Both sons had volunteered for the Navy. One was serving in the Pacific, where he took part in heavy combat. The other was somewhere in the Atlantic, and when radio reports first barked the news about the invasion of Normandy, my grandparents strongly suspected that he might have been involved.
The confirmation did not come for more than a month. It came in the form of a hand-written letter from that son, postmarked July 15, 1944, and bearing a stamp saying, “Passed by Naval Censor.”
My Uncle Larry had grown up in the small-town South. He had lied about his age in order to join the Navy and he was little more than a boy in 1944. His letter is not at all the definitive story of D-Day. In fact, it may raise many more questions than it answers. How much did Larry really know about the scope of the invasion as it was unfolding? What was he really feeling? For that matter, what was he personally doing? What did he see on the beach when he finally got there? What has he omitted from his sketchy comments about the France he discovered for the first time? Is the matter-of-fact tone of his letter fully honest or does he adopt it partly to shield his parents from the horrors he has experienced? The letter hints that he will tell more at some point, when he can. And maybe he did after he returned home from the war.
Larry Lord did not have long, however. Based on my own memories and the memories others have shared with me, I would describe him as a gentle and sensitive man. But within a few years after leaving the Navy, Larry was diagnosed with leukemia. He had come home to Covington, Ga., taken a job in a printing plant, and started a family. His two daughters were small, and so was I, when he died. But we still have his letter as a testament of sorts. Here it is, a young sailor’s eye view of D-Day or, at least, an account of how one young man told his parents what he did in the war:
July 12, ’44
Dear Mom & Dad,
I have been wanting to write you this story ever since we came back, but I have just received permission from our commanding officer. I will try to give you everything that I possibly can.
On June 3 we pulled out of the harbor where we were to leave for the invasion and anchored outside the boom. Around 9:00 P.M., the Skipper called all the crew together to give us the whole story of the invasion. He showed us maps of the beach where we were to strike, the course we were to take, and the number of ships that were to participate in the big thing. On these maps, they had pictures drawn of most of the German pill-boxes. The larger ships had these as their targets. The Skipper told us our job was to knock out all enemy air-craft that came over. He told us we were to go in with the first wave and take our position 900 yards off the beach. You should have seen our faces brighten as he told us that the coast of France was to receive the biggest air-attack known in history. After he finished his speech he told us we had better hit the sack, because it was going to be tough and we had to be ready.
About 3:00 A.M., June 4, we got up and began to prepare to get under way. Here it was: the big thing, the big thing, about 6 months of training for it, and now I don’t think I want to go. Let me tell you many things start to churn in your mind, of old times back home, what was going to happen, and just about everything in general. Well, this was a fake run. We turned back for port after about 12 hours out. I guess this is where the phony broadcast came out on the radio that the invasion was under way.
On June 5, at the same time (3:00 A.M.) we pulled out again. This time we knew it was the real thing. The farther we went, the bigger the convoy got. By the end of the day the fleet was stretched out for 12 miles across the channel. On our way across we didn’t have any trouble with the enemy whatsoever. By this, we knew that the enemy was in for a big surprise.
As we were nearing the French coast we could see the bombs bursting all over the coast for miles.
About 4:00 A.M., June 6, we reached the transport area, which was just one mass of ships.
A little before H Hour we started in with the first wave. Then the big ships started shelling the coast. We moved in about 200 yards from the beach and we started firing. The first wave of soldiers were coming in at this time, and from what I heard afterwards, about 80 per cent never set foot on French soil. It wasn’t so easy after all. The Germans wouldn’t open fire until our landing craft would hit the beach. They did this so they wouldn’t give away their positions.
While cruising around (at 200 yards from the beach) German 88 mm guns started firing at us. They were coming too close for comfort, so everyone immediately hit the deck. At first, we did not know where they were firing from but we soon located his position and immediately knocked him out.
The first day was long, but night finally came. We were continuously bombed all night and several came too close for comfort, and again everyone hit the deck and just in time, because shrapnel fell all over our deck.
It gave you a thrill to hear the bombs screaming down toward you, but it wasn’t so thrilling when they hit. They all seemed to be coming right at us, but somehow they would change and go along our side. This was the last time most of these Jerrys ever flew over us, because they usually came down in flames. It was a beautiful sight to see them going down in flames and all the time knowing we were sending up more than our share of the flak. This was the part which we enjoyed the most.
June 7, all was quiet until we were rammed by a gunboat, which knocked one of our guns out of commission and put a hole in our side. At first we thought we were going to have to abandon ship, but it was soon repaired.
That night the same routine was carried out by both sides. They came over and we would shoot them down, and again a few more failed to return. The days were peaceful because we had plenty of our air-craft overhead at all times, but at night they continued to come over.
On June 19, 13 days after D-Day, a storm came up. We were ordered inside the breakwater, which was about 12 ships which were sunk for that purpose. The Skipper did a very good job of bringing us in. The waves were about 20 feet high. Once inside the breakwater we tried to anchor but the current was so swift that our anchor cable snapped like string. All the time the waves were pushing us toward the beach. All around us smaller crafts were being blown by mines which came down in many pieces falling all over the ships around. Then there was a big explosion and a sudden blow, which each person knew was our ship. Everyone turned around in time to see the stern of our ship settle back down. Once again, we were ready to abandon ship, but luckily the Skipper put us up on the beach just in time. Luck was still with us, no one was hurt. After the tide went out the Skipper inspected the damage to see if it could be repaired on the French coast, but it was too serious. For several days we tried to get a tug to pull us off the beach, but the answer was always tomorrow. A few days later we received orders to leave the ship and go up in a Sea Bee camp and stay until our ship could be pulled off the beach. After we got settled we started to roam around and visit many interesting places. Such as: small towns, pill-boxes, French people, hospitals, and cemeteries. The towns were not very important, but interesting. The buildings were quite modern, what few were left standing.
The German pill-boxes were pretty well torn up, but we could tell they were very comfortable to live in. These were made up of several small rooms in which the Germans would eat and sleep. They had tunnels running through the hills from the small towns to the pill-boxes.
The people treated us with very much respect. They were wearing wooden shoes and very little clothing. The food they got must have been very poor because they seemed to appreciate the rations we gave them very much.
The hospitals were large tents, which were set up to treat the wounded for a short time, and then they would fly them back to England.
We visited the first American cemetery set up on French soil. They say it is going to be one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world. There were a few French women buried up there who were shot by the Americans when they were caught sniping for the Germans.
Finally, after about two weeks of living in the tents, we received word that our ship was off the beach and we had to go back aboard. The day we came aboard a couple of the fellows picked up two cases of oranges. It was the first fruit we have had since January. We had forgotten how it tasted.
We stayed anchored off the coast for a day and then we got a ship to tow us back to the port which we have just left. And now we are being towed back to our home port to be repaired.
This is all I can tell you now. I hope it isn’t too boresome to sit and read this.
Give my love to all the people, and I hope to be back soon.
Your loving son,