• JP

From Omaha Beach to Victory

Although injured three times, Private First Class Ralph Puhalovich served in the Big Red One from Normandy to Czechoslovakia.


By Ralph and Mark

Ralph Puhalovich was born on April 17, 1925, in Oakland, California, to Flora and Ivan Puhalovich. He was the youngest of three children; his brother John was 10 years older and his sister Marie was four years older. After graduating from Oakland High School on June 19, 1943, he reported to his draft board on July 5 in San Leandro, California, then boarded a bus headed for the Presidio in San Francisco, California, and began basic training.

After three weeks, he was sent to Camp Adair in Corvallis, Oregon, where he was assigned to a heavy weapons company in the 275th Regiment, 70th Infantry Division—an assignment that was to be short-lived. This is his story.

At Camp Adair, in the summer of 1943, we went through drills and marches. I was carrying part of a heavy machine gun. The lightest piece weighed 31 pounds and the other piece weighed about 37 pounds. Nobody could carry both pieces, so you’d either have one or the other. We went on hikes and, I have to say, I never fell out and I finished all of our maneuvers.

One of the things we learned was that the motto of the infantry is, “Ours is not to question why, but to do or die.” We were to follow our orders whether or not we understood the reasons.

I was fortunate enough to get a leave for Christmas. I got on a train and went home. I surprised my family because I didn’t have time to call. It was a nice treat to see the family and my girlfriend (and future wife), Louise Campanella, before the long journey to join the fighting.

Ralph Puhalovich’s stint in the 70th Division came to an abrupt end; in early January 1944 he, along with others, received orders transferring them to the 1st Infantry Division, which was at that time training in England for the upcoming Operation Overlord—the Allied invasion of Normandy. He said his goodbyes, got on a train, and made the long trip eastward to New York.

Eighteen-year-old Private Ralph Puhalovich, photographed shortly after being inducted into the Army. We spent four days in New York before boarding a “Liberty” ship and heading across the rough North Atlantic on our way to Belfast, Northern Ireland. After spending some time at an Army base there, we headed to Glasgow, Scotland. From there, a train took us to southern England and we ended up in a little town called Swanage. I was assigned to the Anti-Tank Company of the 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division.

England, May 1944 to June 1944

If you look at a map of England, at the very bottom along the English Channel you’ll find Swanage. We could see France from there and the Germans were throwing big artillery shells across the Channel at the town next to us. They obliterated the town completely. Then, every night at 10:04, we’d hear a German plane come overhead. It was a twin-engine bomber. The engines were out of sync, which created a screeching noise; it was all psychological. They’d come over at exactly 10:04 every single night to drop one bomb someplace. We never knew where this nightly bomb was going to land.

We nicknamed the plane “Bed Check Charlie.” The Germans were trying to find out where all the British antiaircraft guns were. The English were smart enough not to shoot at them.

That’s what the Germans did; they were very consistent. You’d be so used to them not attacking, that’s how they crash through when they finally deviate from their routine. The 1st Infantry Division had already fought in Africa and Sicily so they knew to always remain vigilant. I was very fortunate to have veterans explain these types of things to me.

We were assault troops. They gave us gas masks, which we tried on and were to run in, but you could hardly walk in them. They decided the masks were too big, and we were given another type of mask. They had us enter a room where they would pump tear gas in. We’d have to walk in and take off our gas masks. It was enough to make you choke and cough a lot but not die. Then we had to hike five miles with these things on. Going five miles is tough, let alone with gas masks on.

Private Puhalovich poses behind a .30-caliber water-cooled machine gun during basic training at Camp Adair, Oregon, 1943.

We were then given “gas-impregnated clothing.” It wasn’t impregnated with gas; it was impregnated to prevent gas penetration, because everybody assumed the Germans would use poison gas like they did in World War I. We dressed in the clothing and then had drills in case of a gas attack. We had to get under a transparent cover to shield us and all our weapons. We’d stay there until someone blew the whistle to end the test.

We were also given a life vest made out of rubber that flapped over your waist. If you went into the water, you’d press a button and you’d have the vest inflate around you. It had a whistle and light in case it was night. You could blow the whistle and you could see the little red light. Thankfully, we didn’t have to use them. Even though I couldn’t swim, I didn’t like the idea.

At one point, a few of the others in my unit and I were selected to go to Dover, in southeast England, on temporary duty. The Army had come up with a great plan to fool the Germans into thinking the invasion would come across the Strait of Dover to the Pas de Calais, rather than at Normandy. To keep the enemy fooled, the Army built a fake camp there and let the news leak out that Patton was there and that he would be leading that fictitious army.

They told us that we were to be on guard duty around this camp, which was full of empty tents, with orders to shoot. There were also fake airplanes there and inflatable rubber tanks that looked pretty realistic from a distance.

One day I was standing guard by one of these tanks and the generator that pumped the air in suddenly quit and the tank began to shrink. The barrel started to sag. Somebody came along and got the generator working again and the tank got reinflated to its proper size.

After three days in Dover, we were returned to duty. We had some down time in Swanage and were able to enjoy the town, go to the pubs, dance, and talk to the locals. I met a girl named Marge after some of us went to a dance. The girls would stand outside the theater, hoping a GI will go in and they can accompany him. They were looking for company, which is fine.

Marge was very attractive and we were hanging out in a pub after the dance. I said, “All your men are gone,” and she said, “Yes, and there are a lot of Americans and I’m engaged to three.”

I said, “Excuse, me?”

“I’m engaged to three.”

“I don’t understand.”

“They want someone they can talk to and write to, so I agree; I have three rings.”

I said, “Well, what happens when they all come home?”

She said, “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it!”

My unit moved out the next day.

D-Day, Omaha Beach, Normandy, June 6, 1944

We were given our orders to go to Plymouth Hoe on the southern coast of England. Plymouth Hoe is where the first migrants to America came from. We trained there, waiting for orders to move out. We were to load all our equipment on an LCT (Landing Craft Tank).

A Landing Craft Tank, full of vehicles, equipment, and troops of the Big Red One, heads toward smoke-shrouded Omaha Beach, Normandy, during the D-Day landings, 6 June 1944.

An LCT is like a big barge. At the back of the craft is where the captain and all the equipment is. In the front, there’s a big ramp that goes down, allowing you to load (and off-load) the heavy equipment. In our case, as the antitank company, we had three antitank guns that were pulled by half-tracks. They loaded them in a predetermined order for easy exit upon landing.

We stayed there a total of seven days because it took a long time to load the heavy equipment. After all the equipment was loaded, the infantry came in on the last day and boarded the LCT. Ours, which was actually a Canadian LCT, was manned by an English crew.

The Canadians brought us a box every day with Heinz Celery Soup for our rations. You pop off the top and right in the middle of the can there’s an element that heats the soup. One guy said, “Well, you know what, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these was a damn bomb!” It wasn’t, but we always said that.

We were there until June 5, when we left port and headed for someplace else; we weren’t sure where, but we thought it was Normandy. The storm got so bad that we received orders to turn around and go back to Plymouth Hoe.

The next morning, we were right where we were the day before. History states that Eisenhower said, “There’s supposed to be a big storm coming and tomorrow’s an iffy day; June 6th is the day we’re going.” It took a lot of courage for him to say that because the next opportunity could have been a long wait. As a result, June 6th became known as D-Day.

Ralph Puhalovich was a member of a half-track crew such as this one, pulling an antitank gun through a French village a week after the invasion.

The water was very choppy and the seas were rough. Many of us were having a hard time not getting sick. We were still quite a few miles out when all the ships started firing their guns. We couldn’t see what they were aiming for or what we were heading into, but the sound was deafening. There was a great deal of spacing between all the ships and crafts heading for the beach so we had no idea of the scope of the attack. It was a foggy, misty day which reduced the visibility even more.

So I was headed for my first action and feeling sick from the seas. I couldn’t see what we were facing, but the continuous firing of the battleships told me it was big. I was looking over the side trying to keep focused on something on the horizon.

Unfortunately, I caused a bit of a panic among the Navy. While I was looking over the side of our craft, my helmet fell off into the water and began floating back toward the Augusta, General Omar Bradley’s flagship. My helmet is bounding back in the water and there’s a lookout on the prow of the cruiser and he sees the helmet and yells, ‘Mine!’

So they take evasive action and, as far back as I can see, ships are taking evasive action. I have no helmet so I was told to take one off a casualty on the beach. (When I got to the beach, there was a guy in a foxhole, all ashen color, and I thought about taking his helmet, but it had a big Ranger insignia on it and I thought, “I don’t want a target on my head.” I did find a helmet later on.)

Eventually we could see the beach. I couldn’t believe what I saw. It was a traffic jam of crafts, and bodies were floating in the water. The beach was full of soldiers and many were not moving. As we’re looking onto the beach, the veterans are saying, “Same old, same old.” I asked what they meant. “Slapton Sands” they answered. It looked identical to Slapton Sands—a place in England where some of the troops had trained in preparation for Omaha Beach.

All divisions had three regiments; the 1st Division’s were the 16th, 18th, and 26th Infantry Regiments; I was in the 26th. The first wave for D-Day is the 16th Infantry Regiment; they went in at five in the morning. Going next is the 18th Regiment in the second wave, and we, the 26th, are in the third wave. (For each amphibious assault landing, the order is changed so that the leading regiment isn’t always the same. The leading regiment can take a lot of casualties.)

As we got closer to the beach, we hear something loud close by and someone asked, “What’s that?” and someone else says, “Rifles and machine guns.” Next thing we know bullets are hitting the sides and we have to take cover; now we know this is the real thing.

Our LCT had an English crew and some of them were known as Cockneys. A Cockney is to England what someone from Brooklyn is to the United States. They’re different people, a little rougher. They talk Cockney (slang); the English can hardly understand them. They don’t pronounce words very well.

One of the Cockney crew members was using a 15-foot-long pole to measure the depth of the water, before anyone gets off the craft. He said he will let us know when the water is less than four feet deep. He gave us the okay; our first two guys drove off in a jeep and went straight down. One guy popped up; he was coughing and trying to catch his breath. When he finally does, he heads for shore.

The second guy didn’t come up for quite a while. Finally, he came up and was pulled back to safety. The jeep and the trailer with the captain’s radio and the platoon’s equipment went to the bottom. Some men went looking for the little Cockney; they were going to kill him because of what he did. He took off running and stayed hidden until we got off the boat.

A patrol of 1st Infantry Division soldiers enters an unidentified French town shortly after Allied planes had driven the Germans from it. Note that an Army censor has blocked out information that might provide useful information to the