On D-Day, as men were landing and dying on the Normandy beaches, destroyers were fighting another battle, seared in the memories of survivors. They and their lost shipmates were the seafarers of D-Day, veterans not only of the invasion’s Operation Overlord but also of Operation Neptune, the code name for the battle’s naval and amphibious actions.
D-Day is always the story of brave men struggling across beaches and then fighting their way inland. Another story, however, was unfolding at sea. At least 200 ships and landing craft sank off the beaches.1 Among them were three U.S. destroyers and three British destroyers, including one manned by Norwegian officers and crew. The losses began on D-Day, 6 June 1944, and continued into July.
Among the nearly 7,000 ships, boats, and amphibious craft of Operation Neptune were 34 U.S. destroyers and destroyer escorts.2 Many of the destroyers had begun their D-Day mission escorting the battleships and cruisers that would bombard the Normandy coast from several miles off shore. Newsreel coverage of D-Day inevitably began with the thundering barrages of the big guns, while overhead, waves of Allied aircraft headed for Normandy to pulverize what Adolf Hitler called the Atlantic Wall, “impregnable against every enemy.”
Allied strategists believed the wall’s fortifications could be destroyed by naval bombardment and aerial bombings. A briefing officer in England, describing the expected results, said, “Every grain of sand will be turned over twice before the first wave hits the beach.”3 But the naval bombardment was aimed at inland targets. The aircraft had dropped their bombs far beyond the beaches because clouds obscured targets, compounding fears of hitting Allied troops on the beach.4
“Up to within a few hundred yards of the water’s edge,” says an official history, “there was every reason to hope that the enemy shore defenses might have been neutralized. Then, many of the leading craft began to come under fire from automatic weapons and artillery, which increased in volume as they approached touchdown.”5
The German shore batteries had not been silenced. Off Utah Beach, they zeroed in on the Fitch (DD-462) and Corry (DD-463), beginning the battle of the D-Day destroyers. The ships were to run parallel to the beach and then, concealed behind a smoke screen, begin closer-in bombardment support. But the aircraft that was to lay the smoke was shot down, leaving the Corry exposed. The Fitch claimed “first shot fired at Normandy” by opening fire with her 5-inch guns at 0535. (Officially, the first shot [at 0537] came from the heavy cruiser Quincy [CA-39] when she responded to fire from a German shore battery.) The Corry also started firing her guns, getting off 400 rounds as she zigzagged through huge splashes marking near-misses. Some shells hit. One sent a piece of shrapnel slicing into a gunner’s shoulder. He made his way into the wardroom, where Lieutenant (junior grade) Howard A. Andersen, the medical officer, had set up an aid station.
On the Fitch, Quartermaster Third Class Robert E. Powell was at his battle station—“sky lookout.” He saw Germans firing small arms at the ships. On a telephone he heard someone ask, “How are the Germans doing?”
“Oh, they are doing lousy,” said a confident seaman on the bridge. “They’re shooting, but they aren’t coming anywhere near us.”
Just then a large-caliber shell exploded near the Fitch, sending up a geyser. The ship began evasive maneuvering at high speed. Looking down, Powell “could see the shells hitting the water where we would have been if we had not made a turn.”6
Nearly 300 minesweepers had cleared paths for the ships and craft carrying the men to the five invasion beaches: Omaha and Utah for the American forces, Sword and Gold for the British, Juno for Canadians. But there were still mines. At 0633 the Corry struck one of them.7
Lieutenant Andersen was thrown against a wardroom bulkhead. He got up, saw that the ship was in two parts—“held together only by the superstructure”—and set up a dressing station on the remains of the deck. He and his two corpsmen worked on the injured and got them into a lifeboat and a raft. Only minutes had passed. The water was knee-deep on deck. The captain, Lieutenant Commander George Dewey Hoffman, ordered abandon ship. Lieutenant Paul Garray went over the side after grabbing the Corry’s flag. Andersen, about to be second-to-last man off the ship, mentally noted that the water was probably 52° Fahrenheit, which meant men in the water could last about two hours.8 Hoffman, the last to leave the ship, saw more splashes. Germans were still shelling his men. And some would be in the sea beyond Andersen’s grim two-hour estimate.
Five men in the forward boiler room went down with the ship. At least ten of the men who got off the sinking ship died of what Corry survivors call “enemy gunfire.” A torpedoman, hurled into the sea by the explosion, was never seen again.9
Nearby destroyers—the Fitch and the Hobson (DD-464)—simultaneously had to fight and save. While firing back at the Germans from one side of the ships, from the other side they rescued. Some survivors were pulled out of the sea by one of the torpedo patrol (PT) boats assigned to Neptune. The PT captain was Lieutenant Commander (later Vice Admiral) John D. Bulkeley, who had received the Medal of Honor for evacuating General Douglas MacArthur from Corregidor on 12 March 1942.10
Off Sword Beach, where British forces were landing to seize Ouistreham, a port on the River Orne, two German Schnellboote (in English, fast boats)—called E Boats by the Allies—suddenly appeared. Each fired a torpedo. One passed within a few yards of the Royal Navy destroyer Swift and sped on to hit the Svenner, a British destroyer loaned to Norway (at the time still occupied by Germany) and manned by a Norwegian crew. She broke in half. The Swift’s captain, ignoring orders, went to pick up about 100 survivors, then returned to the station off Ouistreham. (The Swift sank on 24 June with a loss of 44 of her crew; she probably was sunk by a mine activated when a sister ship ahead of her passed over it.)11
For a while, destroyers followed their Neptune orders, firing on specific targets. “We started lobbing shells on schedule and in our designated areas,” Donald C. Derrah of the Shubrick (DD-639), off Utah Beach, remembers. “As the shelling rose in intensity, the area became obscured in heavy clouds of smoke. Only ten minutes of this and we slacked our fire for observation.”
The Shubrick resumed firing, but the shells kept coming closer, fired by a German gun that could not be targeted. A Higgins boat came alongside and asked the Shubrick to take aboard men who had been hit on the beach. Again, a destroyer fought and rescued. As the wounded were being transferred, spotters saw:
[A] flash which we believe is from the battery that is after us. We just get on him—set up the problem—when Wham! . . . He has our range now and is getting pretty close. . . . Our lookouts counted the splashes near us and judge that there are about 11 guns that are firing at us. . . . Both of us are putting out a lot of fire after six or seven more salvos and we cease firing to let the smoke and debris clear away. When it cleared, they started to fire again. So did we. From later reports that we got, we did a good job.12
The Emmons (DD-457) had started the day escorting minesweepers, clearing a path to Omaha Beach. She was about 3,000 yards offshore and waiting to begin her shore bombardment, ordered for 0550, when a German gun opened fire. Shells straddled the destroyer. She returned fire, momentarily silencing the Germans. Then she became floating artillery.
The troops were in trouble on Omaha. Many tanks and artillery pieces, expected to give the infantrymen covering fire, had not made it to the U.S. beaches. The Neptune plan had to be changed. Destroyers were ordered to risk grounding by steaming close to shore and firing their 5-inch guns as supporting fire for the men on the beach. The Emmons and other fire-support destroyers sailed as close as 1,000 yards from the beaches. (Historian Samuel Eliot Morison puts the destroyers within 800 yards of Omaha Beach.)13 Another close-in destroyer, the Jeffers (DD-621), was shelling a German position when the shrapnel of a near-miss wounded five of her crew.14
The Emmons lost contact with her shore-fire control party. Not knowing whether the men had been killed, wounded, or captured, her gunners shot at whatever looked like a good target. A spotter saw some German naval troops marching down Port en Bessin’s main street. She sprayed them with her 40-mm battery, sending them scattering. The Carmick (DD-493) aided tanks that made it ashore on Omaha. As the tanks were trying to fight their way toward an exit called the Vierville draw, Carmick spotters watched for bursts along the edge of the bluff and used these bursts as targets, figuring that whatever U.S. tanks were aiming at was worth shooting at from a U.S. ship.15
Jutting over the Omaha Beach landscape was a landmark that showed on the D-Day maps as the Colleville sur Mer steeple. The commander of the fire support group, believing the steeple was a German observation post, designated it a new target. The Emmons demolished it.16 Navy gunners, aided by the highly classified top secret Bigot maps, knocked out eight gun emplacements covering Omaha Beach exits. Firing over the heads of troops, a destroyer silenced an 88-mm gun by putting two rounds through the gun shield.17
The Harding (DD-625), Satterlee (DD-626), and McCook (DD-496), supported the Ranger assault on Pointe du Hoc, the 100-foot cliff believed to hide long-range German guns that could be aimed at landing craft approaching the Utah and Omaha beaches. As the craft carrying the Rangers neared the shore, the McCook raced ahead and, near the breaking surf, let loose on cannon atop the cliff. Witnesses said they saw an enemy gun fall to the beach. The guns the Rangers sought had been removed, but the strongpoint was well defended; of the 250 Rangers who landed, only 90 could still bear arms when the battle for the bluff ended two days later.18 The Harding put a boat ashore to pick up wounded Rangers—and Germans who had surrendered after a salvo from the McCook.19
Shortly before noon, Colonel B. B. Talley on Omaha Beach sent a message to Major General Leonard T. Gerow, commander of V Corps on Omaha: “Troops moving up slope of Fox, Green, and Red Beaches. I join you in thanking God for our Navy.”
The proximity of destroyers to shore made them ships of mercy. Instead of ferrying the wounded to major ships 11 miles offshore, landing craft turned to the destroyers, which kept on firing while stretchers were lifted on board and the wounded taken to wardroom dressing stations.20
D-Day ended with success on all five beaches. The liberation of Europe had begun. At sea, the battle of the destroyers went on.
The brand-new Meredith (DD-726) had been a fire-support destroyer on D-Day, her maiden voyage into war. On 8 June she was one of the destroyers screening the heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa (CA-37) when a German bomber released a radio-controlled “glide bomb,” which struck the Meredith near the waterline. She did not sink. Towed to an anchorage for salvage, she fell victim again to a bomb. This one was a near-miss, but the concussion split her in two, and she sank.21 The same day, off Juno Beach, the Royal Navy’s HMS Lawford—a former U.S. destroyer traded to the Royal Navy—was ripped in half by a torpedo apparently launched by German aircraft. Rescuers saved 30 of her crew.22
Sometime, probably on the night of D-Day, German aircraft dropped mines along the beaches. About 0800 on 7 June the troopship Susan B. Anthony hit a mine and sank. On board were more than 2,000 soldiers heading for the invasion beaches. U.S. and British ships saved every man. Transferred to landing craft, they all got to the beaches.23 That same day, the minesweeper Tide (AM-125) struck a mine. The explosive force lifted her out of the water and broke her hull open. She sank in minutes.24
Off Utah on 8 June, when the Glennon (DD-620) hit a mine, the Rich (DE-695) headed for her to offer assistance. Informed that no assistance was needed, the Rich pulled away. Suddenly, a mine exploded about 50 yards off her starboard beam, knocking out her power. A second mine tore off a 50-foot section of her stern. A third explosion, probably a third mine, shattered through the sinking ship. Seaman Second Class Edwin B. Black, badly injured, thought he was going to die. His cousin, Carlie Black, though wounded himself, led his cousin Ed to the edge of the deck and helped him over the side and onto a life raft. Carlie and Ed were among the few crewmen who survived. Carlie later died of his wounds, one of at least 89 men who were lost. Ed Black has been working for decades to account for all of the 229 men of the Rich, but he still does not know the exact death toll.25
The crew of the Glennon, assisted by other ships, tried for two days to save the tin can. Then, on the morning of 10 June, German artillery fire opened up on her. Finally abandoned by her loyal crew, that night the Glennon capsized and sank. During her own death throes, 25 members of her crew died.26
More than a month after the Corry went down, two U.S. minesweepers, both veterans of D-Day, still were finding mines. Because they had wooden hulls, the minesweepers were safe from magnetic mines but not acoustic mines. On 30 July, Stan Broilo was eating breakfast in the galley of the minesweeper YMS-304 when “something blew me up to the ceiling. I couldn’t move. My back was broken. The next thing I knew, two guys were getting a lifejacket on me. Then they dragged me and just walked off the ship. They didn’t have to jump.”
Someone in a British rescue boat pulled Stan out of the water. The YMS-378 also came alongside, even though she too had struck a mine. A French fishing boat hauled two other crewmen out of the water. Rescuers saved 36 of the 42 men on the YMS-304. Broken in half, she sank in a little more than a minute. The YMS-378 also sank, and her crew was saved by an intact minesweeper, the YMS-381.27
Of the many gallant destroyers at D-Day, the Laffey (DD-724) survived the guns, mines, and torpedoes of Normandy and proved almost impossible to sink. On 16 April 1945, however, she was steaming on radar picket duty northwest of Okinawa when her radar operators counted 50 Japanese kamikaze suicide aricraft closing on her from every quarter of the compass. In 80 minutes, during 22 separate attacks, the Laffey was strafed and hit by six kamikazes and four bombs. Another bomb was a near-miss, and a seventh kamikaze splashed close aboard. When the last attack ended, she was on fire, down by the stern, and her rudder was jammed. Thirty-one of her crew were dead and another 72 wounded. Still, the Laffey remained afloat. She was towed away for temporary repairs that enabled her to steam under her own power back to the United States, where she was rebuilt. She sailed through the end of the Pacific War and survived to fight in the Korean War.28
The Normandy Graveyard
On a shelf in the D-Day Museum overlooking Utah Beach is an envelope addressed to Stewart Kauffman of the destroyer escort Rich (DE-695), postmarked 5 May 1944. The letter is gone, and Stewart Kauffman is gone, lost at sea, as is the Rich. But the waters off the D-Day beaches have yielded the envelope and many other relics of the invasion. Some of the remnants of D-Day went to this and other museums. Other bits of history were pocketed by beachcombers, taken from wrecks by souvenir-hunting divers, or hauled off to scrap yards.
The fates of the sunken ships and landing craft of D-Day are unlike those of the ships that went down in the Atlantic and Pacific during World War II. Lost at sea usually means eternal rest for the valiant. For the lost fleet off Normandy, however, a naval battlefield became naval graveyard only for a short time. As memories of war faded, their resting place became a scrap yard. But the Navy has returned to Normandy and is mapping the sea floor, recording the past as sonar images in a three-year underwater archaeology program.
A boat chartered by the Naval Historical Center is about 3,000 yards off Omaha Beach. A ghostly image freezes on a monitor screen. The sonar beam, reaching back to 6 June 1944, has touched a part of D-Day. Standing upright 73 feet below is a U.S. Army tank. A few moments later, another image appears: the ribbed hull of an upturned landing craft.
As the boat continues sailing along the shore in a lawnmower pattern, more images and their exact locations flow into a database: an anchor, unexploded shells, a ladder, silt-covered bits of metal.
The D-Day study is aimed at getting detailed information on the Navy’s losses during the entire operation, which began on D-Day, 4 June 1944, and continued through to D-Day plus 20, when U.S. troops reached Cherbourg and German troops evacuated the port. The archaeologists expect to give historians clues, such as the location of anchors and ladders, which can indicate the location of specific ships and landing craft. Then the underwater data will be compared to the battle reports to produce a new understanding of ship movements and losses on D-Day and the days that followed.
The larger D-Day ships, such as the Rich, were wrecked twice—first by German shells, torpedoes, and mines and then by salvagers, who blew up or sliced up the sunken ships and carried off the pieces to sell as scrap. By 1957, salvagers had harvested 25,000 tons of Neptune metal off a stretch of D-Day beach from Omaha to Sword, the easternmost invasion beach.
Jacques Lemonchois, one of the salvagers, created the Museum of Invasion Shipwrecks, near Gold Beach, which displays big and little things meant for D-Day but claimed by the sea: tanks and howitzers, a mess tray from the U.S. destroyer Meredith, a dogtag, a bar of Lifebuoy soap. Elsewhere along the coast are collectors of other invasion mementoes plucked from the sea or sands. One of the most poignant, found by a diver, is some soldier’s tube of Barbasol shaving cream, missing its cap and still giving off an eerie, flowery scent.
T. B. Allen
1. “Untold Stories of D-Day,” National Geographic Magazine, June 2002, p. 21.
2. Norman Polmar and Peter Mersky, Amphibious Warfare (London: Blandford Press, 1988), p. 88.
3. Edward F. Prados, ed., Neptunus Rex, Naval Stories of the Normandy Invasion (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1998), p. 170.
4. Stephen E. Ambrose, D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994) p. 183; Gordon A. Harrison, Cross-Channel Attack (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U. S. Army, 1993), p. 301.
5. Omaha Beachhead (6 June-13 June 1944), American Forces in Action Series, Historical Division, War Department (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, Facsimile Reprint, 1984), pp. 35-87.
6. Prados, Neptunus Rex, pp. 48-49.
7. Information on the Corry is based on interviews with survivors and the ship’s battle
8. Prados, Neptunus Rex, pp. 52-55.
9. The Corry lost 24 men. The fate of the crew has been scrupulously investigated and recorded by Grant Gullickson, better known as Gully, who served as a chief machinist’s mate. He also became president of the reunion association, whose meetings are watched over by the Corry’s flag.
10. Prados, Neptunus Rex, p. 55
11. “Untold Stories of D-Day,” National Geographic Magazine, June 2002, p. 21; Internet Web site, http://www.eurosurf.com/hmsswift/
12 Internet Web site, http://www.ussshubrick.com/.
13. Samuel Eliot Morison, The Invasion of France and Germany 1944-1945 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1957) p. 152.
14. Tin Can Sailor, October-November-December 2000, p. 19.
15. Internet Web site, www.ibiblio.org/pub/academic/history/marshall/military/wwii/D-Day/omaha.beach/omaha_3.txt
16. Internet Web sites, http://www.geocities.com/bristolclass/emmonshist.html; http://www.history.navy.mil/ac/d-day/d-day5.htm
17. Col. E. A. Livingstone, USA (Ret.), letter to the editor regarding Stephen Ambrose, “Normandy: Why and How?” Naval History, June 1995, pp. 4-5.
18. ”Untold Stories of D-Day,” National Geographic Magazine, June 2002, p. 5.
19. Tin Can Sailor, October-November-December 2003, p. 11.
20. Talley’s message book with this message is in the Museum of the Invasion at Arromanches, France.
21. Internet Web site, http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-m/dd726.htm
22. Bertrand Sciboz , French diver and underwater mapping expert.
23. ”Untold Stories of D-Day, National Geographic Magazine, June 2002, p. 13.
24. Internet Web site, http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/t5/tide.htm
25. Interview with Edwin B. Black; See Edwind B. Black, The Last Voyage of the USS Rich, vols. I and II (Pembroke: NC, 1999, 2000).
26. Internet Web site, http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-g/dd620.htm
27. Internet Web site, http://www.ussyms425.com/minewar.htm lists two YMS ships sunk by mines on 30 July 1944; Interview with Brolio, action report, and captain’s narrative.
28. Thomas B. Allen and Norman Polmar, Code-Name Downfall (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995) pp. 104-105; Internet Web site,