Los Angeles Times war correspondent Tom Treanor recounts his firsthand experience landing on the beach at Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Backstory:D-Day as lived by a Reuters correspondent
PARIS (Reuters) - Seventy-five years ago, as machine gun fire consumed the landing beach in northern France and artillery shells burst overhead, Reuters correspondent Doon Campbell struggled to keep the keys of his typewriter free of the exploding earth.
But he needed to write his dispatch, so he tore a page from an exercise book, lay low and scribbled by hand, with the dateline: “A DITCH 200 YARDS INSIDE NORMANDY”.
Campbell was the first war correspondent from an Allied nation to set foot on Normandy sand. He was also the youngest. Embedded in the Lord Lovat’s 1st Commando Brigade, the 24-year-old wire reporter, who was born with only half a left arm, staggered across the “sandy cemetery” that was Sword Beach.
“A few minutes ago I came ashore with the commandos who are thrusting inland, impatient and eager to get to grips with the enemy,” the dispatch began. “On a vast scale the invasion is underway – everywhere thousands of men and hundreds of aircraft and ships.
“Every minute more men and guns, tanks, vehicles and huge amounts of supplies are landing . Our planes dominate the skies. For the moment I’m staying in this ditch with the wounded.”
The events that day were “exhilarating, glorious and heartbreaking,” Campbell would recall five decades later.
Having written the first report on the largest amphibious invasion in history, Campbell crawled back to the shore, gave the dispatch to a naval officer and tipped him five pounds.
Five decades later, Campbell wrote that no one at Reuters recalled receiving the dispatch - the only version of it in the company’s extensive archives is from his accounts. It was not clear, he said, if it ever reached the office.
But many more did, as the operation which paved the way for France to be freed from the clutches of Nazi Germany unfurled.
“It is a miracle that I’m alive to write this dispatch - that I’ve survived 24 hours on this beachhead bag of wicked tricks,” he wrote a day after the landings.
As the Allied invasion unfolded, Campbell witnessed bloody battles to liberate villages, endured the strafing of Luftwaffe war planes and sought shelter wherever he could.
“I’ve had several billets from dank trenches to chateau boudoirs and cellars, from the base of an apple tree to a hole in a wall,” he wrote four days after the first landings.
“When bombs stop falling, shells start screaming, and snipers take over from mortars.”
Campbell began his scoop-rich 30-year career a year before the Normandy invasion. He died in 2003, aged 83.
World War II veteran from Mobile recalls D-Day invasion
View full size U.S. infantrymen climb into a landing craft for the invasion of Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. (Photo courtesy of the National D-Day Museum)
Sixty-seven years ago today, Allied armies assaulted heavily fortified beaches of Normandy, France. The long anticipated D-Day invasion of World War II began on June 6, 1944. Casualties were heavy
Stationed at an Army camp near Truro, in Cornwall, England, Second Lieutenant Milton Klein of Mobile awaited orders. Seasoned combat engineers from his outfit, the First Engineering Specialist Brigade, were sent in the first wave. “New kid on the block,” inexperienced in amphibious operations, Klein got his chance to go with the 531st Engineers Shore Regiment a few days later. On D-Day + 11, he landed on Normandy’s Utah Beach.
In a recent interview at his Mobile home, Klein, now Lieutenant Colonel U.S. Army Reserve (Retired) recalls details of his war service.
“German mine fields were everywhere. We cleared lots of them. . A young British fellow in my platoon stepped on a mine and was killed,” he says. “Our mission was to operate the beach, unloading troops and cargo. . There were nightly bombings.”
The veteran, 94, points to photos of moments caught by a camera — images of fellow soldiers, a bridge his battalion built, a hospitable Dutch family, a picture of him with his buddies at the Palace of Versailles, and others that evoke memories of his time overseas.
Allied forces swept across Europe. At Maastricht (Netherlands) retreating German armies destroyed bridges across the Maas River, Klein recalls.
“We built a bridge across the river. . Weather was very cold with lots of snow and ice. . They said it was the coldest winter in fifty years. . Then between Christmas and New Year’s in a snow storm we built a bridge across the Albert Canal.”
In December, Adolph Hitler’s last ditch effort to defend “fortress Europe” came in a surprise counteroffensive, the Battle of the Bulge. “For a while it was very bad. . We were north of the “Bulge” and in danger of being cut off,” he says.
Just before Christmas, his cousin located Klein.
“Henry Schwarz came to our company headquarters . and we had quite a reunion. . Growing up, he was like a brother to me.” Schwarz returned one more time. A captain, he was killed by an artillery shell on March 4, 1945, while on engineering reconnaissance, Klein adds. “He’s buried in Belgium.”
The veteran describes Buchenwald, a German concentration camp liberated by the U.S. Army.
“I saw the poor people who survived there. They looked like skeletons,” he says, remembering the haunting images. “They were emaciated. I saw where they lived and how they lived.”
Back home, the soldier’s wife awaited his return. He met Ilse in Mobile. At seventeen, she immigrated from Nazi Germany and came to live with relatives. In her homeland, life was difficult after Hitler came to power. Under his regime a Jew wore a visible yellow star. What with Nazi propaganda, non-Jewish friends began to shun Ilse. Her aunt and uncle there disappeared into concentration camps and were never heard from again, explains Klein.
When he met Ilse, he was smitten. After a five year courtship, they married in 1940. Two years later, he volunteered for war service.
After he returned home, the couple had a daughter. Over time, they went back to Europe thirteen times, he notes. On two occasions Klein visited his cousin’s grave. His wife reunited with German friends. She died in 2004 after 63 years of marriage.
More than six decades ago, on a summer day, beaches of Normandy were assaulted in the largest air, land, and sea operation in history. In the ensuing campaign to recapture Europe from German forces, thousands of Americans— Milton Klein and other men—fought there. Some of them came home.
D-Day survivors tell their stories
They are old men now, with hearing aids and canes, with paid-up mortgages and an abundance of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They have come to this place for one last look.
For those who survived that day, it became the pivotal experience of their lives, the day that all others would be measured against. What they lived through on June 6, 1944, would stay with them for the rest of their days.
Sgt. Ray Lambert, a medic with the 1st Infantry Division, was in the first wave to hit the beach on D-Day.
"When we got within a thousand yards of the beach, you could hear the machine-gun bullets hitting off the front ramp of the boat," recalled Lambert, 83, a retired electrical engineer.
"The ramp went down, and we were in water over our heads. Some of the men drowned. Some got hit by the bullets. The boat next to ours blew up. Some of those men caught fire. We never saw them again," he said.
"When we got to the beach, I said to one of my men, Cpl. Meyers, `If there's a hell, this has got to be it.' And it was about a minute later that he got a bullet in his head.
"To make a long story short, only seven of the 31 men on my boat made it to the beach," said Lambert, one of several thousand U.S., British and Canadian veterans who have returned to Normandy to take part in Sunday's 60th anniversary ceremonies.
Lambert was severely wounded on D-Day but survived the ordeal, and--miraculously--so did Cpl. Herbert Meyers. The two were quite surprised to see each other at a veterans' reunion many years later.
Code-named "Overlord," the D-Day invasion began on the night of June 5 with an air bombardment of German positions in Normandy. During the early hours of June 6, three airborne divisions were dropped behind German lines, and at 6:30 a.m., the main force of 135,000 American, British and Canadian soldiers began landing on the beaches.
D-Day was a breathtaking feat of logistics, but the overall military plan had many flaws. Victory was salvaged only by the cumulative weight of thousands of acts of individual bravery and sacrifice.
The Allied success on D-Day sealed Hitler's eventual demise, but on Omaha Beach, one of the two beaches where the Americans landed, German resistance was ferocious and very nearly turned the invasion into a disaster.
George Allen, 86, a retired New Jersey farmer and another in the group of returning vets, was a young first lieutenant with a 1st Infantry Division unit that landed on bloody Omaha.
"All I remember is mayhem--dead bodies floating in the water, busted equipment," he said. "We lost a lot of good men that day."
Phil Morehouse, 85, from Darien, Conn., and a captain in the 1st Infantry, came in on the fifth day of the invasion. His brother came in the first wave.
"My job was to bring in 800 soldiers to replace the expected casualties--little thinking that my brother, in the 16th Infantry, would be one of them.
"A sergeant I knew later told me that when [my brother's] landing craft beached, he was immediately hit in the leg. They dragged him up onto the beach, and he was hit in the head. He was killed at about 6:30," said Morehouse, a retired lawyer.
Nearly 40 years later, Gen. Omar Bradley, commander of U.S. ground forces on D-Day, would write in his memoir: "Omaha Beach was a nightmare.
"Even now it brings pain to recall what happened there on June 6, 1944. I have returned many times to honor the valiant men who died on that beach. They should never be forgotten. Nor should those who lived to carry the day by the slimmest of margins," Bradley wrote.
Those who lived have their own rituals of remembrance. Allen, the retired farmer, said that every Christmas Eve he slips out of the house to spend a moment with his fallen comrades.
"I look up in the sky, and I talk to my men. I talk to every one of them," he said.
"I never told anyone about this before, but I figure I'm getting old now so I might as well. You know, when you're a combat soldier, you hate the personal pronoun `I.' But how do you avoid it? It's the only way of telling it."
Dan Basile, 79, from Chicago, plans to scoop some sand from Omaha Beach and bring it home. The last time he was here was 60 years ago, a teenage private in the infantry.
"Everything looks so normal. The landscape is perfect," he said, looking out the window of a big tour bus.
"I wanted to go to the cemetery," he said, explaining his reasons for this pilgrimage. "To look up some old friends, to visit the graves and to set my mind at rest."
The American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, which sits on a bluff overlooking Omaha Beach, holds 9,368 graves marked by row after row of white crosses or Stars of David. Today the quiet orderliness of the place belies the chaos and brutality of those deaths.
Capt. Walter Schilling of the 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division, who is buried here, was in the lead landing boat of the third wave to hit Omaha. He was killed by a shell before the steel ramp went down, according to historian Stephen Ambrose's account of the battle.
In a nearby grave lies Pvt. H.T. Bryant of the 82nd Airborne, one of the 20,400 Allied paratroopers dropped behind German lines hours before the amphibious assault began. But in the confusion, Bryant's unit missed its designated drop zone and came down instead in the middle of the German-held village of Ste. Mere Eglise.
Bryant and several others in his unit got their parachutes snagged on telephone poles on the church square. They were shot by Germans before they could untangle themselves.
Like Phil Morehouse's brother and the 24 men on Ray Lambert's landing boat and so many others who had spent months preparing for the invasion, Schilling and Bryant were dead before it began.
The cemetery also holds the remains of 38 pairs of brothers, including two of the four Niland brothers from Tonawanda, N.Y., whose story inspired the Steven Spielberg film "Saving Private Ryan."
Sgt. Robert Niland, a member of the 82nd Airborne, was killed on June 6. His brother, 2nd Lt. Preston Niland, who landed on Utah Beach with the 4th Infantry Division, was killed the next day. A third brother, Sgt. Edward Niland, shot down over Burma three weeks earlier, was missing and presumed dead. That prompted the Army to extract Sgt. Frederick "Fritz" Niland, who had parachuted into Normandy on D-Day with the 101st Airborne.
Happily for the Niland family, Edward also turned up alive after a year in a Japanese prison camp.
Another cross marks the final resting place of Pvt. Heinz Grunig of New York City, who landed on Omaha Beach with the 29th Infantry Division and was killed during the first day of the assault. Only a week ago, an 83-year-old French farmer named Henri Lepelletier found Grunig's dog tag among papers that belonged to his father, a former mayor in the area.
Lepelletier assumed Grunig was German and took the dog tag to the German war cemetery at La Cambe. Lucien Tisserand, the cemetery superintendent, recognized the mistake and sent it to the Americans, who are now checking records to see if any of Grunig's relatives can be found.
Lepelletier remembers vividly the day the Allies landed. The 600-year old farmhouse where he still lives is less than a half-mile from Omaha Beach.
He was awakened that morning by the terrific naval and air bombardment that preceded the landings.
"The most beautiful fireworks display we ever saw," he said. "It was terrifying."
When it paused at 6:30 and the greatest amphibious assault in the history of warfare began, Lepelletier took the opportunity to milk his family's cows.
Much later that day, Lepelletier's father, the mayor, ventured out to find the Red Cross. When he failed to return by the next morning, Lepelletier, then 23, a cousin and a friend set out to find him.
On the road into the village they encountered their first Americans.
"It was a patrol of about 30 soldiers. They stole everything we had--money, knives, documents. I think they took us for Germans," he said.
The three young men were marched to a holding area on the beach where they joined other French civilians, including Lepelletier's father, and many German POWs.
"On the whole, they [the Americans] were very nice. They treated the civilians very well, and the next day they let us go home," he said.
With callused hands, Lepelletier carefully smoothed a worn dollar bill issued in 1935--a souvenir from a GI who scrawled "Good Luck" across it and signed his name. The name is no longer legible.
"Wars are not beautiful, but we will always remember these Americans who liberated us," he said.
Andre Legallois, from the village of St. Laurent, was barely 17 in the spring of 1944, but the Germans put him to work digging trenches and pouring concrete for Hitler's "Atlantic Wall" fortifications. On June 6, he was awakened by the thunderous naval bombardment, which took a heavy toll on the cows his father kept on their farm about a half-mile from Omaha Beach.
As dawn broke and the big guns paused, Legallois went outside for a look.
"You could see the whole bay, but you couldn't see the water for all the ships, and then we understood what was happening."
In the days that followed, as the Allies built up their beachhead near St. Laurent, the teenager befriended some of the GI's who were themselves teenagers.
Over the years, they remained friends, staying in touch with letters. Later, the Americans would return to Normandy, bringing their wives, then their children and grandchildren. But time has taken its toll.
"All of the ones I knew are dead now," said Legallois, 77.
The men who fought World War II--the "Greatest Generation," as they are now called--are dying at the rate of more than 1,100 a day, according to government statistics. This year's ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of D-Day are expected to be the last that will be attended by significant numbers of men who fought the battle.
A few years ago, there were concerns that as the veterans died off, the monuments that honor their deeds and the cemeteries where their comrades lie buried would gradually become seldom-visited museum pieces.
For now, that concern appears to be misplaced. Last year, more than 1.4 million people visited the American cemetery in Colleville. The number has been increasing for several years and will certainly be surpassed this year.
Films such as "Saving Private Ryan" and laudatory books by historian Ambrose and broadcaster Tom Brokaw have stimulated interest in the era for a new generation.
"The grandchildren are starting to come," said Gene Dellinger, superintendent of the American cemetery. "They do it because they want to, to understand and see for themselves."
Riding the crest of this renewed interest, Congress approved $30 million to build an interpretative center at the Colleville cemetery. It is scheduled to open in 2006.
On a recent morning, Jennifer Rogers and several of her classmates from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, were peering into the empty German bunkers on Pointe du Hoc, a rocky promontory between Omaha and Utah Beaches. In a feat of arms that 60 years later beggars belief, the Army's 2nd Ranger Battalion scaled these nearly vertical cliffs. They sustained staggering casualties but took this crucial high ground on the morning of June 6.
"I have seen war movies all my life, but this puts it all into perspective," said Rogers, 20, from Ipava, Ill. "It makes you think how we shouldn't take our liberties for granted."
Spec. Zachary Elkins, a 21-year-old soldier from Norwalk, Wis., serves in an engineering unit based in Germany that is taking part in this weekend's ceremonies at Normandy.
Last week, dressed in civilian clothes, he took a quiet walk along the great sandy expanse of Omaha Beach, now so peaceful.
"I guess you can see it all on TV," he said. "But to walk where they walked, it means a lot."
D-Day discovery: Original of reporter's famous wartime recording found in Long Island basement
A recent donation to the D-Day Foundation is being called the most significant to date. The current owner of the Long Island, NY home discovered the tapes in 1994. He recently donated them to the National D-Day Foundation.
The original recording of war correspondent George Hick’s gripping first-hand account from the D-Day invasion has been discovered in the basement of a summer retreat on Long Island’s North Fork.
The award-winning recording of Hicks coming under fire from Nazi planes on the USS Ancon on June 6, 1944, was hailed by The New York World-Telegram as “the greatest recording yet to come out of the war.”
Bruce Campbell, the man who found the recording, donated it last week to the National D-Day Foundation in Virginia, The Washington Post reported.
“I’m listening to this, and I feel like I’m standing on the battleship with this guy,” Campbell told the paper of the first time he heard it. “It made my hair stand up. … This is the original media and masters it was actually recorded on.”
Campbell found the tape and other World War II recordings in 1994 after purchasing a summer cabin in Mattituck, L.I. that once belonged to a man named Albert Stern, the paper reported. The 16 recordings also include Edward R. Murrow.
Coast Guard Chief Photographer’s Mate Robert F. Sargent captured this famous D-Day image of the scene on Omaha Beach at about 7:40 a.m. on June 6, 1944.
The company that employed Stern as an executive manufactured the Recordgraph, the 75-pound taping machine that Hicks used to record his report on Amertape, according to the paper.
Ten years ago Campbell took another look at the basement tapes, the Post reported. His research took him to the U.K., where he found a man with a machine that could play the antiquated tapes.
On D-Day Hicks was working for Blue radio, the predecessor of ABC, the paper reported.
June 6, 1944: General Dwight Eisenhower gives the order of the day, "Full Victory - Nothing Else" to paratroopers in England just before they board their planes to participate in the first assault in the invasion of the continent of Europe. June 6, 2019, marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the assault that began the liberation of France and Europe from German occupation, leading to the end World War II. (U.S. Army Signal Corps Photo via AP)
He was standing on the deck of the Ancon, a key D-Day communications ship, as he delivered his report.
"Here we go again another plane’s come over!" Hicks is heard hollering. "Right over our port side. Tracers are making an arc right over our bow now. … Looks like we're going to have a night tonight. Give it to them, boys!"
The Post described Hicks as tense but controlled as he fought to be heard over the crescendo of antiaircraft fire.
“Another one coming over! A cruiser right alongside of us is pouring it up!”
FILE - In this file photo from June 6, 1944, members of an American landing unit help their comrades ashore during the Normandy invasion. The men reached the zone code-named Utah Beach, near Sainte- Mere-Eglise, on a life raft after their landing craft was hit and sunk by German coastal defenses. (Louis Weintraub/Pool Photo via AP, File)
Locals recall connections to D-Day
'We must always remember,' said Marion County Veterans Service Officer Jeffrey Askew.
Wednesday marks 74 years since the D-Day invasion in which Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, to gain a foothold in Europe on a march to defeat Nazi Germany.
According to the U.S Army Historical website, www.army.mil, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called the operation a "crusade" and said "we will accept nothing less than full victory." The site states that 9,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded and 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the invasion.
Kenneth A. Barrett, a Vietnam War veteran and volunteer at the Ocala-Marion County Veterans Memorial Park, said his father, Kenneth E. Barrett, who died in 1992, waited with thousand of Allied troops for the D-Day invasion and the advance into Europe.
When Barrett helped his mother clean out some boxes, the family found World War II "V-Mail" and other letters from his father to his mother during the time leading up to the D-Day Invasion as he waited to ship out.
"(He wrote) a big deal was happening," Barrett said of an April 1944 letter written while his father was overseas.
He said his father fought in the Battle of the Bulge and mentioned the bitter cold of the battle, which History.com says was fought for three weeks starting Dec. 16, 1944, and cost 20,000 American lives.
There are two memorials to the D-Day Invasion, or Battle of Normandy, at the Ocala-Marion County Veterans Memorial Park, located at 2601 SE Fort King St., Ocala. One is a memorial along the south brick wall, which lists World War II battles of that time. The other is a free-standing monument that shows the location of Allied forces on the beaches in France and is dedicated to the Hooker Badger family.
The History.com site explains that British, Canadian and American forces combined in the invasion.
"The amphibious invasions began at 6:30 a.m. The British and Canadians overcame light opposition to capture beaches code named Gold, Juno and Sword, as did the Americans at Utah Beach. U.S. forces faced heavy resistance at Omaha Beach, where there were over 2,000 American casualties. However, by day’s end, approximately 156,000 Allied troops had successfully stormed Normandy’s beaches. According to some estimates, more than 4,000 Allied troops lost their lives in the D-Day invasion, with thousands more wounded or missing," the site says. "Less than a week later, on June 11, the beaches were fully secured and over 326,000 troops, more than 50,000 vehicles and some 100,000 tons of equipment had landed at Normandy."
The late Charles Hohl, of Beverly Hills, who died Aug. 16, 2016, was in the early phase of the invasion and drove a tank.
He lied about his age in order to enter the Army, said his widow, May Hohl, in a phone interview on Tuesday.
Charles Hohl was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 2015 for his part in the invasion. He also served in the Battle of the Bulge on the way to Germany.
"He lived D-Day," Mary Hohl said.
She indicated there was a lot of support for anything that would "get rid of Hitler."
Harold Jerome Stephens said on Tuesday that he was 19 when he was called on to fight in D-Day, then was held back for four days to serve with replacement troops.
"We were moved from Birmingham, England to Torkay, near the English Channel, and we were to go in on the first wave. We were held back as replacement troops and were sent in on D-Day Plus 4," said Stephens, 93, a resident of Oak Run west of Ocala.
Stephens said he was serving under Gen. Omar Bradley until after he landed on Utah Beach in France on June 10, 1944, and moved into St.-Lo, where there was a major battle. He then joined Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army and was in the Battle of the Bulge where it was "very cold."
"The Greatest Generation is leaving us and I hope the young people read about D-Day and World War II because it was a major time in the history of this country. I hope they don't forget," he said
Stephens was decorated with five stars on his European Theatre of Operations Medal for fighting in D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge and also has received the French Legion of Honor.
U.S. Navy Chief James Phillips survived a Kamikaze attack on his ship, the USS Luce, that claimed about 200 lives. He said he heard about D-Day on Armed Forces Radio while he was serving in the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific and felt that many resources had gone to the invasion.
"We had to make due," he said.
Marion County Veterans Service Officer Jeffrey Askew said of D-Day: "We must always remember."
D-Day: 150,000 Men -- and One Woman
June 6 marks the anniversary of D-Day, the day in 1944 when Allied forces in World War II invaded France from offshore. It was the largest seaborne invasion in history. Thousands never made it out of the water, making the landing on Normandy one of the deadliest days of the war. In an all-out push, 150,000 men - and one woman -- hit the beaches.
Why even one woman? After all, women weren't allowed to serve in combat in those days - that restriction wouldn't be lifted until 50 years later, in 1994. So how did a female slip through the cracks and land on the beaches with the boys in uniform? Two reasons -- she was a journalist, and she was a stowaway. In June 1944 the British government accredited 558 writers, radio journalists and photographers to cover the D-Day landings. By rights, Martha Gellhorn, an established war correspondent for Collier's magazine, should have been one of them.
Each news outlet could send only one person, and the Collier's nod went to a guy named Ernest Hemingway, who didn't work for the magazine but had a famous name. He also happened to be the estranged husband of Martha Gellhorn. When Hemingway asked for her slot, he got it. The boys in charge turned down all the women who applied, forcing them to take "no" for an answer.
But not Gellhorn. She took action -- or more specifically took to the toilet. She stowed away in a hospital ship bathroom. The 5000-vessel armada stretched as far as the eye could see, transporting the men and nearly 30,000 vehicles across the English channel to the French shoreline. When it came time to land, Gellhorn hit the beach disguised as a stretcher bearer. In the confusion, no one noticed she was a girl. (And just incidentally, she got there ahead of Hemingway.)
By nightfall on June 6, 1944, more than 9,000 Allied soldiers were dead or wounded. More than 100,000 others - including that one female stowaway -- had survived the landing.
Other women followed, but not right away. Thirty-eight days after D-day, the first forty-nine WACs to arrive in France landed in Normandy. Assigned to the Communications Zone, they immediately took over switchboards recently vacated by the Germans and worked in tents, cellars, prefabricated huts, and switchboard trailers.
But Martha Gellhorn was the first woman - landing upfront, and the only female journalist with a brilliant first-hand story of the invasion.
Signalman Joe Ward recalls D-Day devastation from the bow of HMCS Ottawa
Joe had to stand on the bow, the front of his ship, and flash signals to the thousands of other vessels bouncing in the water that day. He and the captain, two lonely figures atop the ship. Talk about easy pickings.
"We had no defence," says Joe, "no shelter at all. It's hard to believe.
"There was one rip-roaring shell after another and each one of them weighed about a ton and a half. You were always just wondering if the next one is the one that's going to hit you, but that was my job. I had to stay there."
Joe's job was to try to bring some order to the chaos, to let the other ships know what his destroyer, HMCS Ottawa, was going to do next.
They were fast, the destroyers, weaving in and out among the almost 7,000 vessels in the English Channel, offering protection as needed, alert always to the presence of U-boats, trying desperately to keep as many young soldiers and sailors from dying as possible.
"The only reason I'm here today," says Joe, "is sheer luck. Providence."
At 96, Joe really doesn't want to relive June 6, 1944. Nightmares came to him for years, though thankfully diminishing with time.
But he's willing to focus on it again for a new generation to learn about war &hellip and perhaps even more for the boys who never came home.
"D-Day was just like I imagine hell to be," says Joe, "the crashing of shells, the explosions, men and boys screaming and dying. Just an overwhelming noise like something you can't imagine."
War may have seemed romantic to Joe Ward once upon a time.
After all, the First World War &mdash the one they hoped would end all wars &mdash had somehow brought Joe's parents together. His Dad, Joe Sr., proud Londoner, had signed on with the Royal Navy for that one.
It saved him from the misery of the trenches, it took him places he'd never go and when it took him to the Dardanelles, it brought him to the love of his life, a Russian girl named Vera Filipova.
He brought Vera back home with him and together they had a girl, Kitty, and two boys, Joe and his brother, Ronald.
In 1930, Joe Sr. and Vera ventured across the sea again, eventually landing in Chilliwack, B.C. That's where Joe. Jr. grew up.
Joe remembers it as a happy time. Both of his parents were musical and nights of song filled their home, easing the hard times of the Depression.
Joe recalls how he and his brother loved teasing their Mom, calling her "Mrs. Flipover" from her Russian name, Filipova.
"We loved her dearly," he says. "She never did speak much English, but she was very loving and kind."
And then in 1939 came the Second World War. By this time, Joe was in high school. And one fine day after school, Joe and two of his friends did what boys do and went down and signed up.
"My mother cried, but what could she do? She knew I had to go. She said, 'Now, Joey, be careful,' as if you could be careful, as if it made any difference."
Joe wanted to be a sailor like his Dad. One of his buddies joined the army that day and the other the Air Force. That wasn't the only difference between them &mdash Joe came home and they did not.
Joe served for four long years before D-Day, mostly escorting huge convoys of ships, some carrying Canadian boys to war, some carrying the tanks and other tools of war and some carrying food to the hungry British people.
They were constantly watching for U-boats, the German submarines that were so deadly to the Allied ships and the precious human cargo on board.
The job of destroyers was to blow up U-boats and Joe saw that bloody act of war.
"Well, they just exploded out of the water and then the bodies landed and just floated there in the sea. We knew the Germans were in the same boat as we were, just trying to live. You look at that and say, 'You poor buggers,' but this is the way it's gotta be."
A detail haunts him from that day, though. His ship recovered a mailbag from the U-boat, letters the dead German sailors had written home. They were just like the ones he and his mates were sending to their families and Joe realized how much they had in common.
Joe has a good friend now, a German veteran, and they understand each other very well, he says, perhaps better than any of us who came along later can.
"Hitler said, 'You go,' and they had to go. You realized they were the same as you. You were German. Or you were English. And you were alive. Or you were dead. All a matter of luck."
In those years, when Joe was off duty, he had to go down and sleep below the waterline. Perhaps the fitful dreams began then.
Joe made many crossings of the cold, dark, dangerous Atlantic, always escorting the convoys and always a potential target himself.
There were, of course, many peaceful times at sea, but never times of peace.
Joe and all the sailors were on guard in every moment for the unseen torpedo that could end it all for them.
One day, just a few feet from him, a couple of his friends sat down atop the captain's bridge, their legs dangling over the side. A moment of rest? A moment to take it all in? Whatever it was, a shell from a German destroyer whistled by just then, missing Joe, but carrying off both his friends' legs.
Then in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, Joe's ship was in the Bay of Biscay near the English Channel when they got the call.
The invasion of Europe, long rumoured, was on. By the time Joe knew about it, the ships carrying the boys to Normandy had already set sail. HMCS Ottawa was called on to protect their young lives one more time.
This was the way it was for those 18, 19, 20-year-olds who were sent to fight.
The higher-ups had been planning D-Day for months, years. But the boys who would fight on the beaches and on the sea and in the air were only told the invasion was on at the last moment.
It was for their own good. Surprise was their friend.
Joe was 21 then, a four-year veteran. No longer considered a kid. He'd shown talent at being able to read other ships' signals from miles away and that had become his job, a signalman who tried to bring some order to chaos.
And so as dawn broke, as the sunlight revealed ships as far as the eye could see, as the ungodly barrage began, Joe climbed to the top of his ship, stepped outside the captain's bridge and gamely stood there for the next eight hours raising his signal &mdash as fat a target as ever a marksman could ask for.
"It was just a melee," recalls Joe, "I was lucky, but so many of my friends were not. Lots of men were lost that day. There was blood everywhere, blood in the ships, blood in the water."
As D-Day unfolded, as the beaches were gained across a 50-mile stretch of France and the victory sealed, the sailors turned to rescuing boys in the sea or on the ships now crippled and clogging the English Channel.
And more than they wished, their job turned to identifying the dead.
"We couldn't take them back to England, we were already full taking back the wounded," says Joe, "but we cut off their dog tags whenever we could, so their parents would know."
D-Day was just the start. That day, 132,000 soldiers were landed in Normandy, but the Allies knew they had to keep sending more every day because now that Hitler knew they were there, he would throw all his considerable might at them.
By June 30, there were 850,000 boys in France. And by the end of the Normandy campaign in August, there were two million Allied soldiers in France.
And in all that time, Joe was at sea, fighting, signalling, rescuing, clipping those sad dog tags.
He was 44 days in the English Channel after D-Day.
"There wasn't any relief. They brought you food if they could and a drink of water, but there were pretty thin rations by the end."
Happily, the madness would not go on much longer. Less than a year later, the war in Europe was finally, wonderfully, over.
And you might think Joe would be glad to be going home.
He did get back to British Columbia that glorious summer of 1945 and then he did something inexplicable to many of us. His naval service was over and he didn't have to go, but he volunteered to join the war in the Pacific.
"I guess I wanted to see it through," he says.
The Allies reckoned that there would be one to four million casualties if they tried to invade Imperial Japan. But then the atom bomb was dropped and Japan finally surrendered.
Joe was already in the Pacific, not all that far from Vancouver, but steaming toward Tokyo nonetheless when he got the word that he was now a civilian.
Joe was 22 and in his adult life, he had known only war. So what would he do with the life that had been spared?
He ended up going to Toronto to the Royal Conservatory of Music. He was a talented clarinetist, but pretty soon he could play most instruments.
The signalman would become a teacher and luckily for Hamilton, he arrived as a music teacher at Delta High School in 1957. In the years since, countless thousands of Hamiltonians have learned to play music from Joe Ward.
As a musical conductor of many bands, he continued to do what a good navy signalman does &mdash pay attention, be in the moment, lead the crew and take responsibility for whatever happens.
Although, as Joe observes, the stakes are just so much lower in music than war.
His nightmares went on for years. Sometimes in the night, he knew a missile was coming for him and he'd duck.
But thankfully the nightmares have abated with the passage of decades.
However, this interview has been hard on the 96-year-old.
"It still hurts," he says. "It makes you feel sick to think about it. All these kids were my age and I left many of them back there. They were good kids and they were just kids.
"You'd make a friend and you'd say, 'See you next week, Jimmy,' and then in the next week he was gone.
"You want to know what we did in the war? We lived and slept and ate and died. That's it."
Linda Jacobs is an award-winning journalist with a special interest in the Second World War.
Man Discovers Original D-Day Dispatch Audiotape in Basement
Twenty-five years ago, a man in Mattituck, New York, came across a collection of audiotapes in his basement and put them aside for a rainy day. Years later, when he finally investigated the tapes, he found that he was in possession of original recordings of some of the most important broadcasts of World War II.
As Michael E. Ruane reports for the Washington Post, the man, 63-year-old Bruce Campbell, now of Loxahatchee, Florida, decided to donate the collection of tapes and assorted artifacts to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virginia. Most notable in the collection is a dispatch recorded by American war correspondent George Hicks on D-Day.
Hicks, the London bureau chief for the Blue Network (a predecessor of ABC), was reporting from the U.S.S. Ancon. The Ancon, which served as a communication ship in the D-Day invasion, was among 5,000 ships that traveled across the English Channel to France carrying troops, supplies and in this case, a bold journalist toting a tape-recording machine called a Recordgraph.
The ship was stationed off the coast of Normandy when the Nazis began to attack the Allied troops from the air. The recording captures the sounds of gunfire, aircraft and shouting interspersed with Hicks’s commentary. At one point, Hicks and others aboard exclaimed “we got one!” as a German plane fell from the sky in a fiery blaze, according to the Post.
Hicks’s D-Day broadcast is known as one of the best audio recordings to come out of World War II, but only copies of the recording were available before Campbell’s discovery of what appears to be the original tape. The Post describes the report as “iconic and frightening,” and Campbell echoes the sentiment.
“I’m listening to this, and I feel like I’m standing on the battleship with this guy,” Campbell tells the Post of the first time he heard the audiotape. “It made my hair stand up. … This is the original media and masters it was actually recorded on.”
In full, Campbell’s basement trove yielded 16 audiotape recordings of Hicks and other famous World War II journalists, including Edward R. Murrow. The collection also included pieces of the Recordgraph machine that was used to make the recordings. That makes sense because, as it turns out, the artifacts belonged to the previous homeowner, the late Albert Stern, who was the vice president of the very company that manufactured the Recordgraph.
The Recordgraph system was first developed by Frederick Hart & Co. in the late 1930s and used to record audio on loops of cellulose acetate film called Amertape. Without a functional machine to play the antiquated tapes, Campbell initially had no clue how to listen to them. But after some research, he got in touch with a British electrical engineer and audio expert named Adrian Tuddenham. Campbell traveled to Bristol, England, in 2004, and with the help of a device created by Tuddenham, he finally heard the D-Day dispatch.
Hicks’s distinctive voice is instantly recognizable in it: “Here we go again another plane’s come over!” he narrates. “Looks like we’re going to have a night tonight.”
About Andrea Michelson
Andrea Michelson is a digital intern with Smithsonian magazine. She is currently a senior at Northwestern University, where she studies journalism and global health.
6. The Dames of D-Day
Although Martha Gellhorn served as a trailblazer for female journalists and war correspondents, others deserve equal merit for their efforts to act as the eyes of millions in order to get a glimpse of the war unfolding thousands of miles away. These women were affectionately called the Dames of D-Day or the D-Day Dames.
Helen Kirkpatrick, like many of her female colleagues, was shunned for her audacity to carry out a man’s job. The Chicago Daily News would only allow male reporters to contribute to their magazine, but there was one exception — the word “no” wasn’t in her vocabulary. “I can’t change my sex. But you can change your policy,” Kirkpatrick said. On her first assignment in London, she sought to interview the Duke of Windsor, an impossible proposition considering the king didn’t do interviews. To the amazement of her male counterparts, the headline she submitted read, “Duke of Windsor’s interview with Helen Kirkpatrick” — the king interviewed her.
“I can’t change my sex. But you can change your policy.”
She covered the London Blitz, spent half of 1943 covering North African campaigns in Algiers, braved sniper fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and once stole a frying pan from Hitler’s Bavarian hideaway, commonly referred to as the “Eagle’s Nest.”
Like the men of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division, lounging sipping on a cold drink on the patio of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, another D-Day Dame, Lee Miller, also took advantage by posing for a once-in-a-lifetime photo-op — completely naked in Hitler’s bathtub. That same day, Allied forces marched through Munich and liberated the city of the Third Reich.
Miller’s previous career as a model provided experience in capturing emotions in a photograph, both in understanding the subject’s perspective and how to manipulate a camera. Her unforgettable images showed the wrath of the Nazis, a lasting impression that haunted her until her final days.