Neshannock Township, PA
by Barbara J. Hamilton
One of the Allied men who landed at D-Day was Ralph Russo, 97, of Neshannock, Pennsylvania, near New Castle. Russo was already 23 when he was drafted.
Russo was a mortar gunner in the 115th Division, E Company, as they prepared to be among the first to hit the Normandy Beach of Omaha June 6,1944. Also prepared to land was the 116th Division. A coin toss determined the 116th would go in first, marking most of them for death as they were met with fire from the bluffs and from both sides of the beach. Caught in the crosshairs of so rus$o was hit by a much firepower, most of the men were sniper felled from the barrage of mortar.
As the 115th Division left their Higgins boats to follow the 116th, they tried to advance through their fallen comrades. They landed a little to the left of the 116th Division on an area that had not been hit by naval shelling.
What happened next is best told in Russo’s words. He said, “Our savior was a gravel seawall that the German General Rommel had made to stop our tanks to advance. The gravel sea wall was at least 10 ft. high, and believe me it worked. Looking to my left, there were at least 20-25 tanks that had stopped, unable to advance, making them good targets for German artillery.”
Russo and the other men of the 115th and 116th were pinned down for quite some time, unable to advance because they were being picked off at the slightest movement from both sides down the beach and from the bluffs.
Russo then turned and saw the “cavalry” coming. He recalled, “Looking back over my shoulder, I saw the Battleship, Texas, leveling off with its guns facing the shore line. Believe me when I tell you it fired three heavy shells at the pill boxes that were directly in front of Company E and put them out of commission. That was when we made our move and began to advance, not knowing that the hillside was planted with thousands of personal mines. A lot of soldiers lost their legs or were seriously wounded.”
The men slowly scaled the bluffs literally one step at a time. Their training had taught them to take a step into the last step of the man ahead of him. For some reason, when they got to the top, the Germans had retreated further inland. Once on top they proceeded to the first town of St. Laurent. The Germans were waiting for them.
As nightfall came, the Allies dug foxholes and settled in until first light. But in the process of digging the foxholes, Russo was hit by a sniper in the right foot and leg. He jumped over one of the famous French hedge rows and was taken to a nearby house with other casualties.
When it was safer, Russo was taken back down to the beach and loaded, with many others who had suffered injuries, onto a LCT (Landing Craft Transport) converted into a hospital ship. Russo recalls the screaming of hundreds of injured soldiers. He was not treated for 8 days but was finally transferred to an English Hospital where he was given treatment. After transfer to the General Hospital outside of Cardiff, Wales, he was told gangrene had set in and there was a chance he could lose his leg or foot. After lying in bed for 5 months, he learned that he would be transfered to a non-combatant job.
Russo was there to fight and he begged the doctors to let him return to his original company. Against their good judgment, they allowed him to return by train to his company. But when he arrived at the hospital in Belgium, his foot had swelled to the size of a balloon.
They were able to save his foot and leg but his combat days were over. He was sent back to a French hospital and then to England before finally being sent back home.
On June 4, 2014, Ralph Russo received the highest honor a non-Frenchman can receive, the French Legion of Honor, from a representative of the French Embassy. His wife, daughter and daughter in law were present at the ceremony in Pittsburgh. Upon his return home, he discovered his grandchildren had lined his lawn with flags and banners. What a way to honor our heroes! May it ever be!
Reprinted with permission from the D-Day Conneaut official souvenir program, Aug. 22-23, 2014, a Gazette Newspapers publication, Jefferson, Ohio