Man Overboard

Lou Putnoky

Coast Guard veteran Lou Putnoky of Edison, New Jersey, was a crew member on the USS Bayfield, which was the flagship of the Utah Beach invasion fleet on D-Day. When I called to ask if I could interview him in 1994, his wife answered the phone. Lou wasn’t in, she said. We got to talking, and she suggested that when I did speak with him, I make sure to ask him about the following story.

On D-Day Plus 2 or 3 we got a radio message from a PT boat that was broached on a reef and needed help. So we hustled up a crew, and we took two landing barges, the bigger ones that carry the tanks.

The plan was for us to pull alongside this PT boat, tie it up to us, and bring it to a safe shore, because it was laying off an enemy shore. So we’re heading over, and it’s laying two, three hundred yards offshore, and it’s broached on a reef.

The skipper had told everybody else to get off the boat, and they were rescued by other PT boats. But the skipper wouldn’t leave. He was sitting in the bow, and he had a Navy machine gun in his lap. I can understand why he stayed with his boat. He was a lieutenant junior grade, and he knew that if he lost his boat he would end up being a subordinate somewhere else.

We pulled up on each side, real fast, and tied up, and from a distance the battleship Nevada was lobbing shells in to cover this rescue. Then we pulled out with full power on both landing crafts, and with the force of the full power his boat came off the reef. We brought him over maybe a mile and a half to a secure beach.

Now everything is going pretty good, we’re coming over to the beach, it just so happens one of our planes had been shot down, this plane is going down, I see the pilot is parachuting, he’s heading right for the beach that we’re heading for. This is all adding to this picture of the strangest day that I ever had.

We rescued this PT boat. We backed off the reef. In the distance this pilot landed. There was a lot of confusion on the beach. We left the PT boat and were heading back to the Bayfield, but in the meantime, all this had taken us quite a bit of time.

On our way back, an LST loaded with wounded hit a mine and blew up in the distance. We picked up six survivors, and other landing barges picked up some of the others. It was getting late, and we had to get back. But first we got hailed by the Nevada. We had to pass the Nevada to get to our ship. They hailed us, and we went over, and they said, “We had a man overboard,” could we take a look?

Lou Putnoky

The seas were getting rough. We made two passes around the battleship, and we motioned to them that we couldn’t find anything. Then we said we had to leave. So they said, “Thank you.”

We thought nothing of it, and we went back to our ship. They were concerned because we were gone quite some time. So I got aboard ship, they said, “Where were you guys, we worried, we thought maybe something happened to you.”

Then, I don’t know what made me even ask, believe me, to this day I don’t know. I said to the radio operator, “There was a man overboard. The next time you’re talking to them, ask them where the guy’s from,” because in the service you always ask where someone is from, “ask them where the guy’s from and what’s his name.”

In the confusion of all this why would you even ask a stupid question like that. To this day, with all that was going on, I don’t even know why I asked.

So that night I was having a sandwich in the mess hall. The radio operator came up to me and said, “Hey Lou, that guy off the Nevada, the guy’s from Jersey, from Carteret. His name is Duffy.”

I said, “Oh, God.” Just like that. I knew the kid because I had gone to grade school with him. He didn’t go to high school. But I knew the kid. He said, “John Duffy.” I felt weird. It was crazy.

What had happened, they lowered a gangway, and whenever a small boat came alongside the Nevada, it was his job to guide the boat in. The seas got rough, a wave slammed him up against the ship, and he slid under. He must have had a life jacket on, but the seas were too rough, we never found him.

After the invasion of Normandy, we had Southern France, Iwo Jima, Okinawa. I got discharged and went back to my job as timekeeper down at U.S. Metals, so this is two or three years after the war. We were doing the payroll, and this man came into the office, Scotty — I knew this boy’s family, they lived on Chrome Avenue, there was a row of company homes, but you never spoke about any of this, especially when someone was killed in the service or missing.

The USS Bayfield

And I knew that this was his father. He was a little man, we called him Scotty. He was a very good-natured individual, he had two sons and his wife was an invalid, she was crippled, she had a back problem. I felt bad, I knew they had lost a son, but I never struck up a conversation with him until one day a friend of mine who happened to be on that payroll asked him, “Where are you going, Scotty?”

He said, “I’m going on vacation. Two weeks.”

So my friend gave him the slip to get his money, and as he left the office, this friend of mine, Dan Donovan, he was in Guadalcanal during the war, he says, “Hey Lou, you know where that guy’s going?”

I said, “No.”

He said, “He went there last year, and he’s going there again this year. He’s taking his vacation, and he’s going to England. Then he’s going to take the ferry over to France, and he’s gonna start going from hospital to hospital, and different churches, he’s going to go look for his son.”

I said, “My God.You mean he doesn’t know what happened?”

“No. All he got was a missing in action telegram from the Navy.”

So I stopped everything. All of a sudden I got this picture in my mind. I ran outside, and I caught him at the railroad tracks as he was crossing over. I said, “Scotty” — I don’t even, I hate to talk about it because it upsets me sometimes — I said, “Scotty, you’re going on vacation?”

He said, “Yeah.”

I said, “You lost a son during World War II?” Now this is three years or four years after the incident, because D-Day was June 6, 1944. I said, “You lost a son in Normandy?”

He said, “Yeah.”

I said, “Your son was on the Nevada?”

He looked at me real strange, and said, “How do you know?”

I said, “Scotty, they never said anything?”

“No, I just got missing in action.” It was hard for him to talk.

I said, “Scotty, I don’t know how to tell you this. I was there.” I said, “I know what happened.” And I told him the story. And Jesus Christ, it still, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t relate the story for years, and all of a sudden it just came out this one time. And I felt every single emotion that this man felt. And it upset me terribly. He was elated, relieved, just knowing, see, a person doesn’t know when you get a missing in action what that does. It would take a serviceman that’s had some experience about something like this. And he, this little man with his little bandy legs, he turned and he jogged all the way home, across the field from the plant. And of course he never took his vacation.

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