By Jennifer Gallus
HOWARD LAKE, MN - Injured in Normandy on D-Day, Howard Lake native and recently departed Harold Pugh, 94, leaves behind a tale of heroism and duty that so few have lived to tell.
Little did the late Otis and the late Victoria (Burchette) Pugh know while holding their infant son Harold in 1914 that he would one day end up in the first combat wave to hit Normandy, France (Omaha Beach) on D-Day during World War II.
Not only did Harold survive the Omaha Beach invasion; although wounded, he was awarded a Purple Heart for his service, and went on to live a long and prosperous life.
Pugh had joined the Merchant Marines at the young age of 16, according to niece Bernice Sand of Cokato.
A letter written by Harold in 2000 to family friend Russ Gausman of Cokato tells a story best left unaltered.
Pugh wrote, “I was a merchant seaman before and after Pearl Harbor. My job mostly was steering these big freighters. We went to Yokohama, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Manila. We arrived back in Seattle right before Pearl Harbor. After Pearl Harbor we went to New Zealand and Australia with war material. These were very dangerous trips. In November 1942, I was drafted off a ship and put in the Army with the 37th Combat Engineers. We were the first wave to hit Normandy, France at 6:30 a.m. June 6, 1944 (D-Day).”
He continues, “William Richards of San Francisco and William Franco of Chicago and I buddied up to go into combat together. Both of them were killed and I was wounded. A VFW Post in Chicago is named after Franco.”
The staging area for troops before they crossed the English Channel was in England, which is where the picture was taken of Pugh in his army uniform, according to what Pugh told Gausman some time ago.
Pugh crossed the English Channel in an LCT, which is a troop invasion transport ship, according to Sand.
“They were hit by German 88s and small arms fire as they attempted to land,” Sand said. “On the day of the attack, he had a safety razor in his backpack. The shrapnel hit his razor, saving his life. He called it his ‘lucky razor.’”
Sand was told by Pugh that the Army had a “buddy system.” His first buddy was killed instantly on Omaha Beach, and his other buddy was mortally injured.
“Harold gave him (the injured friend) his own morphine,” Sand said.
“Harold was also hit by artillery fire, stayed aboard the LCT, and was evacuated to a hospital ship which took him back to England,” she added.
Pugh was discharged after the war ended in 1945, and received a Purple Heart for his wounds in action, Sand explained.
He kept his “lucky razor,” and carried it at all times, Sand added.
Pugh joined the US Postal Service and was a mail carrier in Minneapolis until he retired to Little Canada in 1972.
“At the age of 92, Harold was still doing what he loved the most dancing,” Sand said. “He and his partners enjoyed teaching others how to dance the following dances: waltz, fox trot, old tyme polka, schottisha and/or mazurka, east or west coast swing, polish hop polka, and the rumba/cha-cha.”
Pugh won national, midwest, and local trophies in dance competitions.
As if he hadn’t accomplished enough, at the age of 93, Pugh received an honorary high school diploma from the Roseville School District.
“He was just a delightful man with a charming smile,” said Roseville Schools Superintendent John Thein. “They’re having this greatest generation celebration, and Harold was just a prime example of that greatest generation he gave a lot to his community and his country, and was a real model.”
Pugh’s life was ended May 19 while driving to Howard Lake to place flowers on his parents’ and siblings’ graves in the Howard Lake Cemetery.
He did not have his ‘lucky razor’ with him when his car veered off of Highway 12 near Wright County Road 92 and crashed.
“Every year,” Gausman explained, “he’d come out here just before Memorial Day to put flowers on all of his family members’ graves.”
Pugh has many relatives at both the Howard Lake Cemetery and at Sylvan Cemetery.
He was buried Wednesday at the Howard Lake Cemetery.
A little family history
The Pughs and Burchettes of Middleville and Albion townships were two prominent pioneer families in the early 1900s, but as Gausman explained, they are sort of extinct family names in this area today.
The Pughs lived on Keats Avenue north of Highway 12. In fact, the bridge that crosses the Crow River on Keats Avenue was once called the “Pugh Bridge” because that’s were the family lived, according to Gausman.
Harold’s grandfather, John Pugh, originally came to the Howard Lake area from Ohio. He died in 1906.
The Burchettes were an “interesting pioneer family originally from West Virginia,” before they moved to Albion Township, according to Gausman.
Harold’s father died in 1920 when Harold was only six years old.
He and his mother moved to Barron, WI in 1926, and his mother eventually remarried, according to Gausman.
“Harold had quite a life,” Gausman said. “He was a nice old fellow, and he was pretty spry.”
“His mother lived to 103, so he has a family of longevity,” Gausman added.