That Sunday morning over seventy years ago, at the Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church, he didn’t know there was a beautiful girl up in the choir loft, looking down at him. She whispered to her friends that she was going to marry that young soldier . . .
Walter Nogulich, 100 years old this month, was called “Wiffy” by his friends in Chicago because he was such a fast ballplayer in the neighborhood.
But after the Normandy invasion, fighting through Northern France into Belgium, Germany and into what was then Czechoslovakia, they didn’t call him “Wiffy” anymore.
Holding a photo of himself in his uniform when he was about 22, World War II Army veteran Walter Nogulich sits in his home on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2020, in Niles. Nogulich, who turned 100 on Nov. 6, was part of the Normandy invasion in 1944. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)
They called him Sergeant.
Nogulich came home from the war on a Saturday. And on Sunday he went to church, the old Holy Resurrection Serbian Orthodox Church that once stood in Wicker Park. He wanted to thank God for his life and pray for comrades he’d lost in the war.
World War II U.S. Army veteran Walter Nogulich is pictured in his uniform in a photo in his Niles home on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2020. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)
He didn’t know that there was a beautiful girl up in the choir loft, looking down at him. Her name was Helen. Her father, a recipient of the Medal of Honor, was a great hero in the Serbian community. Up in the choir loft, according to the family story, Helen Mandusich whispered to her friends that she was going to marry that young soldier.
“But she couldn’t even see my face,” Nogulich told me on Veterans Day. “And she wants to marry me. She was in the choir and all she could see was my back. But we knew about each other. So after church, at coffee, I’m talking to her and thinking, ‘Oh, My God.’ I’m talking to her. I asked her out.”
The word for it in Serbian, I’m told, is sudbina. Destiny.
They were married for 73 years. They had three children. She died a few months ago.
“I was so lucky in everything,” Nogulich told me. “I lived through the war. Helen married me. We had a family. We had a great marriage. We really didn’t have arguments. Oh, one time we had an argument. She said she wouldn’t make me breakfast. The next morning, she says, ‘How many eggs?’”
Walter Nogulich's daughter Natalija Nogulich brushes his hair on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2020, in his Niles home. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)
Nogulich laughed as we spoke over Zoom. His daughter and caregiver, Natalija Nogulich, the stage actress who’s been on Broadway and in many films and TV shows, from “Star Trek” to “The West Wing,” was at his side.
On the wall there was the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the presidential citation and other medals. On his head he wore his 90th Infantry Division cap, with the red letters T&O, which stand for Texas and Oklahoma. Gen. George S. Patton gave them the nickname “Tough Ombres” for how they fought
He wore that same hat a few days ago when he voted, in person, at his polling place in Niles. He used a walker, yes, but he showed up, cap on, eyes clear, ready to vote and on his feet, the same feet that carried him across Europe, the same feet that carried him across Chicago in the decades he spent as a mailman.
I asked him: What do you want Americans to know about Veterans Day?
“I think of the guys I was with, my buddies, my brothers. I still remember them,” Nogulich said. “Sometimes I dream about them, their faces, and things about the war. If you were in the service but not in combat, I don’t know if you think this way. But if you were in combat, going through what we went through, they’re brothers. Those guys are brothers. And I think about them.”
There was no time to think about much of anything as the 90th Infantry Division hit Utah Beach, wading through the water, carrying heavy packs, running up on land.
“You don’t think of anything. Nothing,” he said. “You just keep going.”
For the Tough Ombres, it got worse as they pushed along Northern France and on into the deadly hedgerow country, the dense forested hills separating farmers’ fields that could shield tanks and German soldiers. There was that stubborn German machine-gunner in a farmhouse. There was the pillbox where the fleeing Germans left cheese, and better yet, dry socks. And later they chased an SS officer who committed suicide rather than be captured.
“A Russian grabbed the officer’s gun. But I grabbed it from the Russian guy.” They stared at each other for a bit. Then they went off to drink together. “We had a party.”
One of Nogulich’s buddies was hit by a sniper’s bullet in the stomach. The young soldier died in Nogulich’s arms.
“He kept asking me if he was going to be OK, and I said, ‘Yeah, you’re going to be OK. Hang in there.’ He kept asking me and asking me. We pushed some cotton or something in there. ‘You’re going to be OK.’”
His voice trailed off. I could tell he was watching it all again.
When Nogulich was wounded, hit by shrapnel, the medic, who was from Chicago, asked him, “‘Do you know Helen, the daughter of Mandusich?’ I said everybody knew Mandusich, but I didn’t know Helen. That was the girl I married. Isn’t that something?”
World War II Army veteran Walter Nogulich is pictured with his late wife, Helen. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)
A colonel told him he could stay in England, training other young soldiers. No, said Nogulich. He wanted to get back to his buddies.
But after he healed up, he was given a few days’ leave. He’d won $400 at the hospital shooting craps. He was going to London, despite the warnings about the buzz bombs.
When combat was done, his captain offered to keep him at the rank of first sergeant if he stayed on through the occupation.
“I don’t think so, Captain,” Nogulich recalled saying. “I’ve had enough of war. I want to get home to my family.”
“And just think of it,” he said. “If I’d stayed, I wouldn’t have gone home to church on that Sunday and met Helen. She was my love.”
World War II Army veteran Walter Nogulich, bottom left, is pictured with his late wife, Helen, and their children Natalija Nogulich, from upper left, Christ Nogulich and Daniella Gomez. (Family photo)
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