ARKPORT — John M. Pastalenic of Arkport was a combat veteran before he parachuted into southern France and Nazi gunfire at 4 a.m. on a foggy Aug. 15, 1944.
Pastalenic, with about 90 pounds of combat gear, landed on a stone, turned his ankle and hit the ground on his back, “knocking the wind out of me,” while German troopers fired at the American GIs from all directions, he told the Tribune last weekend.
Enemy soldiers were desperate after being pushed back hundreds of miles through French hedgerows from Normandy and Brittany after D-Day, June 5, almost 70 years ago.
Pastalenic said regrouping with other members of Company H of the legendary 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team “took us about two days.”
On the second day, Pastalenic “began to work my way into a vineyard when a German dashed across the road between the rows. I jumped the opposite way, not having time to fire. I waited a few minutes and began to creep out on my elbows and belly. Before I got to the end of the row a burst from a (Nazi) burp gun turned me over on my back. I knew I was hit hard.”
“Hit hard” was an understatement. The veteran of fighting in Italy described the wound: “The burst (of 9mm bullets) went through my stomach wall, through the right groin and out the right thigh without touching a bone. I crawled back as far as I could, then rolled over on my back and made my peace with the Lord” in a bullet-punctuated French vineyard.
Pastalenic said “In what seemed a short while, I heard (his close friend) Wally Vincent asking about me. All I could do was whistle. He shouted and asked if it was me and I whistled again. The next thing I remember was two medics applying sulfa powder to the wounds and giving me a shot of morphine.”
He blacked out again and “came to on the operating table with one leg over the top of a doctor’s shoulder. He was finishing stitching my stomach wounds. He mentioned to a person standing by his side that I was shot with a burst of about seven” bullets.
Pastalenic’s odyssey of recovery included makeshift Army hospitals in Italy, Morocco, the Azores, Miami, near Pittsburgh and, finally, a real medical facility.
A surgical team at New England General Hospital in Atlantic City repaired Pastalenic’s “messed up femoral nerve. I came out of the operating room with a cast around my waist and down my right leg to the top of the knee. So I was hobbling around on crutches for some time. When the cast was removed I was sent to Ft. Monmouth, N.J., for reconditioning my right foot, which swung abnormally to the right. With therapy, it ultimately returned to normal.”
While he went through physical therapy in New Jersey, “the war ended in Europe and I was eventually sent back to New England General for a medical discharge.”
Before France, Pastalenic trained in Colorado with what became the 10th Mountain Division; graduated from jump school in Ft. Benning, Ga., and took a Liberty Ship across the Atlantic through two storms and nighttime bombardment from what he calls “visitors from the German air force (who made) the night skies look like a Fourth of July” fireworks display.
Combat in Italy included “a plateau where the Germans surprised us, opening up with small arms and pinning us down. We were shelled with mortar rounds and got orders to move back down the hill. As I rounded some brush and rocks, I saw my first casualty. Our machine gunner” suffered a grisly fatal wound from German mortar fire.
Pastalenic is now 90 years old and has been married for 66 years to his wife, Dottie. They have lived for 27 years in Arkport.
He can still fit into his seven-decades-old jump jacket and proudly displays the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, his paratrooper wings with a star for the combat jump, the Purple Heart and medals for World War II campaigns in France and Italy.
Infrequent incidents bring memories of 70 years ago rushing back. A Belgian wrote that his grandmother found Pastalenic’s Army identification tags — the metal rectangles that GIs fondly call “Dog tags” — and after correspondence, sent one to Arkport about two years ago. Pastalenic imagines the tags were lost on a French battleground as he fought for his country and then his life.
A Tribune article last week mentioned a fellow World War II paratrooper from the 517th, Leo Dean of Albany. The comrades in arms shared combat reminiscences via telephone.
Pastalenic closed his recollections about combat 70 years ago with these sentences: “I would like to tell everyone I was proud to serve my God and country and I would do it again with the 517th. In the book about the parachute regimental combat team, ‘Battling Buzzards,’ I am listed as the third man who went down but not out. The writer didn’t know how to spell my Polish name.”
To learn more, Google ‘517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team - Pastalenic’ for information about the paratrooper’s combat experience and his photo. Wally Vincent, the GI who saved his life in France, is standing next to Pastalenic in the top row.
Pause as you read his memoir to look at the photo of young men who were part of what some call “The Greatest Generation” for their sacrifices fighting tyranny.
Nobody who reads Pastalenic’s combat story will doubt his membership.