When America called, the Greatest Generation answered

BALTIMORE – Well into his 70s, Augustino (Bud) Paolino still had the rosy cherub cheeks that defined his baby face. I didn’t see that face when Bud really was a child. But I know he was just a babe when America sent him into Normandy, 75 years ago, with all the other babes on the defining day of World War II.

He was 19 on D-Day. He had a new wife, Annabelle, back in East Baltimore, and a baby on the way, and on the evening of the great European invasion, he believed in his heart he would never see home again.

He was one of the first to set foot in France – several hours earlier than all those thousands who arrived in the early daylight invasion of June 6, 1944.

They dropped him down the night before. They put a bunch of soldiers on these things the wise guys called flying coffins. They were canvas and plywood gliders without engines, hooked onto airplanes, and they cut them loose in the vast darkness to drift down into occupied France hours before the full invasion.

“I remember there was just this whispering sensation,” Bud said years later, “and everybody throwing up like crazy. I can still hear the pilot saying, ‘Sunday landing.’ It was pitch dark when we got out. We dug in some woods and waited for daybreak. I can tell you, our hearts were pounding.”

He was soft-spoken and self-effacing and shy whenever somebody brought up the war. Like so many veterans, it took years of prying before he opened up about the time he spent in combat.

For a long time, I knew Paolino the way everybody in Baltimore did – he owned Bud’s Crabhouse, on East Lombard Street, and later Enrico’s Bar, on Haven Street, two of the town’s great, clattering, noisy gathering places – and I knew him from writing about the street characters who’d meet at those joints.

But the war was too painful to talk about for a long time. In the immediate aftermath of D-Day, he spent 45 days fighting in France. Then in Holland, he was shot in the hand and chest. He was shot in the back at the Battle of the Bulge and lay bleeding in the snow for three days with nothing but a bottle of cognac to drink. He said the cognac kept him alive. Then, after three months in a Paris hospital, he was one of the first U.S. soldiers who fought their way into Germany.

In the closing days of the war in Europe, he captured a German officer, who told him, “You’d better not hurt me. You’re in worse shape than I am.”

Bud thought it was Nazi arrogance talking. “What do you mean?” he asked.

“You’ve lost your commander in chief,” the German officer said.

“That’s how I found out Franklin Roosevelt had died,” Bud remembered. “From a German officer.”

Like so many of those who arrived at Normandy 75 years ago, he was just a kid. He went wherever they told him to go.

“I never, ever dreamed I’d get back home,” he said one afternoon near the end of his 80 years. After D-Day, he said, every day felt like borrowed time.

But he turned a lot of the ensuing years into glad times. The sweetest story he told was his homecoming. Nobody in East Baltimore knew he was back. He slipped into his family’s old row house and found his young wife Annabelle writing a letter. She didn’t hear him come in. Bud stood behind her and looked down. She was writing a letter to him, thinking he was still overseas.

“I’m right here,” he whispered.

And, like so many we remember on this day 75 years later, he was right there – in France, in the middle of hell – when the country needed him most.

Feature Photo Above: The U.S. Coast Guard-manned USS Samuel Chase disembarks troops of Company E, 16th Infantry1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) wading onto the Fox Green section of Omaha Beach (Calvados, Basse-Normandie, France) on the morning of June 6, 1944. American soldiers encountered the newly formed German 352nd Division when landing. During the initial landing two-thirds of Company E became casualties. (Public Domain)