and made out the necessary papers to change it to $10,000. It was just a formality.

    Now we went to the Southern French invasion, and the chief yeoman says, "Hey Lou, I notice here that you’re one of the few guys that still has $5,000. What the hell are you doing, with what we’re going through?" Today, it would be the equivalent to a hundred thousand dollars at least.

    I said, "I put my papers through."

    He said, "They’re not changed."

    So after the southern French invasion, I went down and changed it again.

    We get out to the Pacific. Once again I’m reminded that it wasn’t changed. Do you know, I couldn’t bring myself to change it, and I’m not a superstitious person. I was afraid that if I put it through a third time, now something will happen.

    And you end up, you wear your lucky belt – you don’t say this to anybody but yourself – now we’re gonna go into the invasion. We went through four, which was very unusual. I don’t know anyone else except this particular crew aboard this ship that ended up in two theaters as a flagship, going through four of the biggest invasions.

    I had my lucky belt, my lucky shoes, I had my lucky shirt. I kept all this to myself. I can’t speak for other people, but I know we got superstitious about little things. And I can remember one of the last times, at Okinawa, we picked up sixty bogeys, they called them, enemy planes. Radar picked them up at forty or fifty miles. My buddy was in the sack opposite me, and they sounded a general alarm, and I looked at him and he looked at me, and we would chuckle, but only out of fear. It wasn’t a happy chuckle. It was more like, "Here we go again." And the damn thing was closing. I don’t know why that particular one scared us more. I know it scared me more, because we knew that if these sixty kamikazes picked us up, with the firepower that we had at the time, they would rip us to hell. So the orders were, "Don’t open fire. Don’t give away your position." Maybe they might miss us in the clouds. And we kept getting the radio report. I’m on the phones. It’s thirty miles. It’s twenty miles. "Jesus Christ," you’re saying, and nothing’s happening. And then they went. They missed us and they caught Task Force 58, which was covering us further out, and they had a donnybrook.

    Aaron Elson: I saw that photo there of you with the jacket on, hunched over those wounded men. What was that like, bringing back the wounded from the beach [in Normandy]?

    Lou Putnoky: It’s heartwrenching. An awful feeling. These are all seriously injured men from all parts of the service. One of them I remember vividly. He was shot just forward of the temple, right across both eyes, the bridge of the nose. Both eyes were blown out. And he was just bandaged up. That one I remember more than any of the others. I don’t know what ever happened to him, because after a couple of weeks a hospital ship took over. When it got safer, a hospital ship came in and we transferred all our seriously wounded.

    We had a special staff. We had a specialist in most fields of the medical profession because of us being the flagship.

    Aaron Elson: Did you have any further contact with the guy who was wounded in the eyes?

    Lou Putnoky: No. It upset us so much. There was nothing any of us could do for him. It was one of those things. You saw it and you ran away from it, because you didn’t even want to remember. You’re almost sorry that you knew the situation. You’re a little ashamed to even say this, but you didn’t want anything to make you feel worse than what you felt, because it would hurt the overall picture as far as your performance. And you never knew what would affect your performance, as things went on. That’s something, you had to take it one day at a time, otherwise you couldn’t handle it.

    Aaron Elson: Do things like that ever give you nightmares?

    Lou Putnoky: Oh, you have maybe restlessness. It comes and goes. Now, if I actually saw the bullet, that would be different, but the rest was imagination. Different people it would affect different ways. All I know is we wanted to get the hell out of there afterwards. We knew he was in good hands. But because we knew we couldn’t do any more for him, we were almost sorry that we got this involved. And we saw guys torn up with holes. We were putting the sulfa drug in by the spoonfuls, small teaspoons. They were putting it in the open wounds, and closing them up, for the initial dressing. Because it just ripped big gouges.

----

    Aaron Elson: Where was the Bayfield when Hiroshima was bombed?

    Lou Putnoky: We were in San Francisco getting repaired, getting ready to go back and invade Japan. Truman saved our lives. Where the hell are the people like Truman, a simple man but an honest man that had the gall to drop that bomb? That to me took more than a man. That took something that’s beyond comprehension, and yet the bomb had to be dropped, in my view. It’s easy to say, "Well, we could have shown them what it does." We didn’t have time to show them. You had to act. You had to do it fast. And thank God that Truman did it.

Contents                       Chapter 3, "Mixed Nuts"