Eyewitness to D-day : When U.S. Troops Hit Beaches of Normandy June 6, 1944, Happy Cooper Was There to Help Them Ashore. And He Was There to Help Feed Them and Patch Them Up When They Came Back.

I made good pay as a merchant marine, transporting freight, grain and ammunition from New York to Scotland or England. I would have never thought about joining the Navy because the pay was nowhere as good.

But after a German submarine torpedoed our ship in the English Channel, my parents became worried about me making trips across the Atlantic without any protection. So I joined the Navy to please them.

I enlisted on Aug. 11, 1941, and helped put the Henrico in commission in New Jersey that fall. It was a cargo ship converted into an army transport ship. At times, we carried as many as 5,500 soldiers. I stayed with the Henrico as a first-class cook throughout the war.

We were off the coast of Scotland for six weeks before D-day. We would load up troops and take them out for training at night. We would put them in small landing boats and teach them how to get out of the ship, rendezvous and then come back to the ship.

We stayed there until June 4 and then went to Plymouth, England, and loaded up a whole lot more troops and ammunition.

Us Navy guys knew we were going to hit a beachhead in France for a good week in advance of D-day. But we didn't know where until we left for Normandy the night of June 5. We didn't care where the invasion was going to be or what was going to happen. We just wanted to go out and do it.

We sent the first wave out of the ship at 5:30 in the morning. The landing boats, carrying 55 to 65 soldiers each, would rendezvous in a circle with a flag boat. After the red flag went up, they would head toward the beach. When they got close enough, a green flag would go up and that would mean hit that beach.

They announced over the loudspeakers they wanted volunteers to take the second wave in. I was off duty at the time, so I said to the first-class butcher, "Let's go." I volunteered to be the coxswain to steer the boat. The butcher was a deckhand and we got another kid to be the engineer.

There was no shelling on the first wave and we heard very little activity. Some shooting and firing but nothing serious. So we went out there and started toward the beach.

The Germans must have woke up and they threw everything at us. It was like salt and pepper raining all around you with bullets flying. You didn't stop to look at them, either. You kept your concentration on going in and kept your head down.

We were only about three miles offshore, but it took about an hour and a half to reach the beach because the waters were so choppy. You just didn't drive in there slowly. You poured the fuel to that engine and gave her full throttle to make that boat go as fast as that thing would fly through the water.

When you went in, you didn't go in a straight line. You kept weaving, so if the Germans tried to aim on you, they missed. But coming back, you went out straight as fast as you could back to your ship.

When we got back, that's when all hell broke loose. I didn't volunteer a second time to take boats in. That was enough for me. By the time you got back to the ship, you were really shook up.

As the day went on, the fight got heavier on both sides. Shells were always flying and they were getting pretty darn close to us, too. It must have been hell on the beach.

I just lucked out we didn't get hit. Everybody was shaky and you didn't know when a shot would hit you or sink your boat. We cooked six hours on and six hours off and only got three to four hours of sleep.

We brought back a lot of injured troops and put them in sick bay. They would keep them there and transport them to England. But a lot of them only got nicked or shot. They could patch them up and send them back out.

We were off Normandy for four days. By then, the battle was over. We went back to the United States and stayed here for 15 days and went out to the Pacific.

The Normandy beachhead was the biggest battle Americans figured that the United States had. But to us, it wasn't. Guam was.

Those Japanese suicide bombers had no mercy on us. Our ship got hit by a suicide plane carrying a 500-pound bomb. The butcher and I were the only two men on that side of the ship to come out alive.

I was bounced around like a rubber ball, but I got up and started rescuing people from the water. We couldn't get them all and lost a lot of them to sharks. I was given the Purple Heart. When I received the award, the Navy captain asked me why I didn't smile. I said, "Sir. You don't know how close I came to getting the Black Heart."

When we finally got to San Francisco . . . doctors discovered I had 25 ulcers from the size of a pin to a nickel. My weight dropped from 180 to 125 pounds. A lot of times the cramps and pain would hit so hard, I wish I could have died.

I was rated as 80% disability and discharged. I wanted to stay in the service for 20 years and tried to re-enlist, but they wouldn't let me. They told me, "You're half dead, it's time for you to go home."

I was in the Navy for three years, two months and 18 days and don't regret any moment of it.

If it weren't for the invasion on the Normandy beachhead, we'd be under a dictatorship, walking under Japanese or German flags now. It was something that had to be done to save your loved ones and your country.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
56°