D-Day: Running the Gauntlet of Hell


On D-Day, June 6, 1944, during the Normandy invasion of Europe, John Drake Pusey (pronounced Pew-zee) of Santa Cruz found himself huddled on a beach when he came ashore exhausted while being exposed to German guns was. The Allied invasion of Europe was an attempt to open a second front against the Nazis, landing troops on five Normandy beaches, codenamed Utah and Omaha for Americans, and Gold and Sword for Britain and Juno for Canada. But the failure of air and sea bombardment to cripple the strong German defenses at Omaha Beach brought that one landing close to defeat. Allied forces had to traverse a gauntlet of landmines, barbed wire, a moat and sniper fire from cliff-top bunkers. How did a 39-year-old man with a distinguished artistic career end up in this kind of pickle?

The D-Day landing shows the large LST force and supply transports that Capt. Pusey brought to Omaha Beach. (Contributed)

The prankster

Pusey was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1905 to an influential local family of pioneers, politicians, and entrepreneurs. But when his father died, his mother had to raise three children on a principal’s salary of $65 a week. A born leader and class clown, Pusey “wise enough to play the fool” drew cartoons to amuse his friends. When Pusey graduated from high school in 1923, he turned his humorous sketches into an art major and graduated from the Yale School of Fine Art in 1926.

Hoping to broaden his artistic horizons, he went to Paris to study art and lived the life of a starving bohemian. He studied in the Louvre and in the Luxembourg museums, sold paintings to American tourists and published a magazine. He became friends with art student Bill H. Irwin of Brookdale, California, and Chicago native Margaret Jarvis, who was studying art at the Sorbonne. Pusey married Margaret in 1926, who gave birth to son JJ in 1927. Pusey had a successful one-man show at the Barbizon in the summer of 1928. A trip to Madrid was a revelation, where Pusey found a wider palette in colorfully decorated bullfights. However, he was most inspired by the somber works of Francisco Goya, whose expressionist depictions of war, devastation and nightmares seemed painted with raw emotion. Pusey found that distorted perspectives created additional stress and that reality had to be subordinated to emotions.

The Puseys sold art in France, New York and Iowa until the Great Depression devastated the market. Fortunately, the New Deal created the Public Works of Art Project in Iowa City, where it joined 34 painters under the direction of Grant Wood. They were commissioned to create murals for public buildings. Instead of creating monumental works of patriotic themes, they celebrated the current struggles of peasants and workers, which have been dubbed “regionalism” or “depression art.” While Wood’s sentimental portrayal of rural life, Pusey’s prankster perspective seemed to comment on the irony within the fight. In one painting he shows wealthy officials at a cornerstone ceremony, applauded in the background while workers struggle to lay the cornerstone in the foreground. In another painting, workers are contrasted with rows of cattle. Or he depicted industrial “progress” under a smoke-obscured sky. When Wood Eli recommended Lilly to hire Pusey for a large library commission, Pusey persuaded Lilly to replace famous men with average-working Americans.


In 1938 Pusey became a set designer for Universal Studios in Hollywood, then in 1939 he was engaged at the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair on Treasure Island, where he created eight murals and oversaw a number of others. The fair was so popular that it was continued for a second year in 1940. But Pusey moved to Santa Cruz to open a studio and teamed up with college art friend Bill Irwin.

This Goya-esque self-portrait by John Drake Pusey was painted in 1940, the year he settled in Santa Cruz.  (Contributed)
This Goya-esque self-portrait by John Drake Pusey was painted in 1940, the year he settled in Santa Cruz. (Contributed)

France fell in June 1940, Paris was occupied by the Nazis on June 14, and Hitler went on tour on June 23, 1940. While admiring Paris, Hitler ordered the destruction of two World War I memorials, one to French war hero General Charles Mangin, and one to British nurse Edith Cavell, who was executed for helping soldiers escape from the Germans. Pusey and Irwin worried about their friends in the Paris art scene.

Pusey joined the National Guard and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 34th Infantry Division. But surprisingly, the Army needed artists, so Pusey was promoted to Captain and transferred to the Corps of Engineers. Pusey and Irwin helped develop special camouflage patterns and scrim curtains to hide factories and military bases or to camouflage them from the air.

Pusey was then stationed in England, where he learned how to defuse bombs and booby traps. He wrote his wife in Santa Cruz about D-Day. Pusey crossed the English Channel on June 5, 1944 in a large ship-like landing craft known as an LST (“Landing Ship Tank”, also called the “Large Slow Target” by the soldiers). It was crowded with men and vehicles. At midnight the general quarters alarm sounded, locking the men in their watertight compartments below decks while the deck guns were fired. After about an hour they were allowed on deck and had a good breakfast. The sea was crowded with invasion ships, but still eerily calm as the vessels passed the illuminated buoys left just ahead by minesweepers.

D day

Then “all hell seems to break loose on the shore about 24 kilometers away. The air raid had begun and the sky became an inferno of colorful flashes from bombs, anti-aircraft guns and burning airplanes. We hated watching our plane burst into flames. I saw six in 10 minutes. But they had a job to do and they did it.” Only nine of the 81 aircraft deployed that day found their intended landing zone, but the accidentally scattered landings in a 20-mile range confused the Germans, who mostly killed those who arrived exactly. These D-Day air deaths included Jack Marlow of Aromas, Leo Packham of Santa Cruz and Carl Riggs of Watsonville.

“A naval control boat hailed us and told us not to land yet, so we turned and walked about 500 yards from shore, where we circled and awaited further orders. The destroyers came closer and really started giving the Jerry [German] Pill box hell up close. They shot right over our heads and I’m still deaf from it. … For four more hours we tossed and turned, until we were so cold we could hardly wait to get to the beach despite the fire, which was stiff as ever.

“Then 11 o’clock came and we were ordered in. We were already good and angry and fearless – just terribly excited, like at a football game. My brain was crystal clear and I automatically did the things I was taught. We landed about 40 feet from shore, and as the ramp was lowered we were hit squarely in the stern of the boat, losing five men and wounding many. I was behind an armored car, so I never caught anything. The water was only about 2 feet deep when we got out, but after a few steps it was over our heads and we were all swimming like crazy with constant shell blasts all around us.

“When I finally got to the beach I fell flat on my face from exhaustion as I had managed to keep all my arms and gear and the swim was very tough as a result. I ordered my little band up to a ditch already full of infantry who couldn’t charge yet and we pushed on them which they didn’t mind as we gave them extra cover.

“Since I had a job to do, my sergeant and I walked up the beach to the exit about 500 yards on our right. As the grenade launchers chased us, we fell on our faces every 10 meters and finally reached the slope of the cliff unscathed, through minefields and everything else. There I found the department engineer I was supposed to contact and began to get an idea of ​​the situation as we dug in and we dug faster than we ever had before or ever again! Watching Jerry’s defense a few days later, I still don’t know how we ever took it, but embrace it and we’re very confident and cocky now. At least I won’t be afraid of anything anymore.”

Pusey “deloused” the minefield with detectors and defusing, and was often sent into bunkers to clear explosives. Pusey was sent to clear explosives in Adolph Hitler’s “Felsennest” bunker. There he found oil paints and a paint box too impractical for a true artist. Those could only have been Hitler’s colours. Pusey received permission to ship this 10-year supply of paint back to Santa Cruz with the intention of painting a mural to celebrate Hitler’s defeat.

After retiring, Pusey was recalled to active duty by the Berlin Airlift in 1948, then served with his son JJ in the Korean War. The Puseys left Santa Cruz in 1950 and settled in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1957, where he also became an art professor at Dickinson College. In a library in Carlisle, which still stands there today, he was given the opportunity to paint his mural of victory in World War II. But in post-war McCarthyism, the New Deal was equated with communism and “depression art” was called anti-American, so a number of New Deal murals were removed or destroyed.

Nonetheless, D-Day was still a defining moment. Allied forces used 5,333 ships to land 150,000 troops with aircraft dropping 18,000 paratroopers, making them the largest invasion force in world history. In the first 24 hours of D-Day, Allied casualties numbered 4,414 and German casualties between 4,000 and 9,000. And all to defeat the enslaving and murderous ethos of white nationalism.


Comments are closed.