The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

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June 6, 2014

Hermitage man was there, watching history in making

HERMITAGE — Ralph Saternow took a trip to France that he never thought he would survive.

It was on this day in 1944 that Saternow walked ashore on the beaches of Normandy with the Allied invasion of France. Those steps have never been forgotten by the 91-year-old.

While never firing a gun in anger, the images he saw of dead soldiers and the wounded are still with him. Yet, at the time he didn’t grasp he was watching history in the making. He was, after all, in a deadly battle.

“When it’s happening you don’t think anything. You just do it,’’ the Hermitage resident said. “You don’t think anything about the history – you just wanted to come out alive.’’

A retired advertising representative from The Herald, Saternow’s journey to D-Day had interesting twists and turns. Graduating from Sharon High School, by 1941 he was working at the former Westinghouse Electric Corp. plant in Sharon when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

He immediately decided to enlist. Bound and determined to fight in the Pacific Theater, he hopped aboard a train headed to San Diego.

“I was afraid if I enlisted here I would be sent to the Atlantic,’’ he recalled. “I wanted to fight the Japanese.’’

Initially wanting to join the Marines, he opted for the Navy.

“San Diego was a Navy town,’’ Saternow said. “The sailors seemed to be having more fun than the Marines.’’

After undergoing training in San Diego and then Toledo, Ohio, he was sent to Pittsburgh to float a Landing Ship Tank 272, known in the Navy as a LST, down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. Later in the war sailors would say the letters of the amphibious craft should stand for Large Stationary Target or Large Slow Target. The slow moving craft was the largest beaching vessel in the Navy that could land cargo ashore.

Completing this mission to New Orleans, Saternow returned to Pittsburgh, where he was assigned to a new ship, LST 139.

Constructed in nearby Ambridge, it was LST 139 that Saternow would think of as his true ship. Also sailing the vessel to New Orleans, he and his crewmates took the craft directly to England, where preparations for the invasion were already under way.

It was a little disappointing to a man who did everything he could to get into the Pacific Theater. But he found enjoyment with his fellow sailors.

The 100-man crew of the LST joined the training in England and Saternow was assigned to man the ship’s 20 millimeter gun. His official assignment was storekeeper 3rd class, which was a sailor who oversaw supplies. It was his post as the gunner that he took most seriously.

On debarkation day for Normandy, he and his shipmates sensed something was up.

“They shut down the telephone system on the base,’’ he said. “But we didn’t know what was going on.’’

No information was given to the sailors about their destination – none.

It turns out LST 139 was assigned the roll of transporting tanks, British and Scottish troops to what was called Juno Beach. It was one of five beaches Allied forces landed on. This beach spanned from Courseulles-sur-Mer, just east of the British beach Gold, to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, just west of the British beach Sword.

While onboard the LST, Saternow could hear the thunderous belch of Allied guns from other ships and German guns returning fire from ashore. Charged with watching the skies for enemy German planes, Saternow manned his gun and was ready to pull the trigger.

That moment never came.

“I didn’t see a single German plane,’’ he said.

When his LST landed on Juno, the fighting near the shore was over.  

“I never saw any bullets,’’ Saternow said. “And our ship was never under direct fire.’’

But he observed scenes of the dead and wounded that can’t be forgotten. Because his ship was carrying vital cargo such as tanks and troops in hostile territory, sailors were forbidden from picking up dead comrades in the water.

Even though he didn’t come under fire while ashore, there were still landmines to content with. And, as it turns out, Saternow had to be careful not to get picked off from friendly fire. Donning his sailor’s white hat, he stood out against soldiers wearing green helmets.

“A British soldier told me to get off shore because I was wearing that white hat,’’ he said. “He told me if the Germans didn’t get me the British would because they didn’t know who I was.’’

In all he made two trips ashore that day with supplies and brought back wounded Allied and German soldiers for medical treatment.

Although he and his fellow sailors were on dry land, they still weren’t told what was transpiring.

“We knew we were in France, but we didn’t know where in France,’’ he said.

But when returning to English shores a few days later, it became clear to the men they had been involved in a major action.

“By the time we got back to England everyone pretty much knew what was going on,’’ he said.

Eventually, Saternow and his ship made 50 trips to France and got to land on the other four beaches that were made famous on D-Day.

He downplayed his involvement on that day now made famous for helping end the aggression of the enemy.

“I’m glad I was there. And I’m glad I got back alive,’’ he said. “There were a great many heroes there – but not me.’’

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