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June 6, 2014

D-Day Memories: 70 years ago, Volant man was part of the force that stormed Utah Beach

NEW CASTLE — What J. Robert “Pat” Patterson remembers most about June 6, 1944, is the bitter cold.

“The weather in Europe is atrocious all the time, but this was especially bad,” said Patterson, a combat machine gunner with the 474th Automatic Weapon Halftrack outfit.

“We were issued winter clothes and long underwear,” said Patterson, 91. “We needed them, too.”

Utah Beach, the westernmost beach of the five landing areas of the Normandy Invasion during World War II, was assaulted on D-Day by elements of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and was taken with relatively few casualties. There were 166 American casualties on Utah Beach. The toll was much steeper on Omaha Beach, where more than 2,500 Americans lost their lives.

“It was chaos for a few days,” he said. The continuing bombardment wreaked havoc on the countryside, too.

Patterson knew it was a dangerous mission, but it’s not like he had a choice. “In the army, you do whatever they say.” he said. “Besides, when you’re 20, you don’t think anything is going to happen to you.”

“Normandy is farm country, and there were dead horses and cows everywhere,” Patterson said. “The smell was overwhelming.”

Patterson said young women in France took advantage of the thousands of silk parachutes left on the beaches. “They gathered them up to use as material for wedding dresses.”

Patterson, who six months later would take part in the Battle of the Bulge, had never fired a gun before military service. He learned to shoot his .50-caliber machine gun by practicing. The Army used a balloon target pulled by a large-scale model airplane to train shooters. “We got so tired of shooting at the target that we eventually just shot down the model. Nobody knew what to do afterward, so that put an end to practice.”

Patterson returned to France in 1984 for the 40-year celebration that included special ceremonies and wreath layings. “The people there were still appreciative of what we had done for them,” Patterson said.

A 1941 graduate of New Castle High School, Patterson was working as stock boy at Jack Gerson’s jewelry store on the corner of Mill and East Washington streets.

When a draft letter arrived, his mother hid it, not wanting her son to know. “She was just trying to postpone the inevitable,” he said. “And I wasn’t all that anxious to go.”

After the war, Patterson returned to New Castle and his job at the jewelry store. Each employee specialized in different items, so when the store began to stock cameras, they have the job to Patterson.

He eventually opened his own camera store in Florida before returning to New Castle and launching the Camera Mart in 1964. He founded the New Castle Camera Club in 1972 with more than 40 members. The club still exists today, although membership has declined along with the use of cameras.

“The camera business became the telephone business,” he said. “Everybody has a phone that takes pictures now.”

Patterson’s first military memory came at the age of 10.

His father told him to pay special attention during the Decoration Day parade downtown that featured seven New Castle men who had fought in the Civil War. “Remember what you are seeing,” his father said. “Because you will never see anything like it again.”

He was right, but he also could have been talking about his son’s adventures more than a decade later in Normandy.

 “It’s one of those events you remember for life,” Patterson said. “I was just a small part of a great thing.”

(Email: d_burcham@ncnewsonline.com)

 

TOMORROW: Meet D-Day veteran Ralph Russo of Neshannock Township.

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