WWII D-Day veteran, Truckee resident awarded France’s Legion of Honor
Visit bit.ly/1URJW1j to learn more about the Feb. 9 ceremony in San Francisco, including photos and a full transcript of Pauline Carmona’s speech.
TRUCKEE, Calif. — It’s June 6, 1944, and U.S. Army soldier Joseph Petrucci is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with 30-some fellow comrades in a landing craft hurtling through the English Channel toward Omaha Beach.
Bullets rattle the exterior of the boat. Farther ahead, men from accompanying crafts, their ramps down, spill out into the surf. Some are instantly shot and killed; others are wounded and drown in the rising tide.
Few find their way onto land.
Gunfire and explosions and crashing waves and cries for help echo in a cacophony of hellish sounds.
It’s chaos; it’s war.
Petrucci, machine gun at the ready, seconds away from stepping onto enemy soil, is fighting alongside roughly 34,000 men on the northern coast of German-occupied France in the Invasion of Normandy — D-Day.
Nearly 72 years later, the Massachusetts-born Petrucci is recounting that very moment — the ramp dropping; the bullets rattling; the nearby soldiers falling — from a recliner in his Truckee home on a snowy afternoon in early March.
“Just before our ramp dropped, it stopped,” Petrucci, 93, said of the bullets spraying the boat. “In retrospect, what happened was the boat next to us dropped their ramp before we did, and the machine gun shifted over. So, we lucked out.”
Petrucci, 22 years old at the time, served as a wire chief for telephone and telegraph with the 294th JASCO (Joint Assault Signal Company) unit, which was among the second wave to hit Omaha Beach early D-Day morning.
Petrucci’s unit was one of roughly 7,000 Allied vessels in the channel that day, as around 156,000 Allied troops (American, Canadian and British) were a part of the Normandy Invasion, which included four more beaches — codenamed as Juno, Gold, Utah and Sword.
At Omaha Beach, Petrucci’s JASCO unit’s job was to establish communications between the various landing parties in Normandy.
“Our function was to come ashore in the early waves of the landing and direct the Navy guns to targets,” Petrucci said. “We acted as the eyes on the Germans.”
However, “It was not a good landing — a lot of mistakes were made,” said Petrucci.
‘Everything went wrong’
The strong currents forced many landing crafts east of their intended position or caused them to be severely delayed. Consequently, the landings were so chaotic that much of the equipment was lost in the early hours.
Playing a factor, Petrucci said, were the runnels, deep sand pits formed by the currents that forced soldiers to shed their equipment, which weighed up to 100 pounds. And those who weren’t able to quickly enough, drowned.
“If you came off the boat and fell into one of those, you had to take off all your equipment because it was too heavy — it would sink you,” Petrucci said.
What’s more, after exiting the craft into the surf, the soldiers were in direct line with extremely potent German artillery. Namely, the MG 42 machine gun, which fired at a rate of roughly 1,200 rounds per minute, twice the rate of the Browning machine guns used by the U.S. troops.
On top of that, American bombers dropped their shells too far inland, missing their marks, due to orders from the Navy to delay their drops. Since low, thick clouds blanketed the sky that morning, bombers had to rely on radar, a relatively recent invention. Simply put, the Navy did not trust the radars, fearing their bombs would be dropped on their own ships.
Up to 13,000 bombs were dropped, but not a single shell hit Omaha Beach or the German guns overlooking it. In other words, no real damage was done on the Nazi’s coastal defenses.
“They were afraid that the shells would land on our troops,” Petrucci said. “But there were no troops on shore yet; there was nobody on shore yet.”
More of the Allies’ assault tactics failed. The fleet of amphibious tanks known as Duplex Drive tanks — a regular tank wrapped in a canvas flotation screen, typically launched from the landing craft two miles from shore — had a disastrous showing at Omaha Beach. In all, the rough sea swamped 27 of the initial 29 DD tanks.
“They let them out of the boat too far away — the water was rough.” Petrucci said. “Everything went wrong … we had no help on shore at all.”
Further illustrating that point, Petrucci said the life belts they wore as flotation devices — during the landings many men had to wade 50 to 100 yards through water, sometimes neck deep — also caused unforeseen trouble.
“The life belts, when you needed it, you would squeeze it and air would fill up,” he said. “It sounded wonderful, but the problem was if you had a lot of equipment on and if you put the belt on too low, it would tip you upside down — you drowned, it’s very simple.
“We lost two (in our boat) from drowning.”
The assault on shore
Trudging onto the beach without most of their equipment, Petrucci’s JASCO unit — those who made it ashore, that is — grabbed guns and acted as infantry during penetration inland of the Nazi defenses.
Within 24 hours of the D-Day assault, more than 4,000 men had lost their lives.
“It was such a terrible beach,” said Petrucci, shaking his head. “That was a beach of body parts.”
In the assault, Petrucci suffered shrapnel wounds on his left leg and right elbow. Petrucci doctored the leg wound himself. His elbow, which he couldn’t get to effectively, was stitched by a Navy corpsman.
When the dust settled on D-Day, one of the bloodiest days in modern warfare, Petrucci and a fellow soldier, a friend, spent the night in a trench, where a dead German soldier lay.
“We slept around him,” said Petrucci, adding, “They (the Nazis) used to booby trap their dead.”
The following morning, they returned to the beach to obtain specialized equipment from the reserve troops to perform their duties as radiomen.
“There is a certain procedure you follow when you’re directing gunfire,” Petrucci explained. “You let them know ‘my position is this, the front line is here, the enemy is here or the target is there.’”
Less than a week later, on June 11, 1944, the beaches were fully secured and over 326,000 Allied troops, more than 50,000 vehicles and some 100,000 tons of equipment had landed in France.
Playing a key role were the Allied air support, which took out many key bridges and forced the Germans to take long detours, as well as efficient Allied naval support, which helped protect advancing Allied troops.
By the end of August 1944, the Allies had fought their way across the Normandy countryside, seizing the vital port of Cherbourg, and prepared to enter Germany.
The following spring, on May 8, 1945, the Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany.
Months earlier, in December 1944, Petrucci and his JASCO unit — because they were a specialized group for beachhead landings — were sent to the Asiatic-Pacific Theater to prepare for the amphibious assault of Japan.
“We came back to the states and then went to the Pacific,” said Petrucci, whose unit was the first company to return from Europe and be deployed to the Pacific. “When the war in Europe ended, I was on an island practicing a landing.”
‘FRANCE WILL NEVER FORGET’
Joe Petrucci served in the Army during the Second World War for three years and three months.
A husband to Alice Petrucci for 64 years, a father of four and grandfather to 11, he is one of many soldiers who played a decisive role in the liberation of France — and Europe — from Nazi Germany.
Joe and Alice Petrucci have lived in Truckee for three years, moving to the mountain town in 2013 to live next door to their daughter, Lisa, and her family.
“I think it’s incredible how selfless his generation was,” Lisa Petrucci said. “To leave their families and go across the ocean and fight for people they didn’t know, it’s really striking of that generation that they really rose to the challenge. I am very proud of him.”
For his service, Petrucci has been awarded a bevy of medals, including the European African Middle Eastern Campaign medal with two Bronze Service stars, the American campaign medal, the Good conduct medal, and the World War II Victory medal, among others.
While he was wounded during combat on D-Day, Petrucci said he did not feel his injuries made him worthy of being a Purple Heart recipient.
“I think it should only be given to people who are wounded, lose their limbs or die from wounds,” said Petrucci, who felt his injuries were only minor.
Most recently, Petrucci was granted the medal of the Legion of Honor, the highest honor given by France, while surrounded by family and friends at the French consulate in San Francisco on Feb. 9, 2016.
Petrucci said the medal — all of his medals, in fact — are for his grandchildren.
“Alice said, ‘you got to leave them to the grandchildren’,” Petrucci said. “It was very special to have family members there, because that’s why we were there.”
At the Feb. 9 ceremony, Consul General of France, Pauline Carmona, presented Petrucci with the Legion of Honor.
“I am here, today, to tell you that the people of France have not forgotten,” Carmona said in her speech. “Their children and grandchildren have not forgotten. France will never forget.”
Petrucci hasn’t, either.
“I think it’s a very nice honor to have,” Petrucci said. “But, I don’t care if I ever had a medal. If all my medals would bring back one guy to life that we lost, it would be worth it.
“I had a full life,” he continued, “four children, 11 grandchildren, good health … and all these young guys (in the war), they died.”
Visit history.com/topics/world-war-ii/d-day to read more about D-Day and its far-reaching impacts.