D-Day Memories : County's Veterans Look Back With Pride and Pain

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lawrence (Ed) McCarthy of Camarillo knew it was going to be a big mission when he heard they were serving steak and eggs in the officers' mess on the morning of June 6, 1944.

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Bedridden at a military hospital in Bodney, England, with what doctors feared was an appendicitis attack, the 22-year-old U. S. Army Air Force first lieutenant missed the breakfast.

But McCarthy promised himself that he wasn't going to miss this mission. The long-awaited time for the D-day invasion had finally come.

"I was in the hospital and heard over the radio that all able-bodied men were to report to their units," McCarthy said.

"I wasn't in the pain I was the day before, so I talked to the doctor and he agreed to release me. I had a sense of what was about to happen and I didn't want to miss it."

A few hours later, McCarthy was at the controls of his P-51 Mustang fighter, skimming over the turbulent English Channel at just over 300 m.p.h. He and his fellow members of the 328th Fighter Squadron--known as the Blue Nosed Bastards of Bodney--were headed for Normandy.

Assigned to a divebombing mission designed to prevent the Germans from reinforcing their beachside positions, McCarthy had no idea how big the invasion force would be.

But as he approached the French coastline at an altitude of about 500 feet, he was awe-struck at what he saw in the water below him.

"It almost looked like you could walk across the ships, there were so damned many out there," McCarthy said. "It was nothing short of amazing."

McCarthy said that as he was approaching the invasion site, his thoughts were focused on the location of the Allied troops beneath him, the weather and his low altitude.

"We were given a 20-by-20-mile sector to cover," McCarthy said. "We were told that if anything moved within that area we were to take it out. We did."

On D-day and the weeks that followed, McCarthy flew roughly twice the number of sorties he normally flew in support of the Allied invasion force as it advanced through France and into Germany.

"It was the custom that if you completed a mission you could get a ration of two ounces of what we called combat whiskey, " McCarthy said. "But at that time we were practically living in our flight suits. We'd come back, eat and then sleep. We didn't have the time or the energy to drink."

More than 153,000 American and Allied soldiers combined to strike at five separate beaches on the Normandy coast that morning, backed up by an armada of 5,000 ships and more than 12,000 aircraft. In all, the Allied invasion was the largest amphibious assault force the world has ever known.

And, the losses suffered during the invasion were staggering. Nearly 6,600 American soldiers died during during the first 24 hours of the attack, half of them during the first few hours of the invasion at Omaha Beach.

By the time Paris was liberated in August of that year, 37,000 Allied soldiers died in the conquest of Hitler's "Fortress Europe."

And for McCarthy and other Ventura County veterans of D-day, the sights, sounds and smells of the invasion will be forever burned into their memories.

Norman Elton of Ventura remembers the invasion like it happened yesterday.

For Elton, then a 24-year-old British Army staff sergeant, the invasion was memorable not only because of its strategic importance, but also because it marked his first mission flying a glider into enemy territory.

The gliders in Elton's squadron were made of plywood, had an 88-foot wingspan and were capable of carrying either 30 fully outfitted troops or two jeeps. They were towed by aircraft until a few miles before their target and then released. Junked after a single flight, they were capable of landing anywhere and needed no airstrip.

On the morning of D-day, 250 British gliders were launched. Elton and his co-pilot had a cargo of two jeeps. Released by his tow plane five miles offshore from Normandy, the Ventura veteran marveled at the armada massing below him.

"It was the most magnificent sight," Elton said. "For miles you could see in every direction nothing but Navy ships."

At his intended landing site, a few miles inland from the beaches of Normandy near the river Orne, Elton was supposed to deliver the two jeeps to help Allied units protect their eastern flank.

As they were landing in a field, they saw a German tank. But the tank suddenly turned and retreated from the area, removing the threat as the glider landed.

"He could have done a tremendous amount of damage had he stayed," Elton said. "The Germans weren't quite sure what was going on."

Elton, now 74, says the British glider squadrons took a beating that morning. His squadron lost 34 men and 17 gliders.

"If you saw a church tower or a steeple, 10 to 1 there'd be a German sniper in it," Elton said. But most of the gliders carried out their missions and their role in the invasion was viewed as a success.

"It was the first time we had used such a big concentration of gliders. I think we took them by surprise."

When the landing craft carrying Bob Tanner of Camarillo lowered its main door, he expected to find the sand of Omaha Beach under his feet when he stepped off the craft.

Instead, like many of his comrades that day, the 22-year-old U. S. Army staff sergeant found himself nearly waist deep in the waves and struggling to stay upright with his 70-pound pack as German defensive fire from 88-millimeter cannons and machine guns sprayed all around him.

Tanner, who was with the 1st Infantry Division--the Army unit known as the Big Red One--carried a silver dollar good-luck charm with him on D-day. And he still believes that is why he wasn't killed.

"Of the 192 men we had in my company, 57 were killed and 24 wounded within the first hour of the invasion," Tanner said. "I guess you could say that my lucky buck worked."

Tanner, who participated in the Allied invasions of North Africa in 1942 and Sicily in 1943, said that his company was warned that Normandy would be rough.

But he adds that none of his comrades could have expected what they encountered that morning on Omaha Beach--the bloodiest of the five Allied landing beaches at Normandy.

"I think our company had a bit of a cocky attitude because of the first two invasions, but Omaha was a meat grinder," said Tanner, now 72.

"The first thing you wanted to do was to get away from the landing craft. You had to have a tough attitude that you were going to get through despite the fact that guys you were just talking to were dying in front of you. You just had to keep moving."

Tanner said that his company landed at Omaha at 6:30 a.m. and that it was 12:30 p.m. before members of his unit were able to get off the beach.

The Omaha assault required the invaders to cross nearly 200 yards of open beach before reaching a concrete seawall at the base of some bluffs. It took at least five more days before his ears stopped ringing from the constant sound of mortar and machine-gun fire.

"I'm proud of what we did there," Tanner said. "But we all paid a heck of a price. A lot of good friends of mine didn't make it out of there. They're the heroes, not me."

Tanner said that his division lived up to its battle-hardened motto that day--"No mission too difficult, no sacrifice too great, nothing in hell can stop the 1st Division."

For Vincent A. Transano, the command historian of the Port Hueneme Naval Construction Battalion Center, the invasion was a test of courage for the Navy Seabees who braved German gunfire as they prepared a safe path for the landing craft.

Transano said the first Seabees ashore were members of the Naval Combat Demolition Units, which had the job of blasting holes through German defenses on the beach so that the first assault wave could land.

Later during the first day of the invasion, Seabees built harbors, breakwaters, bridges and causeways off the five Normandy beaches where no natural harbors or shelters previously existed.

"The Seabees played a pivotal role in the landings at Normandy," Transano said. "They did all of this critical work at breakneck speed, and all the while under enemy fire from the ground and the air."

Edward J. Marolda, a military historian associated with the Naval Historical Center in Washington said that while other battles during World War II saw far more casualties, the landing at Normandy was the critical element in the effort to wrest Europe from the clutches of Germany.

Marolda added that Operation Overlord--the invasion's code name--was made possible only by the success of U. S. Navy forces in the Battle of the Atlantic, where sea lanes from the United States to England were made safe for the shipping of war material and troops.

As a result, the Navy, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine were able to move more than 1.5 million men and their equipment to D-day staging areas along the southern coast of England.

"D-day represented the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany," Marolda said. "Had we not succeeded there, the prosecution of the war would have been delayed months and thousands more American and Allied soldiers would have died taking back Europe."

But despite the risks, the exhilaration and the fear that came with being a part of one of the most famous assault forces in history, Camarillo's Lawrence McCarthy eschews the idea that he is a hero.

"I'm proud of my contribution, but I'm not a hero," McCarthy said. "My country was at war and she needed me. I'm pleased to be a small part of history, but that wasn't my objective nor was I thinking about it at the time. I was just doing the best job I knew how."

Times correspondent Phyllis W. Jordan contributed to this story.

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