"We were in a (landing craft) when my troop got hit about 250 yards offshore by a floating mine. I had just gotten into a half-track when my boat blew up. I remember starting the half-track up, getting ready to go ashore and, before you can say, 'Scat,' the damn thing went down in 25 feet of water. I grabbed a wooden C-ration box and paddled my way to shore. I barely had enough time to get out. Of 32 men on board, only three or four--at the most--got ashore."
--Edward M. England, San Clemente
Fifty years ago, Edward M. England was a young infantryman who survived the carnage of the D-day invasion on June 6, 1944. The bloody landing of Allied troops on heavily defended Normandy beaches was one of the epic military feats of all time, a decisive blow to liberate Europe from fascism and hasten the end of World War II.
The United States marched off to war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. By the time the enemy alliance of Germany, Italy and Japan surrendered four years later, 16.5 million Americans had taken part in the fighting. More than 1 million became casualties, including 292,131 dead. Many died in the fight to free Europe--an effort that began with the incredibly risky assault on D-day.
For England, now 74, and other aging D-day veterans in Orange County, the fear, the sacrifice, the love for lost comrades and the ultimate triumph of the invasion are forever burned into memory.
Serving with the famed 1st Infantry Division, known as the Big Red One, England was among 133,000 troops, carried by an armada of 5,000 ships, that stormed the deadly beaches while nearly 20,000 paratroopers landed behind the German lines.
At the end of the first 24 hours, the Allies--Americans, British and French--had established a beachhead, but at the cost of 10,000 killed or wounded, two-thirds of them American.
To reach the enemy, they had crossed the English Channel, 20 miles from southwestern Britain to northern France, on a flotilla that included everything from fast transports to rusty freighters and tired old tankers.
Action was everywhere. While Edward England struggled to reach the shore, bomber navigator Sargent Ableman of Fountain Valley saw enough boats below to virtually walk across the channel. And as paratrooper Frank Dennison of San Clemente had trouble controlling the sweats, Tustin resident Robert Malcolm Phillips' dream of becoming a war hero was ending when he was taken prisoner. What follows are the D-day recollections of these and other Orange County veterans.
In the turbulent crossing under dense, gray sky, troops were sick and vomiting as they sat, tightly wedged in small landing vessels packed with ammunition, tanks, explosives and gasoline. As they neared the enemy-held coast, England remembers, soldiers rechecked their gear, sang and prayed.
The landing craft plowed ahead through exploding German mines. Boats went down and men drowned. Still, the Americans kept coming, heading for beaches code named Omaha and Utah while British and Canadian allies steered for beaches known as Juno, Sword and Gold. There was intense artillery fire from concrete gun emplacements. Adding to the deafening noise were the U.S. warplanes that bombed German positions, hoping to soften up the defenses for the oncoming and terribly exposed infantrymen.
When England's landing craft hit the mine and he struggled to reach the shore, his troubles were only beginning. The Nazis raked the Allies with artillery fire at the same time wayward bombs from U.S. warplanes landed near the advancing infantry.
"We were getting about 30 to 40 shells an hour," England said. "A couple of shells killed two men in front of me. I remember as we advanced that most of the beaches were loaded with mines. You could see them, they were round like a plate and colored gray."
"I was trackless and my antitank gun was gone," he said. "We picked up one from another outfit three hours later from the 79th Division. We took anything we could to fight."
Infantryman William C. Roberts, 70, of Anaheim, who landed a half-track on Omaha beach, recalls the engineers blowing up mines and beach obstacles sewn by the German defenders. These kept them from moving off the beach.
"It's hard to describe. You smell the artillery powder. There were guys lying around all over and no way to evacuate them. The first night, it was pretty scary. Fortunately, no German airplanes were coming over, but we had to be sure we had our passwords ready. We used 'April,' then you waited for 'Fool.' And, Brooklyn . . . Dodgers."
The incredibly loud shelling is something that Army Signal Corps Sgt. Gustave (Joe) Miltz of Los Alamitos, for all his 72 years, will never forget.