John Polyniak, veteran who fought on D-Day, dies

John Polyniak, a World War II veteran who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day and later was severely wounded during the battle for St. Lo, died June 7 of heart failure at the Encore at Turf Valley assisted-living facility in Ellicott City.

Mr. Polyniak's death at 92 came 67 years and a day after he stormed ashore in France with his comrades of Company C, 116th Infantry, of the 29th Division, in the first frenetic predawn moments of the D-Day invasion.

"This was a big day in my life," he wrote in an unpublished account of the invasion.

"The ships were about 10 miles from the coast of France. At 5 a.m., we received orders to disembark to the waiting LCVP's [landing craft]," he wrote. "The Channel was rough, all of our training climbing down from ships was on a rope ladder — today we went down canvas [chutes] onto the LCVP's."

They then proceeded toward the French coast in a circular movement, he wrote, with many of the soldiers in the landing craft becoming seasick because of high seas.

"We were headed toward Omaha Beach! The Coast Guard was attempting to set off a smokescreen. Because of the many obstacles in the water, the LCVP's could not reach the beach," he wrote. "The ramps went down at 7 a.m., and we dropped into the water about waist deep. All of the time enduring heavy enemy fire."

When the ramp dropped, Mr. Polyniak wrote, he yelled to his comrades and urged them on: "Don't stop. Nobody stops."

As the solders made their way to the beach, they encountered more obstacles — a moat and more waist-deep water — that slowed them down. Once on the beach, enemy machine gun fire raised clouds of sand.

Reaching a seawall momentarily stopped C Company until Mr. Polyniak set off a bangalore torpedo that cleared an opening, allowing the men to advance.

As the machine guns roared around them, men fell.

"It was mostly fellows I knew, and suddenly they were gone," Mr. Polyniak told a Washington Post reporter in 1999, when he returned to Normandy for the first time since 1944 with other veterans, National Guard troops from Maryland and historians.

"We were the fortunate ones. Something was protecting us," he said.

Joseph Balkoski is command historian of the Maryland National Guard and author of "Beyond the Beachhead," an account of the D-Day landing.

"He landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day within 30 minutes of the first wave. What he didn't say was how significant his action was in terms of the success of the invasion," said Mr. Balkoski, who was also an old friend of Mr. Polyniak's.

"Getting off the beach and moving inland was proving a deadly endeavor for anyone who tried it that morning, and John's group was one of the first to succeed," he said.

Mr. Polyniak recalled in his D-Day account: "We pushed onto Vierville-sur-Mer, then to Pointe de Hoc — a high ground overlooking the beach. From the German bunkers, I looked out into the English Channel" and was amazed at the sight of hundreds of ships.

The war ended for Mr. Polyniak as American forces were advancing on St. Lo.

"At approximately 9 a.m., I was shot in the right hip. I was semiconscious but heard a voice say, 'This one is alive,'" he wrote.

"John was badly wounded by a German sniper. As he lay in the field, a comrade, Private First Class Charles Pavoris, came forward to administer first aid," Mr. Balkoski said. "As Pavoris was working on John, the German sniper shot and killed him, and he fell on top of John."

"As soon as he ran up, he was shot right in the neck," Mr. Polyniak said in the Washington Post interview. "That was the end of him right then and there."

As his squad advanced, Mr. Polyniak lay beneath the hedgerows for three or four hours, near the body of Private Pavoris, where he was discovered later by a medic.

Mr. Polyniak was transferred to a hospital in England, where he developed an infection in his hip. He was later sent to Fort Dix, N.J., where he underwent three surgeries.

"After months of excruciating pain and rehabilitation, I was discharged with a fitted brace for my right … foot. I was discharged on March 22, 1945, and given a medical disability," he wrote.

He was discharged with the rank of staff sergeant.

He would endure pain and walk with the brace for the remainder of his life.

Mr. Polyniak, one of 12 children of Ukrainian immigrants, was born and raised in Shamokin, Pa., where he graduated from high school.

After working with his father in the anthracite coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania, Mr. Polyniak came to Baltimore and worked at the Flamingo Lodge in Brooklyn and later in Baltimore shipyards before enlisting in early 1942.

In 1947, he married Cleo R. Nolan.

Mr. Polyniak enrolled at the University of Baltimore, where he earned a degree in accounting on the GI Bill of Rights. He worked as a tax assessor for Anne Arundel County until retiring in the 1980s.

It was his wife who urged Mr. Polyniak to return to Normandy in 1999.

When he returned, he was carrying the names of nine men who had been with him that day 55 years before.

At the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer that overlooks Omaha Beach, Mr. Polyniak visited the grave of the man who had tried to save his life.

"He visited Pavoris's grave last. He stood by himself in front of it, his head bowed," reported The Washington Post. "They had been shot together, moments apart, yet he had gone home to live and love and raise a family, but his friend still lay in the ground in Normandy, over a half-century later."

"As you might imagine, that was an emotional moment for all," Mr. Balkoski said.

When the longtime Brooklyn Park resident went to see the movie "Saving Private Ryan," its graphic depiction of Normandy on D-Day was so powerful that Mr. Polyniak was hospitalized the next day with chest pains.

"When we were growing up, he didn't talk about it and just said that was his job," said his daughter, Suzanne R. Costa of Ellicott City. "In later years, when he did talk about it, he never complained."

He was an active member of the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He was a member of the Roland Terrace Democratic Club and the Brooklyn Boosters.

His wife died in 2002.

He was an active member of St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, where a Mass of Christian burial was offered June 11.

Also surviving are two sons, John R. Polyniak of Pasadena and David D. Polyniak of Brooklyn Park; two brothers, Paul Polyniak of Catonsville and Daniel Polyniak of Shamokin; two sisters, Helen Rouito of Shamokin and Olga Feudale of Ashland, Pa.; five grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad