On June 6, 1944, Richard Dearborn was a 23-year-old Ensign in the U.S Navy, stationed on a tank landing ship (LST) anchored off Omaha Red Beach in Normandy. In this excerpt from a talk delivered at the Worcester Fire Society on July 9, 2007, Mr. Dearborn recalls his experience of “confusion, chaos and uncertainty” on D-Day.
It was late May, and LST 53 was docked at King Henry’s Landing, about six miles upriver from the English Channel port of Falmouth. We were waiting, waiting impatiently for the Invasion we knew was coming. We knew that our ship was going to take part in it. In the Captain’s safe were two sealed canvas bags containing our instructions. On each bag was a tag that read in large letters: “Top Secret. Open only on receipt of the signal ‘Open on One.’” Each day seemed an eternity.
Finally there came a message from King Harry’s Landing instructing the ship’s communications officer (that was I) to report without delay to Naval Headquarters at the Hydro Hotel in Falmouth. I found the staff officer at the Green Bay Hotel across town. He escorted me to a room that appeared to be the hotel Barber Shop. “I am going to show you a message” he said, taking a white paper out of his pocket. “You are to make no comment. Just memorize it. Go back to your ship and tell it to your Captain.” He unfolded the paper and showed me the message. It consisted of three words” Open on One.”
Sometime later, after I had flawlessly repeated the memorized message to the Captain, he and I were pouring over the contents of the sealed canvas bags. There we found more touches of Alfred Hitchcock. When we were flashed a signal consisting of the single word “Asylum,” we were to proceed to a nearby dock and load army personnel and equipment and then proceed to anchor in Falmouth Harbor. We were instructed to wait there until we were flashed a signal consisting of the single word “Grape.” We were then to proceed in convoy to Fowey Harbor, a small port between Falmouth and Plymouth. From then on instructions would be by word of mouth. By then it was June 1, and we didn’t have long to wait. “Asylum” and “Grape” were duly received and carried out, and the Captain went ashore at Fowey to receive oral instructions.
“Good Luck. You Look Good. Pass It On.”
On June 3 at midnight, LST 53 set out in a large convoy of LSTs proceeding at a speed of about 6 knots. The morning of June 4 was gray and stormy, and by mid-day we were well out in the Channel and abreast of Eddystone Light. Next stop: Normandy. It wasn’t to be. Abruptly the whole convoy made a U-turn and headed back to Fowey Harbor. As we later learned, this was the famous fake start when General Eisenhower postponed the invasion for 24 hours, and slow ships that had already started had to retrace their steps.
The next morning again found us abreast of Eddystone Light. Although the weather was still gray and stormy, this time we continued on course to Normandy. A little later a magnificent fleet of cruisers and destroyers swept past us with the flagship flashing a message to our convoy commodore that was relayed down the line to us. To this day, I remember that message’s deathless prose. It read: “Good Luck. You look good. Pass it on.”
On the morning of June 6, the Captain was on the bridge, binoculars glued to his eyes searching for the first glimpse of the French coast. Finally in that gray morning light we could see a faint strip of green along the horizon. It had to be Normandy. The Captain studied it intently for sometime and then took up the P.A. microphone and broadcast this message: “I hate to tell you Army people this, but that beach ain’t civilized yet.”
The Captain hadn’t exaggerated. Some time later, as we neared Omaha Beach and anchored a mile or so off shore, we could see that the entire shoreline was littered with the wreckage of LCTs, LCMs, and other small landing craft. At the far end of Omaha Beach there was a high rocky cliff shown on the charts as Pointe du Hoc. It was topped by German gun emplacements that were raining destruction on the Beach. Obviously we were not going to beach our LST and unload our troops and equipment until the Beach had been cleared and the German guns knocked out.
“We Will Take Them as Long as They Keep Coming”
Our LST had been designated a hospital ship to receive casualties from the Beach. In preparation for this assignment, a couple of weeks earlier we had received on board two Army physicians and ten or so medical corpsmen. The physician in charge, Dr. McNamara, was a likeable young surgeon from Atlanta. He spent the days preceding the invasion sitting in the wardroom, smoking and playing solitaire and grumbling about “What kind of duty was this, for God sakes, sitting around all day and doing nothing?”
Although the ship was jammed with troops and equipment, the Captain ordered the blue Mike flag hoisted to the yardarm indicating that LST 53 was a hospital ship and ready to receive casualties.
As soon as the hospital flag went up, the casualties started arriving. The Captain stood at the gangway directing traffic and supervising the unloading of the wounded. The traffic was heavy. Small craft were circling the ship and waiting for a chance to unload. Finally the Captain decided that we had taken on board about all the casualties that we could handle and sent a messenger down to tell Dr. McNamara so. Moments later, Mac appeared at the gangway in blood-splattered khakis and with a fierce glint in his eye. “Captain,” he said, “we will take them as long as they keep coming.” And take them he did. Mac had at last found something to do.
At some point order overcame the chaos at Omaha Beach. The German guns on Pointe du Hoc were knocked out. The Beach was cleared of some of the wreckage. I think it was the afternoon of June 7 that our LST was finally able to beach and unload. We were then ordered to return to Southampton with our shipload of about 100 casualties.
Part way across the Channel there occurred a harrowing incident. We spotted an English Spitfire fighter plane coming in low from the horizon astern of us, and we assumed it was going to buzz us as a friendly gesture. As it came closer we could clearly see the pilot, so we waved and cheered and gave him the V-for-Victory sign. And then, a few hundred yards off our bow, the Spitfire crashed into the sea and disappeared. There was a stunned and embarrassed silence on the bridge of LST 53. Then the Captain said: “Why that poor bastard, he was just trying to crash as near us as he could so maybe we could save him.” The Captain stopped the ship and sent a boat to search. The boat circled and circled, longer than was really necessary, and found nothing at all – no trace of the Spitfire or its pilot.
As we resumed our way to Southampton with our cargo of wounded GIs, darkness fell, and the Captain had to edge the ship alongside the dock in pitch blackness. Just as the ship’s lines were made fast, suddenly floodlights on the dock were turned on, revealing a whole throng of nurses and medics waiting for us. They climbed on board with their stretchers and swiftly but gently bore their wounded countrymen ashore and into waiting ambulances. Then, just as suddenly, all the lights went out, and the crew of LST 53 settled down for a much-needed rest. D-Day was just a memory.