There’s a scene in the miniseries “Band of Brothers” in which an American paratrooper is seen riding a white horse during the D-Day invasion of France.
That scene may have been inspired by 92-year-old St. Augustine resident Mario Patruno. During the Normandy invasion, Patruno was a 23-year-old paratrooper in Company F of the 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. “Band of Brothers” follows an affiliated unit in the 506th, Company E.
Like many Americans who parachuted into Normandy in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, Patruno ended up lost, separated from his company. But he was determined to rejoin Company F. To help him accomplish that goal, he “borrowed” a white horse from the occupying German forces.
Patruno’s early morning ride is now the subject of a new permanent exhibit at the Military Museum of North Florida, located just south of Green Cove Springs on Florida 16. The exhibit includes a plastic Patruno, dressed in the uniform of a 101st Airborne paratrooper, seated on a white fiberglass horse.
On a recent visit to the museum, Patruno talked about his memories of D-Day. He jumped into France at 1:40 a.m. on June 6. The first American he encountered was a paratrooper who, like Patruno, was separated from his unit, a company in the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. Together they set out to find their respective units.
As they headed toward the beaches, they met a group of about 15 men from the 82nd Airborne Division under the command of a lieutenant. The lieutenant ordered them to join his group. But Patruno, determined to find his own unit, slipped away.
In a small village, he stopped a Frenchman who was riding a bicycle to ask for directions. But the Frenchman didn’t answer him. Patruno walked away. Then several trucks with Germans in them arrived on the scene. Patruno saw the Frenchman pointing in his direction but the trucks kept going.
Later, Patruno said, he saw the same Frenchman bicycling down the road and shot him. He said he also encountered a German soldier who came at him with a bayonet. Patruno shot him as well.
“I was allergic to bayonets,” he quipped.
As he continued in the direction of Vierville-sur-Mer, where he hoped to rendezvous with his unit, he saw a field with five horses in it. There was a stable nearby. There were guards outside two of the entrances to the stable, but a third entrance had been left unguarded. Patruno went into the stable and found a bridle.
“The first horse I saw was this guy,” he said, gesturing to the fiberglass model of a horse. “He was gentle and friendly.”
Because he was carrying equipment, including a bag of grenades, Patruno wasn’t sure how he would get onto the horse. He solved that problem by leading the horse to a watering trough, climbing on the trough and hoisting himself onto the horse’s back.
As he headed down the road on horseback, he saw two Germans on a motorcycle.
“One of them waved,” Patruno said. “I waved back.”
Several miles down the road, he heard the sound of a firefight and rode toward it. He had found Company F.
Seeing Patruno, known to the company as Gus, on horseback, a fellow G.I. called to him, “Hey Gus, there’s a war going on.”
Reunited with his unit, he joined his sergeant, named Swank, in an assault on a farmhouse held by Germans.
“I was itching to throw a grenade,” Patruno said. “So I threw one in the window.”
When he and the sergeant entered, the farmhouse appeared to be deserted. The sergeant started to go upstairs but, instead of joining him, Patruno went to the basement. He heard a shot behind him and turned. The sergeant had shot a German who had been hiding under the stairs.
“That’s why he was a sergeant and I was a private,” Patruno said. “He went by the book. Always cover your partner.”
Two days later, Patruno was hit by shrapnel and suffered burns, leading to his first Purple Heart. He got a second Purple Heart after he was shot in the face in September 1944, during Operation Market Garden, a failed effort to secure a bridgehead across the Rhine River into Germany. That was the last action for Patruno, who now lives with his wife, Ruth, in a St. Augustine retirement home.
On the day Patruno visited the museum, several people came to meet him.
One was C.C. Sprinkle, 91, who was the co-pilot of a B-26 Marauder during World War II and took part in Operation Dragoon, the invasion of South France in August 1944.
Another was Charles Fails, who served with Army Special Forces in the 1970s and 1980s and made 325 parachute jumps.
Fails’ son, John, who works at the University of North Florida, served with the 325th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne in Iraq in 2003.
At his son’s request, Charles Fails gave Patruno the combat infantry badge John Fails had worn in Baghdad.