(Today is the 75th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, which turned the tide of World War II. Ralph Russo of Neshannock Township, who will be 102 next month, took part in the assault and recalls that day here.)
In the annals of war, many will remember the Alamo.
Ralph Russo, though, will never forget the Texas.
Had the big battleship not sailed up behind him and his 115th Infantry Regiment as they fought their way onto a beach in Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, the soon-to-be 102-year-old Army veteran might not be alive today to tell the tale.
“The first thing we hit was a pillbox,” said the Neshannock Township resident, referring to a concrete bunker atop a seawall that served as a defense against invasion. From that vantage point, German gunners were able to fire unmolested upon the Allied soldiers below.
“I said, ‘Oh my, we need help,’ " Russo recalled. "And by God, we got it.”
“I saw this battleship, the Texas, and evidently, he spotted that pillbox. And I’ll tell you what, he put three volleys in there — square. Oh, it was a beautiful sight.”
Russo was among the fortunate that day. Despite being wounded, he survived to see countless more beautiful sights over the next 75 years.
More than 4,400 other Allied soldiers did not.
PREQUEL TO WAR
Russo and his wife, Marietta, both grew up on Pearson Street on New Castle’s Lower East Side. They would marry in March 1945 when Russo returned to town on a 30-day pass.
Russo had dropped out of New Castle High School following his junior year, but at age 23, he was drafted for what was supposed to be one year of service. That would change following the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
After initial training at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia, Russo’s company was sent to England, where he sensed that additional training was leading up to something big.
“I had a feeling that the 29th (Infantry Division, of which Russo’s regiment was a part) was going to be picked to go because we were one of the first ones who trained hard in England,” he said. “We had a lot of generals from different places that would come up and see us maneuver.
“From then, I could tell the fellows, ‘You know, I don’t like this. Something tells me we’re going to be on that beach.’ And by God, we were.”
Although Operation Overlord — the name for the Allied invasion of Europe that became the turning point of World War II — was a closely guarded secret, Russo said he saw signs.
“They brought us down someplace around Liverpool, and on this table, they had a display showing where the placements were on the beach and different things that you could see that they took pictures of from the air,” he said. “That’s what they called a briefing area.
“But it was altogether different — we didn’t land there any way.”
Originally planned for June 5, the Allied invasion was delayed a day because of bad weather and rough seas — 6- to 7-foot waves, Russo recalled. Conditions were only slightly better on June 6, but President Eisenhower ordered the attack to proceed.
Nonetheless, 5-foot waves still swept over the soldiers who spilled out of their landing craft to storm the beaches, Russo said. “They were high. If I had to swim it, I’d have never made it. Five-foot waves, and we’re about 600 yards away,” he recalled, adding that the seas claimed many tanks and artillery before they could reach shore. Tanks that did make it onto the beach were then stalled in their tracks by a thick gravel incline erected by the enemy to prevent them from scaling the hill.
Moreover, an intense naval and aerial bombardment that was supposed to take out the heavily fortified German defenses never came together, leaving the Allied invaders to come under relentless, lethal fire once they finally cleared the waves and hit the beaches.
The attack commenced at 6:30 a.m., with the 1st Division’s 16th Regimental Combat Team and the 29th’s 116th leading the first wave.
Russo’s 115th nearly took the place of the 116th, but a flip of the coin, he said, determined that the latter would go in first.
“They took a beating,” he said of the 116th. According to history.net, “Company A of the 29th Division’s 1st Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, hit the beach and drew such heavy fire that within 10 minutes it ceased to be an effective fighting force.”
In light of that, the 115th was held back temporarily while Eisenhower and his advisers considered their options. Ultimately, though, Russo and the 115th were sent in at 10:25 a.m., only to be halted by the pillbox gunners until the Texas cleared the way.
“That’s when I said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’”
Any relief Russo’s unit felt after the elimination of the pillbox was tempered quickly when they made it across the beach and discovered that the hillside they needed to climb had been mined.
“We had one devil of a time getting up that,” Russo said. “The only way we got off was to follow each other’s steps. If the first one hit a mine, the next one took over.
“We lost some men, some were critically wounded, some died. F Company, they landed just left of us. They did the same thing we did, step by step, until we got up to the top. And when we were going up, I could see one of their soldiers step on a mine."
Turning his eyes and pausing momentarily, he added softly, "Oh, it was pitiful."
Once he reached the top of the hill, Russo happened upon a soldier of the 1st Division and wondered “How did he get up here?” The soldier apparently wondered the same about the 115th.
“He looked at me and he says, ‘You guys are either brave, or you’re nuts.’ I said, ‘You got it.’ ”
The hill scaled, Russo and the others set off on a hike toward the town of St. Laurent, about a quarter mile away. “When we were about 100 yards down, that’s when the Germans retreated,” Russo said. “They figured they would get trapped. So they retreated and they headed for St. Laurent, and that’s where they put the second line of defense.
“And that’s where I got hurt.”
Upon arriving at the town, Russo recalls sitting down for a brief rest, but the war wasn’t taking any breaks. As he sat, he was shot in the right leg and left foot, and taken to a house where the injured were being gathered. It was there he staged his second heroics of the day.
Before leaving his ship, Russo had the foresight to ask a medic for some sulfanilamide, a pre-penicillin antibacterial compound that was used stave off infection. Wrapping it in plastic, he pinned it inside his pack before fighting his way ashore.
When the medic tending to the injured inside the house of St. Laurent lamented that he was out of the substance, “I told him to tell somebody to go get my pack. They went out and go my pack, and I said, ‘Open up that side pack,’ and there had to be at least a half a pound; that’s quite a bit. Oh, he was so happy.”
Russo was taken back down to the now-calm beach and eventually placed aboard a makeshift medical ship. It would be eight days, though, before he was transferred to an actual hospital ship and and taken to a hospital in England.
Because of the delay, gangrene set into his foot, and it would be five months before he would be discharged.
Even then, doctors wanted to give him noncombatant status, but Russo would hear none of it. He pleaded to be sent back to his unit, and his doctor finally relented.
Russo was dispatched to Liege, Belgium, where one night — with artillery from the Battle of the Bulge echoing in the distance — he and some other soldiers were tasked to search for German paratroopers who had been reported in the area. Two of the paratroopers were located, but as Russo and his men had only bayonets to challenge the paratroopers’ automatic weapons, they opted for discretion and returned to camp.
Nonetheless, the mission had taken its toll. The 5- to 6-mile hike had caused Russo’s wounded foot to swell greatly, so much so that a medic asked him ‘“Who the heck sent you here?” Russo assured him that he had asked to come out, and the medic assured him in turn that he would go no further.
Russo was sent to a hospital in Paris — where, on Christmas Eve, he and others recuperating there put candy bars in a dirty sock and hung the “gift” on the nurses’s door — before being sent back to England and ultimately, the U.S. to recover.
LIFE GOES ON
After marrying Marietta and leaving the service, Russo returned to New Castle and became a laborer at United Engineering. Later, he was a supervisor at Mesta Machine, where he worked 23 years before retiring.
In 1951, he helped to build the Neshannock Township home where he raised his family and in which he still lives.
His daughter, Judy Doutt, grew up there but admits she knew little about her dad’s wartime experience during those years.
“Not until the movie “(Saving) Private Ryan,” she said of the Tom Hanks film that opens with a graphic recreation of the Normandy Invasion. “That’s when he started opening up a little bit.”
Russo attended another re-enactment — this one an annual event in Conneaut, Ohio — and as he socialized with other World War II veterans and the actors who assumed their roles, “I started to hear more and more,” Doutt said.
Still, the subject remains one that Russo does not bring up on his own.
“I don’t mention it,” he said. “If somebody asks me a question, I’ll answer it. Personally, I don’t bring it up.”
Among the tangible reminders of his service are multiple photo albums and displays of medals that include a Purple Heart, Bronze Star and the French Legion Medal of Honor.
And while he’s visited the Conneaut re-enactment and attended now-defunct Maryland reunions of the 29th Division, one place he has not gone is back to the beach where he earned his place among America’s Greatest Generation.
“I have no reason to; that was enough,” he said, before adding with a smile, “That’s something I went through but I’ll never do it again.”