Sunday, June 7, 2015

D-Day + 71 years

Omaha Plage Mars 2015

Yesterday's biggest news was probably that American Pharoah won horse-racing's Triple Crown. However, it was June 6, the 71st anniversary of D-Day.  I have read quite a bit about D-Day, but I know that I have only scratched the surface.  I am a big fan of historical fiction and am currently reading Winter of the World, the second book in Ken Follett's Century Triology.  IronWoman recommended I read them.  Merci, mon amie.

I was lucky enough to visit Normandy and the D-Day beaches on the 50th anniversary.  Mme M took me there and we spent a couple of lovely days.  We had lunch in a little café (maybe in Honfleur?), sitting next next to a British couple.  It was the gentleman's first visit back since the war.  The conversation was rolling right along until a German couple sat down next to us.  That hammered home the fact that German moms and dads lost their children, too.  However, once they sat down next to us, the conversation ended and the British couple left.  Mme M and I ran into a group of American soldiers who had fought in WWII and who were staying at the same hotel we were. They invited us for drinks.  I had given her a Duke sweatshirt and it was a chilly day and she was wearing it.  One of the gentlemen recognized it as American and spoke to us in English. That was a special adventure for me.  Merci, mon amie

Since then, I have returned to Normandy and Les Plages de Débarquement, as they are called in French, many times.  My 8th grade students study WWII in their history class, so we take a day trip there from Paris, visiting Point du Hoc, the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, and Omaha Beach.  The cemetery provides guided tours and we have had outstanding guides and visits. The visit has taken on new meaning for me.  Last spring, I made the acquaintance of Mr. Ed Chappell.  I have written about Ed on the blog before.  Knowing him has made quite an impact on me.  Ed passed away this spring.  Unfortunately, he didn't make it back to school to talk to my students.  This past March, while sitting on the steps leading down to Omaha Beach watching my students get their toes wet in the English Channel, I tried to call Ed.  I love my iPhone and Verizon. Ed didn't answer, but I left him a message that I was sitting there thinking about him.  I scooped up a little jam jar of sand to bring back to him, although he did go back to Normandy and Omaha Beach for the 70th anniversary in 2014.  Mr. Ed was able to make that trip back due to the hard work and dedication of Mme McMahon at Smith Middle School and a group of students who tirelessly raised the money to do so.  You can read more about it by clicking on the link here NC to Normandy.  I took that little jam jar of sand with me when I went to visit Mr. Ed for the last time.  He was in hospice care at the Durham VA Hospital and sleeping peacefully when I arrived.  His son graciously allowed me to sit there in the hospital room with them for an hour or so.  Before I left, I put the jar of sand on the table by Mr. Ed's bed and explained to his son what it was.  At Ed's funeral, his daughter told me that they had placed the jar in his casket and he would be buried with it.  Tarheel Traveler interviewed Ed about D-Day.  Hearing his voice again makes me smile.  I still have a voicemail from him on my phone, too.

When Ed came to visit me at school, he brought along what he had written about D-Day.  I am going to include that here, if you are interested.  I am forever more searching for the carefully typed out sheets of paper and I finally found them last week while cleaning up my classroom.  If I add Ed's story to my blog, I will always know where to find it!

Here is Ed Chappell's account of D-Day and his experience in WWII.

One of modern history's watersheds, D-Day, was the climactic engagement of the Second World War.  The Allies' success on D-Day foreshadowed the dissolution of Hitler's Third Reich.  Operation Overlord's epic scope remains unprecedented.  On 6 June 1944, an Allied Expeditionary Force representing twelve nations launched more than 5,000 boats and ships, 11,000 aircraft, 28,000 aerial sorties, and landed 150,000 group troops.  Because of the dangers and complexity inherent in joint, combined arms operations, much less operations with seaborne and airborne troop delivery, even the training for Operation Overlord was a high-risk undertaking.  To mount such an operation against a determined, well fortified enemy increased the risks exponentially.  On D-Day, the Allies suffered more than 10,000 casualties including 4,500 killed.  That the number was not twice that speaks volumes about the solid planning, thorough preparation, fine leadership and individual initiative that characterized the Allied effort.  More than six decades after the fact, D-Day still has immediacy.  Had the Allies failed to clear the way for the projection of this nation's industrial base onto the European continent, the rapid collapse of Nazism, the creation and implementation of the Marshall Plan, establishment of NATO, and the victory in the Cold War could not have occurred.

I, Ed Chappell, enlisted in the U.S. Navy on January 23, 1943.  I spent the next three months in basic training at Bainbridge Naval Training Station in Bainbridge, Maryland.  I then was sent to school for the next three months to learn how to be a signalman by learning to send and receive messages by Morse Code or semaphore flags.  After signal school I was sent to Little Creek, Virginia.  Upon arriving at Little Creek I became a member of a team made up of 10 enlisted men and one officer, Lt. JG Al Demao.  For identification purposes, let's call this Team T587.  The next several months were spent training on LCT's in the Chesapeake Bay.  By late November, Team T587 was ready for its next assignment so we were sent to New Orleans, LA where there waiting for us was a brand spanking new LCT 587.  After a two week shakedown cruise down the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, we returned to New Orleans where the LST 48 was waiting to have the LCT 587 lifted by a crane and secured on its deck for the trip across the Atlantic Ocean to merry old England. We then were given a seven day leave before being sent overseas.  After all personnel had returned to LST 48, it proceeded down the Mississippi across the Gulf of Mexico to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After a couple of days at Guantanamo we then proceeded up the east coast of North America to Nova Scotia where we joined a convoy of ships that were to be escorted by a Destroyer.  Escorts and sub chasers across the Atlantic.  The trip across was to take about 10 days.  The trip was uneventful other than the fact that we did have one day of rather stormy weather and the flat bottomed LSTs did not take the waves too well.

After arriving in England, the LST's proceeded to Dartmouth on the eastern coast of England where the LCT 587 was to be based.  The LCT 587, when it was placed on the deck of the LST 48, was placed on greased ways or boards so that if the LST deck was tilted to a certain angle the only thing holding the LCT in place on the deck would be a steel cable which would be cut by a fire axe.  To achieve the proper angle of the deck, water was pumped into the ballast tanks on the right side of the LST 48.  As soon as the proper angle had been reached and a quick check to make sure everything was clear, a boatswain's mate that looked as if he could make short work of the cable stepped up with the fire axe and with one hefty swing of the axe severed the cable and the LCT 587 began slowly at first but picked up speed as it moved over the side and hit the waters of the English Channel with only a small splash as a great cheer arose from the crew of the LCT 587 and the crew of the LST 48. A job well done by everyone.  A diver from the LST checked under the LCT to make sure it was all clear.  We, the crew of the LCT 587 that been in a small boat of the LST, had already boarded the LCT and were waiting for an all clear from the diver and, when it came, our skipper gave the order to start the engines and once again we were on our way.  We now proceeded for the next few month to load onto the 587 any and all kinds of vehicles and articles of war and then we would invade the eastern coast of England each day.  We felt that we were preparing for something big.

On June 1, 1944 we were directed to go to an area where the Army proceeded to load us with four Sherman 35 ton tanks and two jeeps with trailers loaded with 75mm ammunition.  The four tanks were equipped with special flotation devices that could be used if the weather permitted.  After the LCT was loaded it was all covered by camouflage netting.  We were then directed to proceed to Portsmouth, anchor in the harbor and await further orders.  The Normandy beaches of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword were approximately 100 miles due east of Portsmouth harbor.  Portsmouth Harbor was now becoming quite crowded with fully loaded landing craft.  On the night of June 3 after we had gone to bed, the skipper opened the hatch (door) and yelled "Hit the deck, air raid in progress."  We quickly dressed and came outside, but we could not see anything because the harbor was covered by a smoke screen.  We could hear the planes diving, searching for a target and gunfire not knowing if it was them firing at us or us firing at them.  The next morning we did not hear of any damage being done in the air raid.

On June 4 we began preparations to leave Portsmouth.  The top speed of the LCT was about 11 or 12 MPH so to cover the approximately 100 miles to cross the English Channel would take about 10 hours.  The invasion of Normandy was originally planned to take place on June 5 at about 6:30 am, so to meet the timetable, we set our course and headed to France at about 6:00 pm.  At about 9:00 pm we received orders to turn around and head back to England.  The invasion had been called off for June 5 because the weather report called for overcast skies and stormy weather on the coast of France on the 5th.  We were told to stand by until they got a weather report for June 6.  June 6 would be the last day in June that the tides, the moon and several other things in nature that were important to be in the right phase on the day of the invasion.  When the weather forecast came in for the 6th it was questionable but the decision was made to go ahead with the plans to invade on the 6th.  At 6:00 pm on the 5th of June we again set out for the Normandy coast.  A second officer, Ensign Baker, had been added to our crew just before we had left the U.S. in January.  We now had two officers and 10 enlisted men in our crew.  At 1:00 am on June 6 we were called to our battle stations.  We had three men taking care of the ramp, dropping the ramp, lifting the ramp and making sure the vehicles were unloaded in an orderly and swift manner.  We had a loader and a trigger man on each of our 20 mm anti-aircraft guns.  We had a man who would drop the anchor 150 yards form the beach to play out the cable and after we had unloaded would use the anchor to help pull us off the beach. We had one man in the engine rooms to make sure the engines were working properly.  We had a helmsman in the wheelhouse to steer the LCT and a throttle man to control the speed forward or reverse of the LCT.  The two officers and I would be on top of the wheelhouse.  There was a voice tube from atop the wheelhouse into the wheelhouse so the skipper could be in constant contact with the helmsman and the throttle man.  There also was a railing around the area on top of the wheelhouse, but there was absolutely no metal shielding around this area to protect anyone in this area.  This being the highest position on the LCT was the designated battle station for the two officers and myself.  My job in the invasion would be, with the use of a telephone headset, to relay any orders from the skipper to any of the affected crews on the LCT, ie ramp crew, gun crew, anchorman and the engine room man.

As we continued the journey to the French coast, we had to be very alert to make sure that we would not collide with any of the other ships and boats involved in the invasion because all the ships and boats were under strict blackout orders meaning no lights showing.  At a little before 5:00 am there in our path loomed an anchored battleship waiting to begin shelling the beach.  We just barely had time to change our course and maneuver around the battleship and continue on our way to the beach. Around 5:00 am the battleships, cruisers, destroyers and other ships began shelling the beach.  At a little before 6:00 am we began to fan out to make our final approach to the beach.  The larger ships had ceased firing and except for the low sound of our motors and the slapping of the waves at our sides there was an ominous quiet that hung all about.  The throttle man shouted up through the voice tube "Skipper, I wouldn't have missed this for anything" and just as he got the last word out of his mouth the Germans opened fire with everything they had.  They were firing "88's," mortars of all sizes, and machine guns and rifle fire split the air.  The skipper's reply to the throttle man's comment was "I think you spoke a little too soon."  It seemed to me that every gun that the Germans had was firing at LCT 587.  Besides the gun greeting, we were feverishly trying to avoid mined obstacles strung out along the beach.  At 6:25 am, we, as a part of the first wave, hit Omaha Beach.

After getting our tanks and jeeps off we began retracting from the beach and proceeded out to the transport area.  The LCT's of the first wave had been the first ships to come under heavy fire in the invasion of Normandy.  We of the 587 had been lucky enough to come through without any casualties.  On our deck we found shrapnel.  Ensign Baker was sit by a piece of shrapnel on his leg but because of the heavy clothing he was wearing due to the weather, it did not break the skin.  It did leave a bruise on his leg.  The other LCT's were not so fortunate.  There were some ships with one or two surviving and one LCT was wiped out completely.

On D-Day we beached six different times and each time we came in under rather intense shell fire. All of D-Day wave after wave of LCT's brought in guns, tanks, bulldozers, artillery, ammunition, spotting aircraft, and other equipment that helped make D-Day a success.  On one of the last loads to be unloaded was a Piper Cub airplane.  Its wings were folded back and a jeep was attached to its tail section to tow it off the LCT and to its destination.  As usual as we neared the beach, we came under shellfire again.  The soldier driving the jeep towing the airplane, in his haste to get off the LCT, drifted too close to the ramp cable and hooked a wheel of the airplane on the cable.  The tide and waves were keeping the three man ramp crew from being able to free the wheel from the cable.  The driver of the jeep, seeing that he could not move the plane, left the jeep and ran up on the beach to find a fox hole.  Seeing that the three man crew needed some help, I turned to the skipper and requested permission to give them some help.  Permission was granted and I and several other members of the crew came forward to assist.  The ramp crew soon had the plane's wheel loose from the cable and we were able to back away from the beach.

After our sixth and final trip to the beach we were directed to anchor off shore and await further orders, which would not come until the morning of June 7.  Since we of LCT 587 had been very busy for the last 72 hours we would welcome a chance to rest and get a little sleep.  Shortly after anchoring, a nearby ship kept sending a blinking light message to all ships.  At first I did not pay attention or read the signal because I knew our orders would come by radio.  Since I was signalman and could read the message being sent and it was addressed to all ships I felt it was my duty to at least read the message and then let our officers make any decision on any action that might need to be taken by LCT 587.  The message was "Please come alongside and take off personnel.  We are in a sinking condition."  They had hit a mine.  Before we could get alongside the ship it sank.  We did rescue one of the crewmen of the sinking ship.  He told us so far as he could tell all Army personnel had been taken off before his ship sank.

Early on the morning of June 7th, D-Day +1, we received orders to proceed to Gold and Juno beaches and for the rest of the time we were in France, we brought in supplies for the English and Canadian troops.

Late in October, after the Allies had liberated some of the ports and harbors on the west coast of France and made them operational, there was no longer a need for the LCT's to bring in supplies from the Liberty ships.  It could be done much faster and efficiently in the harbors and ports.  Early in November, we, the LCT's that were left after the D-Day battle, left France and headed again for merry old England.  We took LCT 587 to Dartsmouth where we were stationed before the invasion.  I and three other members were granted a five day leave during the week of Thanksgiving.  We decided to go to Southhampton on our leave.  There was an Army hospital in Southhampton and four of the walking wounded soldiers upon seeing us four sailors decided that we sailors needed a guide or host while we were in Southhampton.  I got paired with a Texan and he took me to all the right places and they even took us out to the hospital where each of the wounded soldiers wanted to shake our hands and greet us.  They even got permission to invite us to come out and enjoy the Thanksgiving meal and program on Thanksgiving Day.  When it was time for us to leave they all seemed to hate to see us leave.  I guess I would rate that five day leave as one of the highlights of my time overseas.

Shortly after returning from my leave I boarded a troop transport and was soon on my way to the good old USA.  I took only four days for the trip and when I got my first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty it was if she was saying to me "Welcome home."

I reported to Pier 92 Naval Station in New York and soon after I reported, I received a 30 day leave and soon thereafter I was on my way to Durham, NC.  When I arrived in Durham I hailed a cab for the trip to my parents' home.  I wanted to surprise them so I had not mentioned in any of my letters that I would soon be leaving for England or anything about being home soon.  When one of them looked out the window and saw me getting out of the cab they shouted "Why, there's Ed."  They all met me at the door and with much hugging and kissing they let me know that I had been missed. After things had calmed a bit my father told me he had some bad news to tell me.  He then told me my older brother Jack, a paratrooper, had been reported missing in action in southern France.  We all agreed to keep praying for his safe return.  I really enjoyed my leave, but it was time for me to report back to Pier 92 for reassignment.

I was assigned to an LCT crew that had participated in the invasion of Southern France.  They needed one more man to make their crew complete and I was to be that man.  

We then were sent to New Orleans where we were assigned to LCT 1044 which went through the same procedures the 587 had gone through.  The LST with the LCT 1044 headed down the Mississippi, across the Gulf of Mexico, across the Caribbean Sea, through the Panama Canal, and into the Pacific Ocean.  We then began crossing the Pacific Ocean making short stops at Wake Island for a few days, Mariana Islands for a few days, and Saipan for a few days.

We arrived at Okinawa about May 6, 1945.  After being launched off the LST, the LCT's proceeded to take supplies off the Liberty ships and bring them ashore.

May 8, 1945, we received word that the Germans had surrendered and the war in Europe was over. Each day we saw more and more planes heading to Japan.

On the morning of August 6, 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  Three days later on August 9, 1945 a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.  The Japanese had had enough and surrendered.  We, the veterans, were place on a point system.  We received a point for each month in service and a point for each month overseas.  In early January 1946, my point total had risen where I was at last placed on the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga and in a few long days we docked at Bremerton, WA.  After a trip across the US by train, I was discharged at the Norfolk Navy Yard on February 1, 1946.  My Navy career lasted 3 years and 9 days.  

I just will close my talk by saying how proud I am to have had the opportunity to have served this great country and it is the the greatest country on the face of the earth.

Merci, Ed and all the men and women who have served and continue to serve in the name of freedom.  Bon appétit and I am sure that whatever you are eating in heaven it is Mmm mmm good!

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