Basement Beat: Remembering World War II history in preparation for Memorial Day
As we at the paper make preparations for the Memorial Day weekend, I find myself sinking into the lore of World War II.
It can be both exhilarating and deeply troubling to read about—always a mixed experience.
Anyway, I started down this road when local farmer Chris Beckers stopped by with a treasure trove of information about a area veteran who passed away a couple years ago, George Robinson. Look to our June 5 issue for that story by staff writer Virginia Ransbottom.
Robinson landed on Omaha Beach during the D-Day assault on Normandy, France. The 70th anniversary of that invasion is June 6.
That already had me dusting up on my war history. In my inbox, however—thanks to Larry See, a retired journalist who keeps me on my toes—were several columns by Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle. He was on the beach the day after the invasion and his words are... arresting. Heart-breaking. Stirring. Uncommonly honest.
Take this excerpt from a June 17 column, describing the items washed up on shore: “Here are toothbrushes and razors, and snapshots of families back home staring up at you from the sand. Here are pocketbooks, metal mirrors, extra trousers, and bloody, abandoned shoes.”... “I picked up a pocket Bible with a soldier’s name in it, and put it in my jacket. I carried it half a mile or so and then put it back down on the beach.
“I don’t know why I picked it up, or why I put it back down.”
I stumbled onto a detail I had not realized about the invasion in another, dated June 12. In it he writes, “The first crack in the beach defenses was finally accomplished by terrific and wonderful naval gunfire, which knocked out the big emplacements. They tell epic stories of destroyers that ran right up into shallow water and had it out point-blank with the big guns in those concrete emplacements ashore.”
While I had been aware America and Britain had put so many ships in the English Channel that you could cross it on foot and never get your feet wet, I had not ever heard about this action by the destroyers.
So I looked it up. The Internet being extremely good at these kinds of distractions, I found this.
A link in the Navy Department Library, it appears to be a small book, “Destroyers at Normandy: Naval Gunfire Support at Omaha Beach,” by William B. Kirkland Jr., published in 1994 by the Navy Museum Foundation, a project of the Naval Historical Foundation.
It appears to confirm what Pyle was led to believe. The account draws heavily on the action logs the ships keep, so the accounts are riddled with lingo and abbreviations. It’s practically a minute-by-minute account of what the destroyers were up to throughout the entire day; it’s an endless amount of detail, but I found it riveting to read about how soldiers and seamen made the best of things in the fog of war.
So many of the radios were ruined in the landing, the rangers, infantry and vehicles that made it to positions on the beach had limited means to direct the help from the Navy.
In other words, they were pinned down by deadly German defenses. They could see the targets; the ships generally could not—or, at least, they could not be sure they weren’t firing on friendly units. Plus, the ships were under a general order to not just blast away so as to not shred our own troops.
So, the destroyers moved in closer and picked off what they could when the smoke and/or fog cleared and they could spot targets.
At one point, some of the few tanks that made it and were operational tried shooting a gun emplacement. A nearby destroyer noticed this and fired where they did to great effect. The guys in the tank noticed this and they kept up that kind of non-verbal communication—the tanks spotting for the ship by shooting where the bombardment would help.
Amid all that detail, there were a few gems that stand out, too.
At about 9 a.m., 2.5 hours after landings began: “The only German air offensive on the morning of the invasion was a strafing pass along the beach by two Focke-Wulf 190s flown by Colonel Josef Priller, commander of the 26th Fighter Wing, and Sergeant Heinz Wodarczyk.
“They hurtled down toward the British beaches (meaning, the beaches at which British forces were landing) at over 400 m.p.h., coming in at less than 150 feet. Priller had no time to aim. He simply pressed the button on his control stick and felt his guns pounding.
“... On Juno (a code name for one of the beaches) ... [a Canadian soldier]... saw them ‘coming in so low that I could clearly see the pilots’ faces.’ He ... was amazed to see one man ‘calmly standing up, blazing away with a Sten gun [British 9mm submachine gun].’
“On the eastern edge of Omaha, Lieutenant (jg) William J. Eisemann of the U.S. Navy gasped as the two FW-190s ... zoomed down ‘at less than fifty feet and dodged through the barrage balloons.’ And on H.M.S. Dunbar, Leading Stoker Robert Dowie watched every antiaircraft gun in the fleet open up.
“... The two fighters flew through it all unscathed, then turned inland. ... ‘Jerry or not,’ said Dowie, unbelievingly, ‘the best of luck to you. You’ve got guts.’ (Ryan, 212)”
Those “barrage balloons” were another thing I had not been aware of until I saw some of the pictures Robinson took on the day. Allied forces had blimps flying above the fleet dangling metal cables. To strafe the boats, enemy planes would be forced to either dodge the cables or shoot from higher altitudes.
Here’s another tidbit:
On June 12, the fifth day after the invasion, the account talks about a special party boarding a ship named Thompson; it included Adm. Ernest J. King and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“Thompson took them to Omaha Beach for lunch with Generals Gerow and Bradley, and returned them to Portsmouth by supper time.
“The story is told by Capt. Gebelin, then Thompson’s commanding officer. ‘On the way back Admiral King seemed in a great hurry. Seated in the captain’s chair on the bridge, King wondered aloud how fast these new destroyers could go. I took the hint, called the forward engine room, and said to the chief engineer, “Pour it on, Chief. You ring up the turns; we’ll answer from the bridge.” We worked Thompson up to 42 knots and made Portsmouth in jig time.’
“According to King’s biographer, the hurry came because the Admiral had a dinner appointment with Churchill on the special train back to London that evening. King was on time; the Prime Minister was not.
“He and the British chiefs had visited Sword, Juno, and Gold beaches in a British DD (destroyer) at the same time that Thompson was similarly engaged.
“The delay on the British side was a diversion at Churchill’s request; he wanted to get in a personal lick at the Germans. He ordered his destroyer captain to find some enemy along the coast and run in for a quick shoot.
“This done, the British DD headed for Portsmouth but wasn’t up to Thompson’s record run. (Buell, 456)”
That’s Churchill for you.
All light-heartedness aside, I wish you all a safe holiday weekend. Monday will be a time to honor and remember the sacrifices our armed forces have made throughout history.
Remember, look in the next two issues of the paper for the columns by Ernie Pyle. And look to our June 5 paper for a remembrance of a local veteran who survived D-Day.