All these years have not dimmed my memory of that fateful June 6th day. Many of the happenings are seared into my mind. I'll always remember them as vivid as if they were yesterday.
Don Irwin, as a commissioned Navy officer -an ensign- was the skipper (or captain) of an LCT (Landing Craft Tank) amphibious craft that landed troops ashore on Omaha Beach one hour after H-Hour (H-Hour is the designated time the first troops landed) on the morning ot D-Day, June 6. 1944. H-Hour was at 6,30 A.M. - our orders were to land our troops and equipment at 7:30 A.M.
The LCT was an amphibious craft that was approximately 120 feet in length and around 30 feet wide. It was labeled amphibious because it had a flat bottom (so that its bow could go through even shallow water right up to a beach) and a ramp that could be dropped so troops and/or vehicles could be discharged across it. On the way to a beach - the craft had a large anchor that was dropped off the stern. The anchor was fastened to a large wire cable that vas fastened to a winch on board the vessel. When it came time to retract from the beach - the cable was wound on the drum of the winch which helped to pull the craft off the beach.
Our group of LCT's left Portland harbor in England to cross the English Channel at around 3:30 in the morning on June 5th. My crew on U.S. LCT 614 consisted of another ensign (the executive officer) and 15 Navy enlisted men. The main deck of my ship was loaded with 65 U.S. troops and a number of bulldozers and ~ jeeps with their trailers. This was the assault force of men, vehicles and weapons that I had orders to put ashore on the Dog Red sector (a code name section of the beach) at Omaha Beach (also a code name) at Nonnandy, France one hour- after H-Hour in the early morning hours of D-Day.
Outside of the sea being fairly rough, the trip across the English Channel was quite uneventful. As I recall, when dawn broke, the Normandy beach lay ahead-and not much was to be seen but haze and smoke. And ships were everywhere. But then as we headed toward the beach, abreast with three other LCT'S things began to happen.
I and my executive officer were on the conning tower. The crew was of course at battle stations. We were so heavily attired that even with life jackets I fear we would have gone straight to the bottom had the ship sunk. As I recall, in addition to my lite jacket and helmet I had on navy toul weather gear and on top of that impregated clothing (as a protection against poison gas that the Germans might use). In addition I bad my gas mask slung, a 45 pistol on my belt and a pair of binoculars around my neck.
As we headed toward the beach, the most ear-splitting, deafening, horrendous sound I had ever heard - or probably will ever hear - took place. It was the guns of the battleship USS Texas firing over our heads and into the beach. As I looked back over my shoulder, it looked as if the Texas giant 14-inch guns were pointed right at us. But of course they weren't. Their trajectory to reach their targets on the beach was so flat, it just looked that way. Then I recall thinking, as we stood on the conning tower and I directed US LCT 614 toward the beach, how tranquil sit seemed heading in. Perhaps the briefing officer, a US Navy captain that briefed us shortly before we left port at Portland Harbor England was right when he said "There won't be anything left to bother you guys when you hit the beach. We're throwing everything at the Germans but the kitchen sink - and we'll thrown that in too". Then he went on to state how much aerial bombing would be carried out - and how much shelling the USS Texas and USS Arkansas, the two battleships off Omaha Beach, would be doing.
But things did change, and how!
As we approached the beach - we were still quite a distance out - the sea seemed to get much rougher. And the current was getting much stronger as the tide was coming in. (There is a huge tide at Normandy with the tide running out for three or four hundred yards). What I then attempted to do was to get close enough to the beach so that I could drop my ramp and get the 65 troops and equipment ashore in relatively shallow water. I had already dropped my anchor so that I would have help in pulling away from the beach. As I tried to get in closer, I remember seeing the water starting to splash ahead. And I thought, the battleship firing behind us was firing short. But no such thing, the Germans had started to open up with 88 millimeter guns.
We finally dropped our ramp to get our troops and equipment off. And then all hell tore loose. We came under intense fire - as did the LCT's to the right and left of us. Most of the fire seemed to be rifle and machine gun fire. But I found I still couldn't get the soldiers and equipment off because the water was still too deep.
We spent about an hour and a half trying to get our landing craft closer to the beach. And then as I recall, a couple of bulldozers were driven off the ramp in pretty deep water but did reach the shore only to be blasted by German gunners with phosphorous shells which started them burning.
Then some of the soldiers - with a couple of the commissioned officers leading - took off from the ramp in water up to their armpits, with rifles held high over their heads and headed for shore. And then a series of things happened and sights I saw I'll never forget. As soon as a few of the soldiers left the ramp, two of them got shot just as they stepped off the ramp. They were quickly pulled back on board ship. One was ahot in the back - but it appeared to be more of a grazing-type wound and not serious. The other was shot in the stomach, a more serious type wound and I recall the bullet just missing a rifle grenade on his belt. Had it hit the grenade it probably would have blown him to bits.
The German shell fire grew so intense I was standing behind the chart house for protection with a member of my crew. I remember suddenly I saw him reel and start to fall - and blood was coming from beneath his eye. I recall catching him before he hit the deck, thinking of course that he was fatally wounded. He regained consciousness shortly and after the now of blood was stemmed, he seemed to be in good shape. Apparently a piece of shrapnel from a mortar round or that of an 88 millimeter cannon had slashed him as neatly as a knife and the impact caused him to lose consoiousness. (He refused to leave the ship and his crewmates and go aboard a hospital ship. The wound healed in time and he recovered
But now, with soldiers getting shot going off the ramp, I had a problem. The rest of the troops refused to leave. And I had orders that I should disembark these troops and equipment here and now. It had been stressed that to tail to do so could jeapordize invasion plans - and an officer oould be subject to oourts martial. It was even suggested, that if necessary, orders were to be carried out at gun point.
But I recall, I could in no way force human beings to step off the ramp to almost certain wounding or death. Because by now, the situation bad grown much worse. The shell fire became even more intense. And the sea continued to get rougher. Pandemonium seemed to be everywhere with lots of smoke and explosions. There were bodies in the water. It was evident the invasion force at Omaha Beach was taking a bad beating. Every once in awhile ahead of us on the beach, we could see U.S. soldiers huddled at the base of a cliff. They weren't moving inland. The Germans were firing at them from the front and the heavy tide was bringing the sea ever closer to them from behind.
At this point we ourselves had come under intense rifle and machine gun fire. The men in my crew, who were still at their battle stations and who had been standing erect on our way to the beach "Were now flattened out against the ship as if they were a part of it. I recall a couple of my crew yelling - "Skipper, let's get out of here."
After an hour and a half of trying to get my load of troops and vehicles off, believe me I was ready. Finally, a reprieve came. Orders came over our radio from our command ship to retract from the beach. The beach was described as being too 'hot' from German gunfire and our orders were to withdraw, go out into the English Channel, anchor and await further orders. What welcome orderd but little did I know that my troubles were just beginning.
When I gave the command to raise and secure the ramp of the landing craft, I noticed what appeared to be a German mine bobbing in the water close to the end of the ramp. But it never made contact with the ramp. If it had, we never would have made it out of there. With the ramp up and secured we attempted to retract from the beach by winding in the anchor cable with our gasoline-engine-driven winch and backing down (or reversing) with the 3 screws (or propellers) on the stern of "the landing craft.
At about this time we rescued 4 or 5 sailors from drowning near our landing craft by pulling them out of the sea. They were completely fatigued and as I remember as blue from the cold water as any living human being I've ever seen. The one thing I'll never forget is that they were so exhilerated and so very thankful at having their lives saved that they completely emptied their pockets and gave my crew everything they had in their possession, including their Colt 45 pistols. Come to find out, they had had their LCVP (landing craft vehicle personnel) blown out from under them by the Germans while they were trying to put some troops or equipment ashore. We found out later they were from the U.S.S. Carroll - a Navy attack transport anchored out in the channel.
As we continued to try to back away from the beach area, we were suddenly stopped and found that we were 'hung up' on an underwater obstacle. The Germans, in addition to their many gun emplacements in the cliffs that overlooked Omaha Beach from both sides, had fortified the beach with huge obstacles of several different kinds that were meant to trap or entagle landing craft in case of an invasion. Some on these were large wooden ramps with their ends pointed toward the sea ~ others were huge wooden posts driven into the sand with contact mines on top - and still another type, steel hedgehogs made of 3 lengths' of large angle irons welded together in the middle so they fonned a double tripod, with spikes sticking up whichever side they laid on. As I recall, after some tense moments we got free of the obstacle but in the process it rendered useless one of the outside screws of our LET 80 I had only 2 screws to operate with.
We were indeed fortunate to get free from the German underwater beach obstacles as I have since learned that the demolition teams that were to land at low tide (when the obstacles were exposed) and before our arrival and blow up the obstacles had suffered 50% casualties and got very little of their assignments accomplished. They-were to have blown 16 lanes or paths, each 50 yards wide, so landing craft could get through the thick obstacles. However, only 6 lanes were cleared - adding to the great difficulty tor landing 'craft attempting to get to the beach.
Another sight I'll' never forget - and it might have been during the full hour that I tried to get close enough to the beach to get my troops off - was 2 soldiers nearby that were trying their best to survive. One of them had his arms around one of the large wooden post obstacles that the Germans had driven into the beach. Hanging on to his waist was another American soldier. They were using the post as protection against the German rifle and machine gun fire that was coming at them from the beach. So accurate was this fire that the bullets were splintering the log on the sides. And to add to the perilous position of these 2 men was the incoming tide which was raising the water ever higher on the log - and sooner or later they would have no log left for protection. I often wondered if they survived.