Wierzba in the Newspaper: A Submission to the Carnival of Genealogy
By AMY RABIDEAU SILVERS firstname.lastname@example.org, Journal Sentinel —
Saturday, May 8, 2004
Wierzba waited 50 years to tell his D-Day story
Fifty years after one of the most famous dates in American history, Eugene J. Wierzba began telling a friend just what happened on a beach in France.
The scene was Omaha Beach in Normandy.
The date was June 6, 1944, better known as D-Day.
Wierzba was a young sailor on the USS Henrico, assigned to get soldiers to the beach in the first landings.
“Like a lot of combat veterans, he never talked about his experiences until June 1994,” said friend Frank Malone. “We were having lunch and, for whatever reason, he gave us some details.”
Wierzba, of South Milwaukee, died of natural causes Wednesday. He was 79.
He grew up on Milwaukee’s south side, one of seven sons, all of whom served during World War II. Wierzba turned 18 in December 1943. In those war years, being in high school didn’t mean being exempt from service, and Wierzba was ordered to report to the Army in March. He joined the Navy instead.
Omaha Beach came later.
“We were on the No. 2 boat in the first wave,” said George Stillwell, a crew mate that day, telling the story. “Wierzba was our signalman.”
Four sailors handled the landing craft vehicle personnel (LCVP), also known as a Higgins boat. Thirty-two soldiers were aboard.
“We went into the beach . . . and it was really rough seas,” then-gunner’s mate Stillwell said. “We got caught on the last sandbar.”
The soldiers moved into the water. As the Navy crew tried to get off the sandbar, a shell hit in front of the boat. The boat surged upward. Water rushed into the lowered ramp.
The four sailors — Joseph Fromal from Newport News, Va., and John Paul Stemler from Trenton, N.J., were the other two — ended up in the sea, too. They stayed together, clinging to the steel obstacles left by the Germans to thwart landings. They began making their way to another landing craft. It was blown up before they could get to it.
Finally, they made their way to the beach.
“We started hiding behind things,” said Stillwell, of Pahrump, Nev. “We hid behind a tank, but then one of the soldiers said the tank was going to get hit. We just got the heck out of there, because we were strafed by the Germans.”
They sought other shelter. The tank was hit.
Fighting was not an option.
“We had weapons, but we were in the water a couple hours,” Stillwell said. “Everything was saltwater, sand. None of the weapons worked.”
They spent the rest of that morning trying to maneuver toward any boats, seeing some blow up before they could get close enough.
“We finally did get off the beach,” Stillwell said. They made it back to the Henrico.
After Normandy, the Henrico joined the August landings in southern France. By April 1945, it was part of the invasion of Okinawa.
“Our ship got hit with a suicide bomber in Okinawa on April 1, 1945,” Stillwell said. The Japanese pilot slammed his plane “right into the superstructure of the ship.”
The bombs penetrated two deck levels, exploding on the main deck, said Stillwell.
“It burned all night,” he said. “And we lost a lot of people.”
Wierzba was below deck and survived. The ship made repairs, then limped back to San Francisco for more extensive work. Wierzba was discharged in October 1945.
He returned home to his family in Milwaukee, finished high school and then went to Milwaukee Area Technical College. He met and married his wife, the former Beverly Dugan, in 1949. Wierzba worked for Wisconsin Electric for 40 years, operating generators and turbines.
“His experiences had left such a deep impression,” Malone said. “He told me that he could not see the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ with its utterly realistic opening scenes of the landings on Omaha Beach.”
All seven Wierzba brothers returned uninjured from military service. Eugene Wierzba was the last surviving brother.
Other survivors include his wife; daughter Nancy; son Patrick; sister Sophie Kubacki; and grandson Benjamin, now in the Air Force.
Visitation will be from 9 this morning until the service at 11 a.m., at Divine Mercy Catholic Church, 695 College Ave., South Milwaukee.
Citation: Silvers, Amy Rabideau. “Wierzba waited 50 years to tell his D-Day story. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 07 May 2004. Online archives. http://www.jsonline.com/story/index.aspx?id=227884 : 2008