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June 7, 2014

Sacrifice saluted: Neshannock man shot during D-Day invasion 70 years ago receives a medal from France

NEW CASTLE — After safely reaching a hilltop during the Normandy Invasion 70 years ago, a bullet halted Ralph Russo’s march.

It’s the only thing that’s ever stopped the Neshannock Township resident, who will turn 97 next month.

“He’s always been such a determined man,” Judy Doutt said of her father. “He still drives a car and mows his lawn.”

Russo, who nearly lost his left foot to gangrene as a result of that sniper fire, was bestowed with the French Legion Medal of Honor for his participation in the assault that freed France from Adolf Hitler’s grasp. The presentation took place Tuesday afternoon at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh.

Russo, whose nickname is “Nino,”  originally was scheduled to receive the honor in February in Washington, D.C.,  when French President François Hollande was visiting. However, bad weather prevented his travel.

The French Legion Medal of Honor is just one of many  that Russo has received. His other honors include a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

ON THE BEACH

A mortar gunner in the 115th Division E Company, Russo and his group were among the first to arrive in Normandy on June 6, 1944. According to Russo, commanders of the 115th and 116th flipped a coin to determine which would be first to storm the beach. That distinction befell the 116th.

“They went in and took most of the fire,” Russo said. “We were the reserves behind them.”

Russo said the 115th was pinned down on Omaha Beach by a pillbox (concrete dug-in guard posts equipped with loopholes through which to fire weapons). “We were sitting ducks and I remember praying for help,” Russo said. Just then he looked behind to see that a battleship was turning into position. “It fired on that pillbox and wiped it out,” he said.

“Then we started up that hill, but there were land mines,” said Russo, who saw members of his unit disappear in a split second, blown apart after stepping on trip wires. “We started going single file, following the person in front to avoid mines.”

As the Americans advanced through a hail of enemy fire to reach the crest of the hill, some Germans surrendered while others retreated.

From the top of the hill, Russo and his company moved forward about 300 yards. As the enemy was offering no further resistance, the soldiers were ordered to stop and rest.

“Everyone was sitting behind hedges, but I was behind a tree. Somehow a sniper spotted me,” said Russo, whose left foot and right leg were hit. He remains unsure if both wounds were caused by a single bullet.

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