Lou Putnoky called me on Saturday afternoon. Lou is 92 years old, maybe 91. A Coast Guard veteran of World War II, he was a radio operator on the USS Bayfield, the flagship of the Utah Beach invasion fleet. He is not in the best of health, having had at least two serious heart attacks, and is living with his daughter since his wife passed away a few years ago.
Lou gets sentimental, or nostalgic, and calls me from time to time. We have this routine, somewhere between Abbott and Costello and Hillary and Donald. He thanks me profusely for all I've done to preserve veterans' stories, and I remind him that all I've done is flip the switch on a tape recorder, and there would be nothing to preserve if it weren't for veterans like himself. Nothing will ever convince him that I'm not one of the greatest contributors to preserving the history of World War II, and nothing will ever convince me that he isn't one of the greatest storytellers to come out of the war, although his voice these days is not as strong and compelling as it used to be.
In 1994 I wrote to Stephen Ambrose and asked if he could provide me with the names of any D-Day veterans living in New Jersey that I could interview for a special section the newspaper I worked for was planning to do in conjunction with the 50th anniversary. He sent me a list, but Lou's name wasn't on it. One of the men on the list, Dr. Vincent del Guidice, who had been a pharmacist's mate on the USS Bayfield, suggested that if I wanted stories I should call his old shipmate Lou.
Which I did. Lou's wife, Olga, answered the phone and I told her I'd like to interview her husband about his experiences on D-Day. Before she called Lou to the phone, she said I should make sure to ask him about one particular story, because it was one he almost never talked about.
That story is included in my book "A Mile in Their Shoes" and in my audiobook "The D-Day Tapes," but here it is in Lou's own words, if you don't mind listening to an audio file of it. This is an audiobook blog, after all.
That was recorded in 1994. Lou went on to tell many other stories in that three-hour interview and we've kept in touch over the years. I was able to bring him to an event at the Yogi Berra Museum one day so he could get his picture taken with Yogi, with whom he served on the Bayfield. In that very first interview he made excuses for Berra never attending a Bayfield reunion, Yogi was busy with other obligations and all that. At the time I had no idea how much it would have meant to the veterans if Yogi had made an appearance at a reunion.
Usually Lou calls on days of significance to veterans, like Memorial Day or Veterans Day, or the anniversary of D-Day, when he gets especially sentimental. So I wasn't expecting him to call this weekend, but I was glad I was at home. Sometimes he leaves rambling, sentimental messages on my answering machine.
His voice was weak, and he said there was a second part to the story about the "man overboard," which was the title I gave to his interview in "A Mile in Their Shoes." Then he told me the story. When he finished, I put my phone on speaker, flicked the "on" switch of my digital voice recorder, and made him tell me the story again.
Following is a transcript. There were a couple of places where I couldn't make out a word, so bear with me if something doesn't quite make sense.
Aaron, I called you just to thank you for your articles about all the fine servicemen that you've written about, and the one that you wrote me about was the Duffy situation where he fell off the battleship Nevada and we helped search for him but we couldn't find him. So then I reported back to our flagship, and they're all waiting for us, they thought that we'd got in serious trouble.
"No," I says, "we were delayed because the Nevada had a man overboard and they wanted us to make two turns around the ship and said sorry, we couldn't find him, and we dashed back here because we were late." And what happened, as I was talking to the officers, I see a radio man, a friend of mine, about 15 or 20 feet away. I say "Sparks, the next time you talk to the Nevada, ask them who it is and where he's from." And everybody looked at me real crazy, and then I even felt embarrassed. And what happened was, I was just so embarrassed about it, with all the shooting going on I says how in the hell can I ask, it seemed like a stupid question.
What happened was, after I don't know how many weeks later, when we were out in the Pacific, Sparks -- wait, [I'm getting ahead of myself]. That evening, Sparks was eating, and he says, "Hey, Lou, the Nevada called and I was talking to them and I asked them where the guy was from that went overboard and they couldn't find him. And they told me he's from New Jersey. A town by the name of Carteret. And his name was John Duffy." And I said, "Oh, my god, I went to grade school with him," and I said "I know his parents." And we made the sign of the cross, and we said a little prayer, a silent prayer between us. And we continued to eat, but both of our eyes welled up a little bit." But it's, that happens.
And then so many weeks later, I find out that, as we were coming back from chow we were going out to the Pacific to invade Iwo Jima, and I was coming back from chow and I looked ahead of me and it was about 5 o'clock in the evening, and I see Sparks going, and I just wanted to talk to him again, so I had a little bit of a problem trying to catch up to him, and finally I got to the end of the corridor and I opened the hatch, and there's a good 50-foot opening over the Number 3 hold before you come to the aft five-inch gun, and all of a sudden, nobody's out there. Sparks disappeared. And I looked. I looked. And I don't know what, something made me, believe me, it had to be the man upstairs, He says take a fast look, and I looked, the deck was wet, and there's a section where there's no lip, the side of the ship where we lower the ship's crew and the cargo nets, and I saw a little bit of a skid mark. I said that skid mark, it had to be Sparks' shoes as he slid right through there when the ship rolled to the opposite side, and I yelled "Man overboard! Man overboard!" Because I was convinced, I didn't see him fall overboard but I was convinced he went overboard, because he couldn't have disappeared any other way because believe me, I knew every inch of that ship. And then I ran back to the after lookout and I told him, "Report to the bridge man overboard." We were doing 23 knots, we were trying to outrun, we could outrun a sub at 23 knots so that's what we were doing. It took a few minutes and I ran back to the after room where we have all the garbage for the day and four guys were standing there shooting the bull, and I says, "Give me a hand, we have a man overboard, I've got word from the OD [officer of the day], I lied, I could have got in serious trouble, but the good Lord told me I should do this. I said, "Throw all the garbage overboard," because I wanted, if they did send a boat out, they could follow the garbage trail and verify the position, that they're close by. And sure enough, we did find him, and Sparks told me afterwards when I spoke to him, and I never told him, I never used the term "I saved your life," I was just glad to see him. And he was glad to see me. I could have gotten in serious trouble but I didn't care. I said, "Somebody up there wanted you to live. So I don't know how good a family you have but let me tell you the good Lord was on your side." Make sure that you find a wife and have children because He went way out of his way to get you," and I remember him telling me that was the first time he really was convinced that the Earth is round because when he fell, he saw our ship just disappear, and that ship is 40 feet above his head. "And as I was in the water I saw the ship just going down, I saw the name of the ship, USS Bayfield, PA33, and just going down as if it was sinking, going right over the horizon. I just can't get over that."
And now all of a sudden, we never directly approached each other to say, our paths didn't, we just didn't run into each other aboard ship we were so busy fighting the damn war, we forgot to thank each other. I wanted to thank him just for being there and making me feel good whenever I felt, God came down and said I helped save this man's life. And it's a grand feeling. All I know is by his nickname Sparks. I don't know his real name. Maybe somebody will read it in a book and they'll be able to get in touch with me."
|Lou Putnoky in 1992|
|Lou and Yogi Berra|