June 6, 2008

D-Day - The Bristol angle

On this 64th anniversary of D-Day, I thought I'd share the story I wrote for the Press back in 1994, when I talked with a number of veterans to get the story from a Bristol perspective. It's always good to remember. So here it is:
Trapped on Omaha Beach by the murderous fire of entrenched German troops, Reno Levesque saw chopped up men yelling for wives or girlfriends far from the French shore.
There were "so many dead people, so much screaming. People with arms blown off and legs blown off and wounded by shrapnel, bleeding," Levesque remembers.
The wind carried the stench of gunpowder and death, he recalls.
It was D-Day. June 6, 1944.
Despite the carnage and terror, Levesque and many other Bristol area men look back on that time in wonder, proud to have played a part in history's greatest invasion.
That day, while their nations prayed, American, British and Canadian troops stormed ashore and secured a foothold in Nazi Europe that made it possible to decimate Adolf Hitler's armies and win the war before another year passed.
This is the D-Day story as witnessed by local veterans who saw sights both inspiring and grotesque.

Getting Ready

Before Normandy could be invaded, the allies had a whopping logistical nightmare to unscramble - they had to get millions of men and tons of supplies to England.
Through a thicket of enemy submarines, troops crossed the Atlantic Ocean to England aboard anything that floated.
Some Bristol soldiers crossed on stripped-down luxury liners that zigged and zagged alone across the sea, counting on speed to dodge torpedoes.
George Johnson sailed aboard a landing ship designed to carry tanks to the beach. It was among a 117-ship convoy departing from New York City that took 17 days to reach Great Britain.
"We had to be careful about not showing any lights at all," Johnson said, because even a stray flash could alert vigilant German U-boat commanders scanning the horizon.
Ivan Wood crossed aboard a ship made of concrete and loaded down with lumber for Liverpool. Though his vessel looked like any merchantman on the high seas, it had one big disadvantage - it crawled along so slowly that it took 36 days to cross the ocean.
By the end of May, 1944, England was home to a vast armada of ships, planes, tanks, trucks, jeeps, guns, bombs, bullets and soldiers - all hauled there in order to leave again in one impossible day.
Everyone suspected that when the weather and tides were right, they would be tossed across the English Channel to storm the most heavily fortified coastline in the world.
"We knew it was going to happen," said Charles Aldieri, Jr, a gun mechanic.
"We wanted to get the thing over with," recalls Warren Kellerstedt, an armorer for a wing of P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes.

The Night

When night fell on June 5, the forces began to move.
Kellerstedt said orders went out that evening to paint black and white stripes on every plane in the allied air forces, so ground troops would know not to shoot at friendly pilots.
"We armorers," Kellerstedt said, "were kept busy all evening lugging bombs" to the planes. In the haste, a mascot dog slipped through a rack of bombs to its death under the wheels of a fighter.
Starting about midnight, Aldieri recalls, "hundreds and hundreds of planes and gliders and transports" began taking off, so many that it was obvious the invasion was underway.
"The planes were just flying over and over and over all night," Aldieri said. "Thousands of them."
"It was a beautiful night with a full moon that made everything bright as day," Kellerstedt said.
He said that all the planes overhead had their navigation lights on so "the sky looked like a Christmas tree, full of red and green lights."
Ships, too, set sail for Normandy with full loads.
Clyde Hussey, a chemical warfare specialist, saw them the next morning from Bournemouth, England.
"We looked out on the Channel there," he said, "and no matter where you looked, right, left or forward, there were ships. It was a fantastic sight."
The great force slowly made its way east across the turbulent Channel to the beaches where thousands of enemy soldiers waited unaware of what was about to happen.
Ernest Duhaime was among the first pilots to reach Normandy. He flew a cargo plane nicknamed 'Little Ernie,' carrying paratroopers and towing a glider packed with even more troops.
"We made landfall and everything was 'so far, so good,'" he said.
"But when we started flying inland, they really gave us the works. 'Little Ernie' was coming in for a good share of machine gun and small arms fire, which was coming up all around," Duhaime said.
When he reached the drop zone, he said, the paratroopers leapt out into the darkness and the glider was cut loose to descend into the French countryside behind the beaches.
Once Duhaime had dropped his load, he said, "We hit the deck and headed for home."


Fred Wilhelm was just about the first American to touch ground in Normandy.
A member of a paratrooper pathfinder unit, he was supposed to go in early and mark off the drop zones for the some of the 10,000 parachutists to follow.
"In a way, it was a relief to get out of the plane," Wilhelm said. "But when you saw those red dots go by" - enemy tracer bullets - "it got pretty scary."
Wilhelm's eight-man unit landed in a field full of cows. Checking out the immediate area with his commander, he knocked on a farmhouse door. A French man answered, but communication proved impossible.
However, the noise alerted a German officer who was upstairs having a tryst with a French woman. "He jumped out the window and ran off," Wilhelm said, leaving his boots behind.
Though things went well for Wilhelm's unit, the mass of paratroopers following experienced many problems, with few landing anywhere near their assigned spots. Many drowned or jumped so low that their chutes never opened.
"They were coming in too fast and they were scattered from hell to Harlem," Wilhelm said.
One Bristol man - paratrooper Robert Engle - died during those arduous hours.
But the paratroopers and glider troops were able to grab some key logistical points and their presence slowed German forces racing to reinforce their beleaguered colleagues near the beaches.
The beaches were, after all, where the battle would be won or lost.


Allied troops stormed five beaches that morning - with Americans responsible for the two southernmost, code named Omaha and Utah.
"It's a horror story, really," said Donald Ashline, a member of an elite Ranger unit that went ashore first on Omaha Beach.
On the rise behind the beach, Wood said, were massive German gun emplacements, from which enemy troops could rake the beach with a curtain of machine gun bullets, mortar shells and high explosives.
In the water and in the sand, he saw big iron triangles, designed to snag landing craft, and barbed wire everywhere. The many mines were less obvious, but more deadly.
American battleships and other craft sat offshore firing repeatedly at the German fortifications.
Johnson said that overhead you could see gliders, fighters and bombers. "You could hear 'em roar terrible," he said.
"The entire English Channel was full of ships," Wood recalls.
Johnson, a sailor aboard a landing ship for tanks, said heading in through the waves to the beach was tough.
"There was so much going on it was hard to know what was happening," he said.
"It was scary. Planes going over. Fires. We even got empty shells on our deck. It was murder," Johnson said.
"I felt sorry for those Army guys. They had to walk in the water," he said.
Levesque, sitting atop a tank-like truck on a landing ship, saw the neighboring craft take a direct hit. A captain there "got his head cut off" from the shot, Levesque remembers.
Ashline stormed onto the beach in the lead of the invasion. Enemy fire was horrendous. "They were throwing everything they had at the beach," he said.
"It's indescribable, the bloodshed, all that sort of thing. It was like the Fourth of July for awhile," Ashline said.
Only 18 of the 60 men in his unit made it across the beach.
Edward Wozenski, a combat veteran, said that when he reached the beach - which was supposed to have been pounded by countless shells ahead of time - he found all had missed their mark.
"There wasn't so much as a hand grenade impression" in the sand, Wozenski said. "Everything was fouled up."
Under heavy fire, his company couldn't get across the beach to the heights beyond for several hours. Meanwhile, the dead piled up.
"There were so many bodies they weren't even rolling in the waves," Wozenski said.
Levesque said he helped to pile the dead "just like a stack of wood" while trapped on the beach with his unit.
A little bank between the sand and a German machine gun nest beyond provided him with cover from the hail of bullets mowing down comrades. But the rise also made it impossible for him to lower his halftrack's gun enough to blast back.
Mortar shells rained down on the trapped troops, he said.
The only thing the living could do for the dying and dead, Levesque said, was to move them out of the path of tanks and snatch their dog tags - so families back in America would know their fate.
Among the dead was Private Domenick Nicotera, from Bristol, whose parents found out two months later by telegram.
The whole scene on the beach was "very disorganized, just a scramble" of men from different units joining together to try to move forward, Ashline said.
Levesque said he waited in the sand for eight hours until troops coming from the back wiped out the machine gun nest pinning his unit down, allowing them to proceed inland.
Ashline won a Silver Star that day by leading the charge on a German machine gun emplacement near the beach, battling the defenders hand-to-hand to capture the position. A bullet or a blade cut through the fleshy part of his upper arm during the fray.
"You do what you have to do," Ashline said.
By afternoon, clouds had started rolling in, hindering the bombers overhead.
Dr. William Furniss, a flight surgeon for a group of B-17 bombers, flew over the invasion area - but saw nothing through the thick clouds.
Though the plane could not drop its bombs, it got low enough to get hit with rifle fire from soldiers shooting blindly into the sky.
Wood had an unusual job that day - sinking his own ship.
It turned out that his concrete ship was destined to become a breakwater off the beach, designed to be sunk in a row with a half dozen others to form a barrier between surf and sand.
Late in the day off Omaha Beach, with the weather turned "kind of rainy, misty, and overcast" his ship was in place.
Standing in a cabin on deck, he touched the wires together to ignite the explosives lining the hull.
"I heard a muffled explosion, the ship shook and then it sunk down," Wood said.
At high tide, the water lapped across the deck. At low tide, he said, the deck remained 20 feet above the surface. Crews manned two anti-aircraft guns atop the sunken vessel.
That first night ashore, German planes hit back hard.
Levesque said his dug-in unit found itself surrounded by bomb holes the next morning, but nobody got a scratch.
Instead of moving on, he had to return to the beach with another soldier because their halftrack needed a new drive shaft pin in order to proceed. They were ordered to find one among the wreckage.
Levesque said it wasn't hard to find a wreck, but it was difficult digging with a trenching shovel through the sand to get at the drive shaft.
Instead of metal, Levesque said, "I struck a hand."
They yanked the corpse out, gave his dog tags to a medic and kept digging until they had the part they needed.
Levesque returned to his unit, fixed the halftrack and roared off to catch up with the men moving inland, beginning the long trek to Germany itself.
Despite the horror, fear and danger, the men who battled their way onto the continent on the terrible beaches at Normandy say they never doubted the need.
Troops there told each other, "We're here to do a job and if we don't make it, well, somebody behind us will," Levesque recalled.
He remembered a catchphrase among the ranks: "We'll fight 'em home if we don't fight 'em here."


Engle, the paratrooper who died on D-Day, left behind grieving co-workers at New Departure - and a wife and two little girls.
For them, the loss was beyond reckoning.
But Engle accepted fate.
A week before the landings, he wrote to his mother.
"I think of the great day, which is just ahead, as going into one of the big games," he said.
"If you never hear from me again, Mom, don't worry, because I'll be in good hands."

Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.
Contact Steve Collins at scollins@bristolpress.com


the geek said...

Great piece. What an incredible moment in time. What heroism and bravery. Thank god for the United States of America and it's fighting men.

Anonymous said...

Too bad D-Day has received such little exposure in the media!

And we want our children to realize and appreciate our history and heritage?

geek said...

I used to be a WW2 buff in grammar school and one if not more of my (liberal, anti-patriotic) school teachers thought I had a problem.

I love American Military history!

Anonymous said...

They don't even teach american history in school until High School - how dumb is that.


Anonymous said...

There is a reason why they call these folks the greatest generation. They did what had to be done and never expected anything in return. Thanks for reminding us of their heroism.

Tim Gamache said...

Nice piece Steve.We owe all we enjoy to the "greatest generation."

Anonymous said...

Right Tim and now my generation is paying their Social Security that my generation won't have because it'll be bankrupt by the time we retire.

The subject is D-Day, let's stay away from the generation pandering.

Anonymous said...

Although not a Bristol connection, I met a wonderful man who is the proprietor of a small luncheon down on the south Jersey shore known as "Pat's Lunch". The guy has to be in his late 80's. He was THERE on DDAY. What an honor it is to shake this guys hand. He stormed the beach at Normandy. God Bless all of the vets.