Monday, October 15, 2012

Shipmates Lou Putnoky and Yogi Berra

Lou Putnoky and Yogi Berra at the Berra museum

   Every now and then I get a call from Lou Putnoky of Carteret, N.J. He gets nostalgic, usually on a Sunday, especially since his wife, Olga, passed away two years ago. We chat for a while and he tells me what a wonderful thing it is that I'm preserving all these veterans' memories, and I try to tell him without the veterans themselves and their courage and experiences, there would be nothing to preserve, all I do is poke a little tape recorder microphone in their face and ask a couple of questions. I try to tell him that, but he wants no part of it.
   Lou is a World War II Coast Guard veteran, and was a radio operator on the USS Bayfield, the flagship of the Utah Beach invasion fleet. The Bayfield also took part in the invasion of Southern France, as well as the battles in the Pacific for Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and he is one of the many veterans who witnessed, albeit from a distance, the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi.
  One of the highlights of Lou's time in the service was having served on the same ship as Yogi Berra, which leads me to a story that is kind of sad in a way. Lou lives in New Jersey and expressed a desire to meet Berra again, so about a decade ago, when I was still working for a newspaper in New Jersey and there was some kind of publicity event at the Yogi Berra Museum in Montclair, I invited Lou to come with me, and he got to chat with and have his picture taken with Berra. That isn't the kind of sad story, and I can't find the story in the transcript of my conversation with Lou that I used in my book "A Mile in Their Shoes: Conversations With Veterans of World War II," which means I must have edited it out because it was kind of sad, although in retrospect I should have left it in, which is why I'm relating it now, secondhand.
   After the war was over, Lou was a big fan of Yogi Berra, and regaled his son with tales of their shenanigans on the stern of the Bayfield, the stern being, in Lou's words, "where all the action was." One day, when his son was perhaps seven, Lou decided to take him to Yankee Stadium to see if he could introduce him to Berra. They arrived early and were watching batting practice. Lou took his son down to the railing and told an usher he'd been a shipmate of Yogi Berra's, and asked if he could give Yogi a note. Lou said the usher must have been a veteran, because he nodded understandingly.
   He saw the usher walk over to Berra and hand him the note, and he thought he saw Yogi nod. Then Yogi began walking in his direction, and Lou was going to get the chance to introduce him to his son.
   Just then Lou saw Casey Stengel come out of the dugout and walk over to Berra, and the two of them turned and went into the dugout.
   End of story. Now tell me that isn't a little bit sad. But Lou's face lit up when I brought him to see Berra at the museum.
   Here's an excerpt from my interview with Lou, in which he talks about Berra on the ship, and rationalizes the fact that Berra never attended a reunion of the Bayfield crew:

Aaron Elson: What can you recall about Yogi Berra?

Lou Putnoky: Yogi Berra is a very, very bighearted, very nice, quiet individual. I reluctantly use the term simple, good. If he wasn't that way, he would be the first one to be at the reunion, I'm a hundred percent certain he would go. Because he would feel uncomfortable being there, especially being a celebrity.  He was a coxswain on one of the rocket boats. He was attached to the admiral's staff, so we had, maybe the staff brought, let's figure they brought maybe a hundred men to supplement the crew of our 500 crew with them, and Yogi Berra was attached to Admiral Moon's staff. And Yogi latched onto our particular group because that's where the action was, on the stern of our ship. There was always something going on, and he said to us that the admiral was such a nice man. He said that when he was in England, he would be able to recognize, with thousands of sailors, he was able to recognize men and he would stop his car, his jeep with the two stars, because he knew that they were going back to the ship, and he would pick up seamen that were part of his ship. He didn't know them by name but he knew them by looks, and he would pick them up in the staff car, which was very unusual. But this was the kind of man he was, very well-liked. It upset everyone of course when they found out he committed suicide, it really shook us to the core, at the time.

But Yogi was very personable. And of course it always comes up in conversation when you had new people, "What did you do? What are you gonna do after the war? What did you do before the war, whatnot," and he said "Oh, I played ball, at Norfolk, in the minors." And we looked at him, with his bandy legs, and of course that shit-eating grin that he had, what the hell kind of ballplayer, are you pulling our leg? Were you a batboy or something, just like we're talking now. And of course we never paid much attention. He skipped over it, he didn't elaborate on it too much. It would come up every now and then, and we would kid him about it. Nothing serious. And then after the war I'm looking through Life magazine and I see his picture. I recognize his picture. I knew him as Larry Berra, not as Yogi Berra, and I said, "Larry, good God, he did play ball," and he was a fantastic, phenomenal ballplayer. He could hit any kind of wild, crazy wild pitch, you never knew what the hell he was gonna hit.

Other than that, during Normandy I remember him pulling alongside our ship with his rocket boat, and I know, like everyone else, he was deathly scared. Once they let go all their rockets, and they come back and any other assignment that they might have for his craft.

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   Got Kindle? Or the free downloadable Kindle reading app for PC, Tablet or Smartphone from Amazon? "A Mile in Their Shoes" is available today and tomorrow, Oct. 15 and 16, for a free download of its Kindle edition, and it's only $2.99 after that. Or read my full interview with Lou Putnoky here.

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