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“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops,” his letter said.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.
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.
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.
"I wasn't proud of it," he says of his war experience. "I just figured I had to fight it."
He killed a lot of soldiers, he says, and he wasn't shy about taking souvenirs: Daggers, flags, swords, medals. It's the way it was in a war that left up to 85 million dead. A few years back he gave his collection to Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum, which keeps the items in a display case to commemorate one man's war.
"Landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day with the First Infantry Division, Harry was assigned the task of blowing up barbed wire barriers by using Bangalore torpedoes, thus creating openings for Americans to pass through," a plaque at the hall reads.
The description goes on to recount Harry's self-reported exploits - meeting George Patton, witnessing a massive tank battle, visiting a concentration camp and helping to blow up the giant swastika atop the stadium in Nuremberg where Hitler once held mammoth rallies.
"Harry's war didn't end in Germany," the plaque says. "As a combat engineer he was scooped up to serve in the invasion of Japan, landing in the Philippines in 1945."
The atom bomb spared him the invasion. Japan surrendered Aug. 15 and he came home four months later to get on with life.
Born in 1923, Mr. Mistrik was one of 10 children. He was working at Jones & Laughlin Steel when the war came. Drafted in 1943, he trained as a combat engineer in Oklahoma and Texas, then shipped off to England in preparation for D-Day.
On June 6, combat engineers splashed ashore first because they had to clear obstacles. With Navy ships unleashing a deafening barrage, Mr. Mistrik waded in through waist-deep water into a storm of bullets.
"I had the Bangalore torpedo and I was supposed to knock out barbed wire and cut angles out," he said. "They were firing back, lots of bullets were coming."
The torpedo was an explosive charge inside a long tube, used for clearing an area in advance of an infantry assault. Mr. Mistrik did his job and made it to the seawall, where soldiers hunkered down for protection.
"Someone [once] said to me, 'Were you afraid of being hit?' and I said, 'No, I was too busy,'" Mr. Mistrik recalls. "I didn't pay any attention to the bullets but I looked down and, boy, there were guys all lying on the beach. Lot of firing going on."
The fighting went on all day. But bit by bit, mostly through acts of individual courage, the Americans secured the beach and began the push inland to the hedgerow country — miles and miles of farm fields divided by ancient hedges.
"The hedgerows were very dangerous because they put machine guns in the corners," Mr. Mistrik remembers. Specially equipped tanks eventually cut through and the Allies began their advance across the French countryside.
Mr. Mistrik carried a rifle and says he could shoot well. Combat was often at close range. In one engagement, he volunteered to deliver a message to another headquarters unit. On his way back, he was crossing a field in the early morning when someone took a shot at him.
"A bullet went right past my ear," he says. "It made that cracking sound."
He dove over a mound of dirt and hid behind it. He saw a German soldier crawling up to his position, probably to see whether he was dead, every few seconds lifting his head up to get a better view.
"The last time he put his head up, I hit him in the side of the head" with a bullet, Mr. Mistrik says. "I killed lots of them."
Like soldiers anywhere, he took things from the enemy - lots of things.
At the French town of Metz, he saw two ceremonial swords hanging on the wall of a German headquarters building. He grabbed them. He took a Nazi flag from a house in another town, a dagger from a dead soldier, medals from prisoners.
The Battle of the Bulge proved to be a bonanza for souvenirs after the Germans began surrendering in large numbers. He took a pistol from a captured colonel.
After one mission behind enemy lines to blow up German bombers, a fighter plane swooped down and opened fire on him and his squad mates. They hid in some woods and watched as an American fighter swept in behind the German plane and shot it down. Mr. Mistrik walked over to the crash site and found the German pilot in some bushes.
"He was lying there and he was all mangled," he says. "He had a medal on his chest. I pulled that off him. A nice Air Force medal. I stuck it in my pocket."
One of Mr. Mistrik's strongest memories is Nuremberg in 1945. He said he climbed the balcony of the stadium and stood where Hitler once did. On the roof was a giant marble swastika. In a symbolic gesture, Mr. Mistrik and the combat engineers destroyed it.
"They blew it up," he says. "It came crashing down."
Mr. Mistrik was in Austria when the fighting in Europe ended. But his war went on.
"They said, 'Are you willing to go to Japan?' I said yeah."
His unit traveled back to France, boarded a ship and sailed to the Philippines. He saw more killing there and took more trophies as the war against Japan entered its final months.
Among his most gruesome experiences, he witnessed the fate of two Japanese soldiers accused of stealing corn from a Filipino. Someone shot them both and as they lay wounded, the local police chief approached with a machete and finished them off.
Mr. Mistrik was standing so close that blood spattered onto his boots.
"I'm amazed, you know,” he said of the executions.
Among his other items is a Japanese "comfort flag" he said he took from a dead soldier. The flags, inscribed with good luck messages from home, were carried by all Japanese into combat. Many U.S. soldiers took them from the dead during the war; in some cases their families have made efforts to return them to Japanese families of the slain.
This one, however, remains under glass at Soldiers & Sailors.
Mr. Mistrik said he sent all his souvenirs home from wherever he was.
"I wanted them, to show the family," he said.
He was gearing up for the invasion of the Japanese home islands when the U.S. dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In all, he had earned five battle stars for combat, four from Europe and one in the Pacific. He shipped home in December 1945.
Like most of the other 16 million U.S. servicemen, he went right back to work and started a family. He spent 42 years at J&L, retiring in 1982, and raised two children with his wife.
He kept his collection of war souvenirs until old age. In 2015, at age 92, he gave it to Soldiers & Sailors.
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.
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.
While the majority of the U.S. decoding efforts focused on the Japanese, a smaller contingent tried to break the German navy's codes in time to save ships and sink U-boats.
In 1942 and into 1943, packs of the subs prowled the Atlantic, sending convoys to the bottom and threatening to choke off England's supply line from the U.S.
It took a mammoth scientific effort on two continents using some of the world's first computers, but the Allies cracked Enigma. As the war went on, the British at Bletchley Park and the Americans in Washington read enough German messages to virtually eliminate the submarine threat. The hunters became the hunted; of the 1,156 U-boats Germany produced, 784 were sunk.
Those working on Enigma kept their mouths shut, then and for many years afterward. Mrs. Parsons didn't even tell her husband until some 50 years later.
"Of course we could never talk about it. Nobody knew what we were doing," she said. "Nobody talked about the war afterward. Everyone went on to living their lives."
It's different now. Code-breakers are newly discovered heroes. The 2014 movie "The Imitation Game," centered on British cryptanalyst Alan Turing, gained a wide audience. So did the 2017 book "Code Girls," about the WAVES in Washington.
Mrs. Parsons has in recent years given talks and interviews about her life as one of them.
"People are really interested in World War II," she said.
She grew up in Forest Hills and was studying at Carnegie Tech when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
"I remember thinking, 'Where in the world is Pearl Harbor?'" Mrs. Parsons recalled.
Women had limited options but she wanted to do her part. She signed up for an Army ordnance job, checking gauges at a building in Squirrel Hill for shells made in the steel mills. But the work bored her, so when she saw in the newspaper that the Navy was looking for college women to become officers, she jumped at the chance.
"I wanted to do something really interesting," she said.
She shipped off for Smith College in Massachusetts for three months to become an officer, then went to Washington to learn her assignment.
Someone asked whether anyone spoke German. She'd taken it in high school, so the Navy put her in the German code-breaking section. It was 1943 and the U-boats were still a threat.
Winston Churchill once said "the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril."
Early in the war, the subs sank more ships than the U.S. could replace. In 1942 they patrolled right off the American coast, targeting ships silhouetted at night by city lights. In the North Atlantic, U-boats sank convoys in coordinated attacks.
Finding the subs was a challenge. The Germans communicated using the cryptographic Enigma machine, which looks like a typewriter and uses a series of wired rotors and a plug board that scrambles letters to create astronomical combinations.
To decipher an Enigma message, the recipient had to have another Enigma machine set up the same way. The Germans changed the wheel order every day. And unlike the German army and air force, whose Enigma machines used only three rotor wheels, the U-boat Enigma used four. That made the machine much harder to crack.
Once a U-boat spotted a convoy, the skipper alerted others using Enigma, and the U-boats then converged like a pack of wolves. If the British — and later the Americans -- could decipher those codes, they could send out patrols to find the subs.
Mrs. Parsons' job was to read incoming scrambled messages from German headquarters to the U-boats at sea and try to deduce what they might be saying. When the subs surfaced they would ask for the messages they had missed when they were submerged. Headquarters would only repeat the important messages, such as weather conditions. From messages that had already been decoded, the cryptanalysts tried to match up uncoded ones to look for patterns.
"We would draw up a chart and send it to the computers, and the computers would spit out all possible wheel orders for the day," Mrs. Parsons said. "Sometimes we got it, sometimes we didn't."
The computers, standing seven feet tall and weighing 5,000 pounds, are called bombes. The Poles had built the first ones, followed by the British. Later the U.S. built its own in Dayton, Ohio, and shipped them to Washington. The bombe was designed to discover the daily settings of the Enigma's rotors.
"The Enigma was very complicated. The wheel order changed every 24 hours and the settings on the wheels changed twice a day," Mrs. Parsons said. "We were decoding U-boat traffic. We were trying to figure out what they were saying. Some days we couldn't break it at all."
Toward the end of the war, she recalled, the teams hadn't broken the code for a week. They set up a spreadsheet for every message for two weeks and noticed one that showed up at the end of each day.
"That was enough of a clue," Mrs. Parsons said. "We looked back and the same message had appeared every night at the same time and it was the same thing. Germany had gotten very careless. They were never supposed to send the same message the same way but they did."
It was the weather report in the Bay of Biscay.
Mrs. Parsons never lost sight of the human toll of the work. One of her WAVE colleagues had a husband on convoy escort duty. Whenever he was at sea, she would nervously poke her head in the door and ask, "Have you cracked the code yet?"
Mrs. Parsons felt sympathy for the enemy, too.
Yes, the U-boats had sunk many ships and killed their crews. But some of the messages from German subs were personal: Someone had a baby, someone got married.
"We almost got to know some of the sub skippers. This was the enemy, but they were people," Mrs. Parsons said. "We lived in Europe for a while and also lived in Japan and I never got over the feeling that I had something to do with the war that possibly caused deaths."
But Mrs. Parsons took her oath of secrecy seriously, never saying a word about her work on Enigma. That finally changed in 1997, after she and a wartime friend visited the National Security Agency museum in Washington and saw Enigma machines.
"We were just shocked. Everything was on display," she said.
It turned out the whole project had been declassified in the 1970s but the Navy never told anyone. "They just kept everything such a secret."
After the war, Mrs. Parsons did what millions of other veterans did: Came home and got on with her life. She and her late husband, an engineer, raised three children and lived all over the world before returning to Forest Hills. For a time in the 1960s, she was a teacher in the North Allegheny district.
She used to belong to a group of 100 ex-WAVES in Pittsburgh that met regularly. Only three are left as that generation fades into history. But for Mrs. Parsons, now approaching 100, a deep sense of satisfaction remains.
"I think we did a fantastic job," she said.
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.
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.
He keeps an old map of all the places his train stopped to pick up soldiers from field hospitals, first aid stations and battlefields.
The train, one of many, had 10 cars and could carry up to 30 men in each. Although Mr. Gomberg was a quartermaster, in charge of supplies, he also trained as a medic.
"We carried a first aid kit," he recalls. "We used to get off the train and go into a foxhole and treat a guy right in the foxhole."
A 1941 Schenley High School graduate, he entered the service in 1943. His younger brother was already in the Marines and would earn three Purple Hearts in the Pacific. Mr. Gomberg turned down the Navy and chose the Army.
"I said I can walk a hell of a lot longer than I can swim," he says.
He shipped off for Europe in December 1943. German submarines twice attacked his convoy, torpedoing one ship. He landed on Utah Beach in France six days after D-Day, then moved on to bombed-out Cherbourg and eventually to liberated Paris in August. There, he boarded Hospital Train 78, which would be his home on wheels for the next 15 months as it traveled thousands of miles across Europe.
The train had 39 enlisted men aboard, plus two doctors and two nurses. The engineers were French.
"They were the most worthless..." Mr. Gomberg says, a common refrain for him. He has little regard for the French. One night as the train was headed into Germany, he recalls, it stopped. That wasn't unusual, since the tracks were often blown up. He went to find out what happened and discovered the locomotive empty.
"There was nobody aboard. The engineers had abandoned the train," he says. "They were afraid to go into Germany."
Mr. Gomberg often felt plenty fearful himself but he still did his job.
The train ran at night with no lights, and no one ever knew if the tracks ahead would be intact. In the field, Mr. Gomberg and other medics didn't carry weapons.
"The only weapon I carried was a Boy Scout knife," he says.
And as his mortar experience showed, a medic could be hit at any time. During the Battle of the Bulge, he had climbed into a foxhole to treat a wounded man when he lost those fingertips.
"You got bandaged up, you kept going, that was it," he says. "We were always scared. Anywhere you went, you were afraid."
Yet a code of honor existed among medics. During the Bulge, medics on both sides tended to their wounded within sight of each other.
"The Germans were treating theirs in the Ardennes Forest and we were treating ours," Mr. Gomberg remembers. "We left them alone and they left us alone."
In mid-April 1945, near the end of the war, the train pulled into a siding deep inside Germany. Mr. Gomberg saw a long fence with an MP at the gate. The soldier told him that the 6th Armored Division had liberated the camp, Buchenwald, two weeks earlier.
"I had no idea what that was," Mr. Gomberg says. "He let me in. I saw these big ovens, they looked like big pizza ovens."
He found out after the war what happened at Buchenwald and the other concentration camps.
"We didn't know [at the time] what they were doing," he says.
The next day he was on the train and a boy approached.
"He was asking for 'schwein-essen,' swine food, so he could have something to eat," Mr. Gomberg recalls.
He was a Jewish 12-year-old named Mike and his family had been killed at Auschwitz. Mr. Gomberg felt he had to help.
"So what do you do with a kid?"
He brought Mike aboard and put him to work for several months on the train as an orderly and translator. Back in Paris after the war ended, Mr. Gomberg had him fitted with a miniature uniform. He left him with Jewish welfare workers. Mike thought he had relatives in the U.S. and hoped to make it to America.
"I had to leave him there," says Mr. Gomberg. "I don't know if he ever made it to the states."
Mr. Gomberg did not hate the enemy despite his Jewish faith. He knew that most Germans were like him - obeying orders.
"They had their commanding officers and you followed orders. That was it," he says. "If Hitler told them to wipe out the Jewish population, you do it or you got executed."
On May 5, 1945, Train 78 was ordered to head into Frankfurt and pulled in behind the IG Farben ammunition plant. The next morning two ambulances pulled up and loaded eight men on stretchers wrapped in blankets onto one of the train cars.
"On the car they took the blankets off and they were German officers," Mr. Gomberg recalls.
The trained headed to Reims on May 7 for the surrender ceremony at the Little Red Schoolhouse, a former vocational school.
Mr. Gomberg followed the officers to the second floor, where he shot his photo of Eisenhower and Montgomery. He also snapped a photo of French Gen. Charles de Gaulle before the military police told him to leave or they would shoot him.
His war was over.
He came home in 1946 and, like everyone else, went back to work and raised a family.
Over the years he's told his story many times at school events and veterans functions. He played a role in getting the World War II memorial built on the North Shore and he still volunteers at the veterans hospital in O'Hara. He's proud of his service.
"I did my duty," he says.
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.
"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.
"We heard what was going on," he says. "But we thought it was more maneuvers."
In the morning he saw the result.
"I could see the bodies floating by," he says. "I never did get onto the beach."
There hadn't been time to launch life rafts. Many of the men drowned because they put on their life vests around their waists instead of under their arms, forcing their heads under water.
In all, 749 Americans died in Operation Tiger, with hundreds of others wounded. The casualties were much worse than those at Utah Beach on the real D-Day, June 6.
The operation remained secret. D-Day soon dominated the news and Slapton Sands became a footnote.
"When I got home I told my mother about it," said Mr. Goss. "She'd never heard about it. Nobody heard about it until maybe 25 years later."
Operation Tiger was Mr. Goss's introduction to the war.
He went on to see a year of combat, first at Utah Beach and then across France and into Germany. He was the tip of the spear, he says, on daily patrol at the front, probing German defenses and engaging the enemy in close-quarter fighting.
"I used to get worried before the battle and after the battle. But when you were in it you do what you were trained to do," he says. "I never got scared until the fighting was over. They just trained you so tough. When I got into trouble, I would talk to God."
Drafted in 1943, he shipped off for Scotland with the 4th Infantry Division. He and his unit embarked on a train to southern England, where they would spend the next year practicing for Normandy. Everyone knew it was going to happen, including the Germans; they just didn't know when or where.
"They made me a rifleman. And I was a good rifleman," Mr. Goss says. "We were so brainwashed. We were trained just like a dog."
His unit was the 531st Special Brigade, a combat engineer outfit. The men marched, camped, practiced.
Mr. Goss still remembers an Army training film called "Kill or be Killed" that warned GIs to put aside any notions of fair play learned from sports. It featured all manner of vicious fighting tactics, from how to bayonet someone to gouging out an enemy's eyes. Although the acting was tame by today's standards, it was grisly stuff for 18-year-olds in 1943.
"Some guys puked when they saw that," Mr. Goss recalls.
The training was thorough. The Army knew that green Americans would be facing German divisions hardened by years of fighting in other theaters.
His unit boarded ships June 4 for Normandy. "We knew we were going in for the real thing," Mr. Goss says.
On June 6 he climbed down a cargo net into a Higgins boat for the assault. When the ramp went down, two men were immediately hit. He jumped over the side and waded ashore, where he lay down fire so the engineers could clear a path. Mr. Goss heard bullets whizzing by. The Germans weren't shooting at him, he realized. They were aiming at mines attached to obstacles to try to detonate them and kill soldiers nearby.
There was the usual chaos of war. An American fighter plane roared low over the beach and did a victory roll.
"The Americans thought he was a German," Mr. Goss recalls. "They shot that boy down. I took a couple of shots too." The pilot bailed out and survived.
Mr. Goss pushed on with his unit. The Allies secured Utah Beach quickly and moved inland six miles by the end of the first day. Casualties were light in contrast to Omaha Beach.
"I know they had it worse than we did," Mr. Goss said.
Mr. Goss and the 531st fought across France and into Germany. It was a long slog, marked by too many skirmishes and battles to remember. He ended up with the 70th Infantry in France and later fought at the Battle of the Bulge and in the Ruhr Valley.
There were two sides to combat, he said. The fighting could be brutal, but sometimes even in the heat of war soldiers showed compassion.
He often tells the story at schools of how he was relieving himself near a bunker in Normandy when a German sniper took a shot at him. He left behind his helmet and rifle and ran. But he thinks maybe the sniper missed on purpose.
"I think he could have shot me," he says.
He later had a similar opportunity in the German city of Saarbrucken when he came across three enemy soldiers digging a machine gun nest on the other side of the Saar River. Stationed inside a house, Mr. Goss fired across the river and shot a shovel out of one German's hands. They ran. He could have killed them but chose not to.
"You did things like that," he says.
But there were other times when he felt no pity.
After crossing the Saar, he took out a bunker with an explosive charge and saw German soldiers running out with blood pouring from their ears.
"I felt sorry for those guys later in life," he says, "but not then."
Mr. Goss has been back to France and Germany three times since the war. He's off again this month, for the 75th anniversary of D-Day and plans to visit Utah Beach and the U.S. cemetery at Normandy.
"I hear it's going to be a big deal," he says.
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.
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.
This was one of those "Say, were you at...?"-type conversations about training in Texas and Indiana as the war was raging all those years ago. Before long, they realized they had a lot in common.
So Mr. Adams went upstairs, retrieved his 1944 photo of 20 air cadets at a flight school in Indiana and brought it back down to the cafeteria.
"Are you in that picture?" he asked.
It took a moment, but Mr. Piros picked out his young self.
"I said, 'Holy hell, that's me!'" he recalled. "I damn near fell off the chair."
In the photo, he's kneeling in the front row. Mr. Adams is standing behind him in the second.
It turns out both had trained for 10 weeks at an air field in Indianapolis to become Army pilots, navigators or bombardiers.
"I couldn't believe it," Mr. Adams said. "I was astounded."
Neither could remember the other among their classmates.
But they've since become friends in old age.
In addition to serving together, being almost the same age and posing near each other in the photo, they live just a few doors from each other. Both are widowers, too.
"How many more coincidences could you have?" Mr. Piros said.
The war later took them in separate directions. Mr. Adams had to give up flying and ended up as a radioman with the infantry in Europe and the Philippines. Mr. Piros stuck with air training but never left the U.S., flying as a navigator on B-24 Liberators as part of the homeland defense force guarding the West Coast.
Both men were like so many others in the war years: Everyone was fighting or preparing to and they wanted to do their part. The atom bomb saved both from having to fight longer.
Mr. Adams spent his formative years in Meadville and entered the service in 1943. He wanted to be a mechanic in the Army Air Forces. He joined the Army and was assigned to the 86th Infantry Division, but he got the opportunity to fly in Texas and took it, later moving on to Butler University in Indianapolis and flight school.
The Battle of the Bulge interrupted his training and he ended up back with the 86th as a radio operator in the signal corps. He shipped off for France in February 1945. His division saw brief combat in the Ruhr Valley at the end of the war but Mr. Adams was never involved in direct fighting. As the war wound down, the division took thousands of German prisoners as they walked along the Autobahn. Mr. Adams was in Austria when Germany surrendered.
Mr. Piros was from the South Side and went into the service in 1944. He wanted to fly. After his training he was assigned to the Fourth Air Force in California, guarding the coast aboard B-24s and training for combat in the South Pacific. But it never came. The U.S. dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan surrendered in September 1945.
"It was a relief," he said. "You felt you could go back to your life."
But he also has some regrets.
"I guess in some respects I was disappointed that I didn't do my part," he said. "I trained, trained, trained. For what?"
Mr. Adams was in the Philippines when the war ended. Like everyone else, he dreaded invading the Japanese home islands. The Japanese had fought to the death for every dot of an island across the Pacific and likely would have done the same at home.
"It would have cost 1 million casualties to invade Japan," Mr. Adams said. "We didn't know what tomorrow would bring. We were training constantly. I'm damn lucky. "
And what of the other cadets back in Indiana with whom he and Mr. Piros trained?
Killed in the war? Died in old age? Still alive?
"Every one of those guys," said Mr. Adams, "I have no idea what happened to them."
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.
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.”
As the rest of the men jumped into the surf, machine gun bullets stitched the water while mortar and cannon shells exploded all around them with uncanny accuracy. More than a third of the men in the Advance Command Post were killed or wounded even before reaching the beach. Most of their equipment including their radios was lost. The pre-invasion plans of the Advance Command Post disintegrated into chaos, was how Mr. McManus described the scene in his book.
Once on land, men took cover behind beach obstacles placed by the Germans or tried to find shelter on the rocky shore, but Joe knew this was a recipe for disaster.
Without the radios to establish command and control on the beach to coordinate the assault on the German defenders, the men would be isolated into small groups and destroyed one by one by German machine gun, mortar and cannon fire, which was precisely the plan devised by German General Erwin Rommel to stop the invasion at the water’s edge.
Joe’s Medal of Honor citation described what happened next: “Carrying a vitally important radio he struggled towards shore in waist-deep water. Only a few yards from his craft he was hit by enemy fire and was gravely wounded.
“Technician Fifth Grade Pinder never stopped. He made shore and delivered the radio. Refusing to take cover afforded, or to accept medical attention for his wounds, Technician Fifth Grade Pinder, though terribly weakened by loss of blood and in fierce pain, on three occasions went into the fire-swept surf to salvage communications equipment. He recovered many vital parts and equipment including another workable radio.
“On the third trip he was again hit, suffering machine gun bullet wounds in the legs. Still this valiant soldier would not stop for rest or medical attention. Remaining exposed to heavy enemy fire, growing steadily weaker, he aided in establishing the vital radio communications on the beach. While so engaged this dauntless soldier was hit for the third time and killed.”
“He would not stop for rest or medical attention,” Capt. Stephen Ralph, his company commander, said later when the Army interviewed him while considering Joe’s actions for the Medal of Honor.
The Army recognized his heroism at Omaha Beach with a posthumous Medal of Honor in 1944. The citation credits “His conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty… and concludes, “The indomitable courage and bravery of Technician Fifth Grade Pinder was a magnificent inspiration to the men with whom he served.”
This year marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, and although first-person remembrances are fading of what occurred that day, Joe’s memory is still alive in McKees Rocks, where his father was a steelworker before the family moved to Burgettstown when a new job opened up for his father at another steel mill. His family later moved to Butler and Joe graduated from Butler High School in 1931.
A photo of Tech-5 Joe Pinder is still on display in the McKees Rocks Borough Building, and Tracey Pederson, a former council member and the borough tax collector, said it reminds her of the sense of duty and honor Joe had for his country.
There is also a plaque dedicated to him at the McKees Rocks War Memorial on Chartiers Avenue. A street banner honoring him, as well as banners honoring other McKees Rocks veterans, can be seen on Chartiers Avenue near the VFW Vesle Post 418 in McKees Rocks.
Joe’s brother Harold did survive the war after being taken prisoner by the Germans in Belgium where his plane crashed would often come to McKees Rocks for the Memorial Day parade and ceremony, Charles Maritz, the VFW post commander said. Harold later died in 2008.
“It was a privilege to hear Harold tell us what led up to Joe receiving the Medal of Honor,” Mr. Maritz said.
The Pinder family has donated Joe’s Medal of Honor to Soldiers and Sailors, along with letters he wrote home, a letter from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the family, and the contents of Joe’s wallet recovered at the Normandy beach where he was killed.
“Joe carried a picture of his brother Harold in his wallet. It is very touching,” said Michael Kraus, the museum’s curator, who created an exhibit honoring Joe’s service on D-Day that people can view through the summer.
“People need to see the Medal of Honor and hear the story of Joe. It is a national treasure,” Mr. Kraus said.