Most of you know about the events of D-Day on the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944. You probably know that it was the largest air, land and sea invasion in history. But if you are like most, your knowledge about those events of D-Day are probably from the perspective of those Army troops who went ashore in their great numbers to be met by the fierce and determined response of the Germans. Or of those who parachuted behind the German lines in the dark before the dawn of June 6th.
We have been brought up on the stories of the heroism that those allied forces demonstrated as they were landed and pushed forward against fierce odds on those five beaches, Sword, Juno, Gold, Utah, and Omaha. But there is one obvious element of the invasion that, up until relatively recently, was not represented as much as those brave men who went ashore that terrible day and began to take back freedom for Europe from the brutal Nazis occupying forces. What was that element?
The United States Navy.
In 2008, 64 years after the Normandy landings, a new sculpture and memorial monument was put in place
above the Utah Beach landing site to honor the immense contribution of the U.S. Navy. It was commissioned by an organizations called, the Naval Order of the United States. The U.S. Navy monument now sits on a small piece of land given to the United States for this purpose. It is located atop a former German bunker position on the highest point of Utah Beach, which was the westernmost beachhead of the D-Day landings and is situated on the southeastern shore of the Cherbourg Peninsula of Normandy France. It is the first thing you see as you approach the site.
Before the battle
On D-Day, 124,000 troops were under the flag of the United States Navy to be delivered ashore and to be protected by the naval gunfire. This part of Operation Overlord was called Operation Neptune. At 4:15 on the morning of June 6, 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the order to begin the invasion. The first waves of ships manned by 50,000 U.S. sailors surged toward the Normandy coast. There were battleships, destroyers and cruisers, minesweepers and patrol boats, but the majority of the boats would be landing crafts, or Higgins boats, from LCIs to bring the landing troops ashore, to LCTs for landing tanks and heavy equipment.
The battleships Arkansas and Texas poured fire ashore from their 16″ guns, over the German defensive positions on Utah and Omaha beach. The German defensive positions were so well built that the damage from the battleship big guns did little damage. They also pointed those guns in support of the parachute troops inland. The first of the Navy Higgins boats that approached the shore lowered their gates and the Army infantry troops began to pour out of them only to be met by walls of intense and well directed machine gun fire. It was a bloody mess. In the first two waves going ashore, the casualty rates were as high as 50%. The successive waves of Navy landing crafts were now delivering their troops through the floating bodies of the KIAs from previous waves. The Navy was assigned the grizzly duty of recovering those bodies and body parts. Navy personnel were assigned to be “Beachmasters” on the landing beaches. The fighting was so fierce that they were unable to get ashore until the second day.
The Demolition Teams
But before the landing even began, it was naval demolition teams (NCDTs) who went in first to blow holes through the hedgehog steel and concrete obstacles that the Germans had planted all along the beaches to prevent such landings. They had the highest casualty rates of any other unit on D-Day. Out of the 60 NCDT men 43 were KIA. On one of the Higgins boats that brought them in, of the 10 men who stepped off of the boat when the gates went down, only one survived.
With all hell breaking out on the beaches and the invasion forces sometimes pinned down, U.S. Navy destroyers were given permission to move close to shore to drop shells on the Germans at close range. They did so, coming dangerously close to touching bottom and grounding themselves. They became a mighty and accurate, up close artillery support system for the troops, taking the place that the tanks were supposed to. Most of those tanks never made it ashore. The Navy destroyers fired steadily and fiercely until the Germans were no longer able to respond and the landing forces were able to move inland taking on the Germans in close combat in their own positions. They had destroyed all of the German big guns by the end of the day, because of their courageous maneuvering so close to the shore and in range of the German guns. The costs in blood and treasure that day were great.
The following is an accounting of only some of those costs:
- 1 Destroyer, the USS Correy (DD-463), was sunk by mines close to shore.
- 50,000 U.S. Navy personnel were engaged in the effort.
- 34,000 troops made it ashore with the aid of Navy guns and Higgins boats.
- 3,400 troops were killed, wounded, or missing at Omaha Beach alone.
- 1,000 U.S. Navy personnel were killed in action on D-Day.
- 18, United States Coast Guardsmen were also killed in action that day.
Many who visit the Normandy memorial sites go to see the beautifully manicured grounds and to pay honor to those thousands of U.S. Army soldiers who died there on the shores of Normandy, France, and to those paratroopers who landed behind the German lines. Those who gave their all that day are honored with with the respect and the dignity that they deserve. Their part in history is well understood and memorialized.
Now there is one more memorial to visit, the Memorial to the United States Navy. If you have plans to visit Normandy any time in the future, be sure to add this monument standing above the peaceful waters of the English Channel. Take a few moments to remember the efforts and the sacrifices that were made by the Navy on that historic and bloody day 71 years ago. We here at the Veterans Site offer our thanks to those who serve, and who have served in the United States Navy.Whizzco