World War II vet from Sewickley recalls earning Purple Heart

“Sometimes I look back on the war and think, ‘Oh my God, how long ago that was.  Other times I think it was just like yesterday.”


Sewickley is a leafy suburb of Pittsburgh that retains a distinctive quaint, small-town feel.  It is also home to many of our Veterans Breakfast Club veterans who attend our monthly breakfast at nearby Robert Morris University.

One of our Sewickley vets is Bob Lautanen who landed on Normandy June 9, 1944, D+3.  This is his story, as told earlier this month to Joanne Barron of the Sewickley Herald:

Two more inches, and Bob Lautanen of Sewickley might not be here today.

Lautanen, 90, was wounded in the right jaw five months after landing June 9, 1944, on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, three days after D-Day.

“There’s muscle there, but there’s no bone,” he said, feeling the side of his jaw.

Lautanen is one of 38 World War II veteranswho will be honored at 10 a.m. tomorrow, Friday, at the Sewickley Senior Men’s Club annual Veterans Day program at the Sewickley Valley YMCA.

Sitting with his wife, Mary, at their dining room table last week, Lautanen had no trouble recalling the events that led up to the October day he was hit while in his pup tent 69 years ago.

Lautanen and his crew took a Landing Ship Tank to Omaha Beach three days after D-Day and ended up in Metz, France. After tracking American tank radio signals, the Germans began firing into the area.

Above Lautanen’s pup tent, there was a tree burst — an explosion of a projectile with some part of a tree showering fragments down on the surrounding area.

One of the fragments hit Lautanen in the jaw.

He couldn’t eat solid food for six months and recovered in a field hospital and other hospitals in Paris, England and Virginia. After being released, he spent two weeks in Miami Beach.

He got his purple heart the first day he was sent to the field hospital.

“The captain just came around and said, ‘Here’s your purple heart.’ I remember looking around at all those men with eyes missing and legs and arms, and I felt lucky. It was a real eye opener,” he said.

No one in his group lost their lives, he said.

Lautanen’s service in the military began when he was drafted by the  army. He left his Ohio farm, where he grew up one of 13 children, to be inducted at Camp Perry in Ohio.

From there, he ventured to Port Eustis, Va., for 13 weeks of basic training and then to Camp Stewart in Georgia, where he was trained as a vehicle maintenance technician. He then went to Fort Benning, N.J., for more training and, soon after, he and his crew left on a ship from New York harbor and headed toward England.

About 500 miles out, Lautanen recalled something unusual happened — a storm hit and knocked out all the ship’s power.

“We were wallowing about. We were sitting ducks. I remember looking at the waves way up there,” he said.

Fortunately, the ship regained its power and ended up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they learned later the ship had been on the verge of capsizing.

The men embarked on another journey on the Queen Elizabeth that went to Scotland and then to Watton, England. Lautanen also was part of the group that defended four large airfields in the area named the Bread Basket of Great Britain.

“It was said to be one of the greatest engineering feats in history when the American leased that land and built those airfields,” he said.

“You could see 1,200 planes in the air at one time,” he said.

After Lautanen was injured, he moved onto Camp Atterbury, Ind., where he not only received his $79-a-month serviceman’s pay but also put in 10-hour nights for three weeks at a battery factory in Indianapolis because the company was shorthanded because of the war. He earned 50 cents an hour, which he said was a good salary back then.

He also had partial duty as a mechanic at Fort Sill, Okla., which also was home to the mule skinners, a group of men who trained mules to pull carriages loaded with large guns.

It was in 1945 that the Army point-system kicked in, and Lautanen had enough points to go home to Ohio, going to Texas first to get discharged.

His brother Raymond was killed in Germany while in the same foxhole as his twin brother, Ralph. Lautanen’s other brother, George, also served in the war and made it home safely.

Lautanen adjusted to civilian life.

After a few other jobs in Ohio, Lautanen retired in 1981 as general supervisor in  LTV Steel maintenance department.

When his first wife, Francine, died of cancer, he married Mary, a  retired business teacher at Moon Area School District, in 1963. They have a daughter, Karen, and granddaughter, Somon, 5.

The couple have attended many reunions of the 455 Battalion and visited Watton with a group of veterans to see a monument dedicated to the group.

They also are members of Veterans Breakfast Club, where veterans from all wars share their stories at various meetings throughout the Pittsburgh area.

The next local meeting is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Dec. 15 during a breakfast in the Sewall Center, Robert Morris University in Moon. For more information, visit

“Sometimes I look back on the war and think, ‘Oh my God, how long ago that was,” Lautanen said.

“Other times I think it was just like yesterday.”

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