Ralph Johnson remembers Normandy. He was there, at Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944.
Sixty-five years later, Johnson can remember the choppy sea and stormy weather, the rope ladders and the boom, roar and constant rat-a-tat-tat of artillery.
“Do I remember?” Johnson asked rhetorically. “I remember it like it was yesterday. I’ve been trying for 65 years to forget it.”
Historians still say the Allies who fought and died to claim the beaches that day have the record for being the largest amphibious invasion in history. An estimated 5,000 ships with as many as 200,000 soldiers and 30,000 vehicles crossed the English Channel the night of June 5. American, British, Canadian and French soldiers backed by paratroopers, bombers and warships stormed a 50-mile stretch and total of five beaches at Normandy, France.
Those who planned the invasion predicted there would be 10,000 Allied casualties. The consensus of the leaders and realization of those involved was that the D-Day effort was a battle impossible to win, but vitally important for the turnaround that would lead to Allied victory a long 11 months later.
Those who survived would remember for all the rest of their days that there but for the grace of God, they too would have lost their lives.
“I didn’t even get a scratch that day,” Johnson said, his voice soft and muffled by the six and a half decades since. “Then I stayed under constant fire for the next five months before I finally got wounded. We were inside the Seigfried Line when my leg got all shot up.”
Johnson entered active service with the U.S. Army on Aug. 27, 1940, and was assigned to Company A, 2nd Combat engineer battalion. By December 1943, Company A was in Ireland, where they would train for six months.
On June 1, 1944, Johnson said they started down the English Channel, some of the first to arrive at Omaha in the pre-dawn of June 6. The combat engineers were to clear the mine fields, Johnson explained, and they needed to be among the first to arrive. Storms had already delayed the invasion 24 hours, and Johnson remembers still there was a storm brewing on June 6, as well.
“We started down those rope ladders to get to the landing craft, and they were telling us not but 20 out of 100 would get there alive,” Johnson said.
“My job was to get ashore.”
Words to describe the bloodbath that morning fail Johnson.
The tide ran blood red. Bodies and body parts littered every part of the beach, but wave after wave of men with artillery continued their onslaught, fear and madness pushing them forward.
“I guess I was more dumbfounded than anything,” Johnson said. “There was so much shooting, cannons — you name it, they had it and they didn’t let up for a second.”
One survivor’s account suggests, “The only reason any of us lived, was that they couldn’t kill us fast enough.”
But the Allies had more to fight than just the German soldiers, who were somewhat surprised by the invasion. In the 24-hour wait-out of the storm, the seas calmed only marginally. A rough sea posed its own insurmountable obstacles. The ocean might be 4 feet deep in one place and 15 feet deep not even 3 feet away. Someone getting out of a landing craft on one side might sink into a deep pocket and would be so weighted from his pack and gear he wouldn’t come back up.
But on the other side of the craft, the water might be only waist deep.
One can gaze at the geometrically perfect rows of cruciform headstones at Saint-Laurent above Omaha Beach and derive a sense of peace, a feeling almost serene. In all there are some 9,000 crosses and chiseled into the white crossbar of each are these words, “There Rests in Honored Glory/A Comrade in Arms/Known But To God.”
May they rest in peace.