Croatian Americans and D-Day
A short essay by John Peter Kraljic
In 1997, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Omisalj Society of New York and the 100th anniversary of the first organization of people from Omisalj in New York, a commemorative booklet was issued to honor those from this town on Krk Island whose fathers, mothers, sons and daughters number into the thousands in the New York City area alone.
The booklet included a number of advertisements to honor some of our forefathers. One of the ones which has always stood out in my mind was entitled "In Memory of Pfc. Nikola Feretic, 1/16/07-6/12/44." A portrait style photo accompanies the advertisement showing Feretic with a photo of a Purple Heart. The advertisement was signed: "Always in our hearts and minds, Our Spouse, Father, Grandfather and Great Grandfather, who we lost forever on June 12, 1944, during the invasion on Normandy Beach. His Wife Dinka, Daughters Anica and Lucija, with Their Families, Sons Anton and Stjepan, with Their Families."
It is difficult for me to imagine what a loss this represented to Feretic's family. He was in his late thirties and left behind four children as well as his wife. Ever since then, I have often thought about Feretic and wondered about other Croatian Americans who participated in what has come to be known as the Longest Day.
Croatian Americans participated in the tens of thousands in America's armed forces during World War II from the very first day that the United States entered the War. Thanks to the work of a number of intrepid researchers, we now know that a Croatian American named Tomich was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor after his death for his heroism during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Croatian historian Ivan Cizmic in his seminal work on the Croatian Fraternal Union (CFU) noted that at least 15,000 members of the CFU alone had served in America's armed forces during the War, 308 of whom laid down their lives for their adopted country.
D-Day was only one of many battles in which Croatian Americans played a role. This short essay does not pretend to be a definitive account of that role by any means. It is simply intended as a short summary of at some of those who fought in this greatest amphibious action in military history. Hopefully, some more intrepid researchers will succeed in compiling a comprehensive list.
One of the more interesting of Croatian-American veterans of D-Day was August "Augie" Mardesich. Mardesich later served for decades as one of Washington State's greatest legislators. Mardesich was born in San Pedro, California in 1920, his father coming from Komiza and his mother also coming from the Dalmatian coast. In 1928, the family moved to Everett in Washington State where his father worked in the fishing industry. Both August and his brother Tony enlisted soon after Pearl Harbor, Tony entering the Navy and Augie the Army. Augie ended up heading a company of African-American soldiers (the US Army was segregated at the time) in the quartermaster division. They landed in Normandy on D-Day +1 and delivered supplies to American troops as they pressed on their advance against Germany. After the War, both he and his brother finished law school and Tony went into politics. Tony became a State legislator. Tragically, Tony and his father both perished at sea during a fishing expedition with their boat, along with three other men. Augie barely survived the trip along with four other survivors. Washington's Governor later appointed him to complete his brother's term and Augie spent the next few decades in the State legislature, becoming the only man in the State's history to serve as majority leader of both houses.
Walt Mainerich was born in 1922 in Chisholm in Minnesota's "Iron Range." One of nine children of Croatian immigrants, Walt began working in the local area iron mines soon after graduating high school. He enlisted in the Army in December 1942 and volunteered for the paratroopers.
Walt was assigned to the famed 101st Airborne, serving in Company I of the 501st Parachute Regiment. Walt and his comrades are counted as among the first Americans to have landed in France on D-Day, being dropped behind Utah Beach in the early morning. Along with the rest of the 101st Airborne, Walt saw action in some of the most important battles in Europe, including Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.
Walt returned to the US after being discharged from the Army in December 1945. He returned to mining for several more years before becoming a rural mail carrier. He retired from the US Postal Service in 1986.
While I have not been able to confirm his Croatian ethnicity, Frank Bilich of Chicago likely is a Croatian-American and has at least given us further indications of the participation of Croatians in the D-Day invasion. Frank served as a paratrooper in D Company of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. Bilich later said that what most impressed him with his company was the variety of people. "We had people from just about every state in the Union with those who could speak just about any language: Polish, Croatian, German, Italian, French, you name it." Like Mainerich, Frank also jumped into Normandy, Holland and participated in the Battle of the Bulge and ended the War on the Elbe River in Germany. Bilich re-enlisted after the end of the War for another three year stint and was discharged in late 1948 with the rank of Staff Sergeant.
Yet another D-Day paratrooper was Private First Class Edward Cavlovic, a relative of the Nazy (Nizaj) family from Chicago. Ed also participated in the D-Day invasion. Several months later, his unit along with British and Polish commandos were dropped seventy miles behind German lines in Holland in Operation Market Garden. Tragically, Ed was killed during the operation on September 17, 1944.
Michael Paulson of Gary, Indiana also participated in the D-Day invasion. A child of Croatian immigrants, Michael later became a pilgrim to Medjugorje. A Wall Street Journal article from November 9, 1992, described Michael's pilgrimage to the Marian Shrine during the height of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina:
"For the Indiana retiree, Mr. Paulson, it’s a small miracle just to be here. The only other place in Europe the 71 years old has visited is Normandy – aboard a landing craft on D-Day in 1944. This time, he has spend two days in planes, buses, cars and taxis – only to land in the middle of a war once again. "Seems like folks in Europe are always fighting", says the white-bearded pilgrim, gazing at the hills and popping pills for a heart condition.
Mr. Paulson, a former juvenile probation officer, has come here with a vision of his own. He wants to transport small stones from Medjugorje to Indiana, where he hopes churchgoers will obtain a stone by making a donation – half of which goes to their church, and half to a non profit foundation. Mr. Paulson wants to use this money to build a Girls Town for troubled youths, near Boys Town in Omaha, Neb.
Ultimately, he hopes to build a similar center in the former Yugoslavia. "It might be a small way for people here to start living together again", he says.
This passion for reconciliation comes from personal experience. The child of Croatian immigrants, Mr. Paulson says the closest friend from his youth was Serbian. "My parents never talked about Serb and Croat", he says. "We were all just Yugoslavs".
Now, staying at a farmhouse where pilgrims stop, Mr. Paulson gives his rusty Croatian a workout. Seated around a table groaning with soup, chicken, potatoes and coleslaw, he begins the dinner by declaring, "This war is insane".
Mr. Paulson’s host smiles politely and offers a glass of the plum brandy popular in this region. "I don’t drink", Mr. Paulson says apologetically. "I’m on pills".
This sparks a laugh, as does his photo album. It is filled with snapshots of Mr. Paulson as a volunteer of Santa Claus, at a roller rink in Gary. He does a few "Ho ho hos", chats about the Chicago Bulls (popular in basketball – crazed Croatia) and about his great-grandchildren. By the end of the dinner, on of the boys in the family has agreed to help him gather stone from nearby fields.
Mr. Paulson isn’t sure he will ever see his dream realized. He can’t stay long because he has no credit cards and only $1,000 in cash. Even if his health holds, returning here won’t be easy: His only income is a Social Security check and a small government pension. But Mr. Paulson says his mission is no more daunting than that of other pilgrims, praying for peace in the midst of war.
"If you want to move s mountain", he says, taking another pill, "you have to do it stone by stone".
As a final note to this short essay, mention should be made of the three Croatian merchant ships that also participated in the D-Day invasion and were purposely sunk by the Allies. When Yugoslavia was invaded in April 1941, approximately 77 merchant vessels from Yugoslavia found themselves abroad. Most of these were Croatian owned and manned for the most part by Croats. Approximately 40 of these ships were sunk during the War by German and Japanese submarines while carrying vital goods for the Allies. At least 150 Croatian merchantmen died during these attacks.
Two ships, the "Njegos" and the "Istok," owned by Jugoslavenski Lloyd from Split were sunk off the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944, while a third, the "Vicko Feric" owned by Brodarstvo Feric also in Split, was sunk at Cherbourg a little later. These ships, along with others, were used by the Allies as water breakers. They were generally older ships, stripped of their valuables and loaded with sand before going down into the waters off of France.