D-Day 75th Anniversary Overview Profiles June 6, 1944 D-Day  

Reporting | Torsten Ove
Photography | Nate Guidry

On the night of June 5, 1944, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote a letter of apology. He knew history was watching.

June 6 would bring D-Day, the long-awaited Allied invasion of Western Europe, starting in Normandy.

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops,” his letter said. “My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

But the “great crusade,” as he called it, succeeded. He didn’t have to send the letter.

A war that would ultimately claim as many as 85 million lives had entered its final chapter. Much hard fighting still lay ahead, but the end finally came in Europe in May 1945 and in Tokyo Bay in September 1945.

Victory was won only by actions of ordinary people.

They are all in their 90s now. In a few years, the entire generation will be gone.

Tom Brokaw called them the “Greatest Generation.” Few accept that accolade. Most will say they were just doing their duty. It was the tenor of the times: No one thought himself special, a hero, a martyr.

They were just citizens called to action and they went. Some volunteered, others were drafted into service, but nearly everyone pulled together to do what had to be done — on the battlefield, on the high seas, in the skies, behind the scenes on secret missions and at home in the steel mills, shipyards and manufacturing plants.

The 75th anniversary this month of the D-Day invasion presents an opportunity to recount the experiences of some of those who served in all theaters of the war.

Here are the stories of some who served.

 

Omaha Beach veteran's souvenirs are stark reminder of war

Seventy-five years ago today, June 6, 1944, the Allies stormed Normandy in the largest seaborne invasion in history. Eleven months later Nazi Germany surrendered and World War II in Europe finally ended after six brutal years.

Decades after the fighting, Gen. Omar Bradley reflected on what happened at the bloodiest landing site, Omaha Beach, where the Germans nearly pushed the Americans back into the sea.

"I have returned many times to honor the valiant men who died on that beach," he wrote. "They should never be forgotten. Nor should those who lived to carry the day by the slimmest of margins. Every man who set foot on Omaha Beach that day was a hero."

Harry Mistrik, a 5-foot-8, 134-pound kid from Rosetta Street in Garfield, fought on that beach.

Harry Mistrik, 96, holds a dagger he took off a German POW during World War II Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, at a care facility in Hampton.

True to most World War II veterans, he doesn't consider himself a hero. But he did his duty with a combat engineer unit, wading ashore that day into the teeth of German machine guns and artillery to gain a desperate foothold on occupied France.

"I saw lots of people being hit. I saw hundreds being killed. They were lying all over the place," he says. "I figured if I got hit, I wouldn't know it. I just kept going."

Mr. Mistrik is 96 and living in a care home in Hampton.

For him, D-Day remains fresh, as does much of his combat experience in Europe and later in the Philippines. Like thousands of other ordinary young men, he fought across France and into Germany, then shipped off for the Pacific to finish the job there. When it was all over he came home and went to work. It's what everyone did.

Enigma: WAVES helped to crack Germans' code

Julia Parsons never carried a gun, stormed a beach, drove a tank or flew a plane.

But she and thousands of women like her helped win World War II and almost no one knew it. Their weapons were technology and tenacity.

Mrs. Parsons, of Forest Hills, was part of a team of Navy women who worked in Washington, D.C., to decipher German U-boat messages sent by the Enigma cipher machine.

WWII veteran Julia Parsons, 98, poses for a portrait at her home Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Forest Hills.

At 98, she's one of the few remaining links to an intelligence triumph that shortened the war, by some estimates up to three years.

"I don't know that I'm the last, but one of the last, certainly," she said. "I was very proud of the job that we did."

Inside the Naval Communications Annex on Nebraska Avenue, thousands of WAVES -- Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services -- worked in three shifts to break the codes used by the Germans in Europe and the Atlantic and by the Japanese across the Pacific.

The mission was top-secret. Marines guarded the building day and night. Signs on the wall warned: "Loose lips sink ships."

That was no cliché at the time -- it was deadly business.

"I did my duty"

Clarence Gomberg is missing the tips of three fingers, courtesy of a German mortar in 1944.

"Shrapnel got me," he says. "I reached up to hold my helmet and it clipped the fingers off."

For a man who made his living in a print shop back in Pittsburgh, this was an unsettling battle wound. But a Pennsylvania doctor with experience working in a glass plant at home patched him up and he went right back to his wartime job: Combat medic on an Army hospital train that crisscrossed Europe in 1944 and 1945.

WWII veteran Clarence Gomberg, 96, at his home Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, in Stanton Heights.

Mr. Gomberg, 96, of Stanton Heights, saw the war from a broad perspective.

He witnessed the human toll on numerous battlefronts across France, Belgium and Germany. Attached to the 343rd Medical Battalion as part of the 28th Division, he was the quartermaster on a train that ran out of Paris to pick up the wounded from far-flung battle zones and bring them back to French hospitals to ship to the U.S.

He had a unique view of the end of the war in Europe, too, when he used his Kodak Brownie camera to snap a photo of famous Allied leaders at the German surrender in Reims, France, on May 7, 1945.

"I got a picture of General Eisenhower and General Montgomery side by side," he says, pointing to the picture in a prized scrapbook. "Then I got chased out."

His book contains many other wartime photos: Medics working on the wounded in the Ardennes, derailed train cars crashed in a gully, the 28th Division marching through the Arc de Triomphe after the German surrender, excited French girls running up to an American jeep to greet their liberators.

Kill or be killed: There is no fair play in war, soldiers were taught

Before Warren Goss even got to the war, the war came to him.

A rifleman from Shaler, he was training with his unit on the coast of England in April 1944 in preparation for D-Day.

The Allies had chosen a stretch of beach called Slapton Sands, near Devon, because it was similar to Utah Beach on the Normandy coast. Devon had been cleared of its 3,000 residents so the Americans could practice a beach assault, dubbed Operation Tiger.

WWII veteran Warren Goss, 94, holds an old M1 rifle Saturday Jan. 12, 2019, at his home in Ohio Township.

"They evacuated that whole village," says Mr. Goss, now 94 and living in Ohio Township. "They said we're practicing for the Normandy invasion and we're going in to Utah Beach."

But what was supposed to be a rehearsal turned into the real thing -- and one of the lesser-known episodes of World War II.

Landing ships called LSTs carrying 30,000 troops, Mr. Goss among them, assembled in the English Channel on April 28 for the mock assault on Devon. The Germans pounced.

"We lost more than 700 men when the German e-boats came out of Cherbourg and they torpedoed the ships," Mr. Goss says.

Fast German torpedo boats had sneaked in among the LSTs in the night. Mr. Goss said he was on deck and heard explosions as torpedoes found their marks.

Together again: Vets reunite after seven decades

Bob Adams and Wes Piros gathered recently for a photo shoot - yet another one - at the old folks' home in Monroeville where they live.

"Should we salute you?" one woman teased them.

They laughed. They're used to this.

World War II veterans and friends Wes Piros, 95, front, and Bob Adams, 95, at their place of residence at the Beatty Pointe Village Tuesday, April 30, 2019, in Monroeville.

These two World War II veterans have become celebrities in their 95th year.

They've been featured in a local newspaper, the senior home's newsletter and on "Good Morning America."

Born days apart in 1923, they served in the same training unit with the U.S. Army Air Forces during the war.

But they didn't know it for seven decades until last summer, when they discovered they were neighbors at Beatty Pointe Village.

The two were having a meal one day when they got to talking about the war. Many of the men arriving at Beatty in recent years are World War II vets; some of them eat together. Anyone new gets the usual questions about where he served, where he trained.

Exploits recalled for medal of Honor winner from McKees Rocks who was killed on D-Day

By Bob Podurgiel

Even though it was his 32nd birthday on June 6, 1944, Technician Fifth Grade John Joseph Pinder Jr., the son of a Western Pennsylvania steelworker, was having a miserable morning.

As the landing craft he was aboard crashed through the waves off the Normandy coast, he was concerned about his brother, B-24 bomber pilot Harold Pinder, who was listed by the 8th Air Force as missing in action.

John J. Pinder, Jr.

Harold’s B-24 The Sky Queen had been shot down in January 1944 over Belgium. Tech-5 Pinder, a radio operator, who was known as “Joe” was stationed in England at the time preparing for the Normandy invasion with the 1st infantry Division, the legendary Big Red One.

He visited Harold’s base to ask about his brother, but the other airmen said his plane went down, disappearing into the clouds. That was all they knew.

Joe, who later wrote home to his father and mother about Harold, told them he hoped he was still alive and a prisoner of war, but he didn’t know for sure.

Now aboard the landing craft headed to Omaha Beach, Joe struggled along with the other 102 soldiers of the 16th Infantry Regiment’s Advance Command Post to keep their footing as the heavy seas tossed them about on the boat’s slick metal deck.

Many of the men were seasick, throwing up into rubber bags then tossing the contents over the sides of the boat. They were all soaked from the cold North Atlantic water rushing over the deck, but things were about to become worse, much worse.

When the ramp on the landing craft splashed into the surf 100 yards from the beach, Lt. Col. John H. Matthews in charge of the command post was shot through the head, according to an account by John C. McManus in his book “The Dead and Those About to Die, D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach.”

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