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A pivotal day for the Allies

Date:

Thousands of soldiers liberate France in crucial assault against Germans

This Thursday, June 6, is the anniversary of the World War II D-Day Invasion

On a cloudy, windy early morning of June 6, 1944, the largest amphibious invasion in military history began its quest to recapture most of the European continent from Hitler’s control in what has been called “The Longest Day.”

Operation Overlord stretched along five Normandy beaches, a massive drive to push the Germans back and put them on the defensive as Allied troops planned to storm across France and eventually into Germany. The invasion, informally referred to as Operation Liberation by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was immense, with 56,115 U.S., British and Canadian troops, 6,939 ships and landing vessels, 2,395 aircraft and 867 gliders. The invasion’s success became a turning point in the war.

Both Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill discussed more than one year before the actual D-Day invasion that an offensive attack on the European continent must drive back Hitler’s army. Operation Overlord began with paratroopers dropping behind enemy lines in the predawn hours and warplanes and Navy ships continuously bombarding the northern French coast to take out enemy artillery positions. One such ship was a Pearl Harbor survivor, the battleship USS Nevada, which fired on the Germans by trying to take out as many fortifications as it could. 

The USS Nevada opens fire in the Utah Beach area on June 6, 1944.
U.S. National Archives
The USS Nevada opens fire in the Utah Beach area on June 6, 1944. U.S. National Archives

Witnesses also said a long line of LCIs (Landing Craft Infantry) and LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks), an amphibious assault craft that landed on the beaches to unload tanks, extended for miles along the horizon toward the British Isles. When the front ramps on hundreds of landing ships lowered, scores of soldiers entered the water and onto the beaches with a barrage of bullets spraying at them. Scores of young soldiers, many of them barely out of high school, died instantly after German machine gun fire mowed them down during the first wave of landings.

Of the survivors from the D-Day assault, fewer than 3,000 Americans are still living out of the 2 million Allied sailors, soldiers and pilots who participated in Operation Overlord. Approximately 119,550 U.S. servicemen and women out of 16 million who fought during World War II remain alive.

Battle born, battle ready

The battleship USS Nevada joined 282 Allied ships that provided naval gunfire, troop and equipment transport, and other support for the D-Day landings on Omaha, Utah, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches 80 years ago.

Launched at the Boston Navy Yard on July 11, 1914, the 583-foot Nevada had been partially sunk on Dec. 7, 1941, during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that left 50 Nevada crew members dead or missing and 109 wounded.

However, the battleship was refloated, towed to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington state for repairs and modernization, and then sent to the Aleutian Islands, where its big guns supported the landings of 12,000 soldiers on Japanese-held Attu and Kiska islands. It then sailed to the coast of France to support the D-Day landings.

During the D-Day invasion, Nevada’s 10 14-inch guns battered German land fortifications and emplacements as enemy shells fell harmlessly around her and mines floated nearby, none of them striking their target. The Nevada expended 876 rounds from her main batteries and 3,500 from her five-inch guns. Nine U.S. Navy warships and 11 large landing craft were sunk during the invasion. More than 30,000 Germans were killed or wounded and 15,000 were taken prisoner.

USS Nevada (BB-36) battleship firing its 14″/45 guns toward shore during the Utah Beach landings on June 6th, 1944.
U.S. National Archives
USS Nevada (BB-36) battleship firing its 14″/45 guns toward shore during the Utah Beach landings on June 6th, 1944. U.S. National Archives

Following D-Day, the Nevada’s guns supported allied landing operations in the Mediterranean before the battleship returned to the Pacific, leading the last WW II battles against the Japanese. In mid-July 1948, the Nevada was decommissioned following the war due to old age, heavy damage and radioactivity after serving as the primary target ship during the post-war atomic testing on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The grand old lady was purposely sunk by U.S. Air Force and Navy gunfire approximately 65 miles southwest of Hawaii.

Most of the living participants and witnesses to the D-Day landings are now in their late 90s or early 100s, while many have died. It will not be long before no one is left to describe in person what happened at Normandy on that historic day 80 years ago.

Richard “Dick” Ramsey began on-the-job training on board the Nevada from the first day he was first assigned in 1943 as powder man. The training was around-the-clock and exhausting, but Ramsey, who lives in California, said the training paid off at Normandy. Once assigned to the Nevada, Ramsey and the other sailors learned more about the ship’s history and how it became the only battleship to get underway.  

More than 2,200 sailors — both officers and enlisted — made it a crowded ship, and Ramsey said there was “less elbow room” in the cramped 5-inch gun turrets when sailors would man their stations either during training or in combat.

Ramsey visited northern Nevada in early November 2023. He placed a wreath at the USS Nevada memorial behind the state capitol on Sunday which was attended by a Navy honor guard and commanding officer at Naval Air Station Fallon, the director of the Nevada Department of Veterans Services (NDVS) and the chaplain from the Nevada State Veterans Home in Sparks.

Minnesota native Charles Sehe, another sailor on the battleship, served with his shipmates when the Nevada earned her third battle star on June 6, 1944, by destroying Nazi bunkers for the Fourth Infantry Division at Utah Beach on the Normandy coast of France. 

Charles Sehe served on the USS Nevada. NNG file photo
Charles Sehe served on the USS Nevada. NNG file photo

The Nevada’s fourth battle star was earned by destroying the German fortifications at the port of Cherbourg, France, in June 1944. Again, the Nevada’s accurate fire control destroyed German gun positions on Aug. 15, 1944, at Cote d’Azur, France. Operation Dragoon was her fifth star. 

The 101-year-old Sehe served on the USS Nevada for the entire war.

The firepower at Normandy further distinguished the battleship, which was nicknamed the “Invincible Nevada.” After the D-Day invasion, the USS Nevada was reassigned to southern France and the three oldest battleships in the Navy — the Texas, Arkansas and Nevada — each had specific tasks during Operation Dragoon.

From ship to shore

One man who witnessed the D-Day invasion and survived the thick of the fight was the late Kenneth Shockley of Fallon. As an 18-year-old mariner in the Merchant Marine, he ferried troops on a small landing craft from the larger Navy LSTs (landing ships, tanks) to Omaha Beach.

Shockley maneuvered the landing craft toward the beach and then dropped the front ramp in the water, allowing soldiers to run under fire.

 “I lost a couple of buddies on Omaha Beach,” Shockley said in a 2014 interview, reflecting on a monumental day that left the young Ames, Iowa, native in awe of all the firepower but sad with the human carnage. “They were brothers… and one was killed outright.”

Shockley, though, thought he could save the other brother and pull him back to safety. When Shockley tried to rescue the young man, who also came from Ames, his lieutenant “kicked him down.” He ordered Shockley to leave the young soldier behind and return to the landing boat.

As a small landing boat pilot 80 years ago, Shockley ferried soldiers to the beaches not once but three times under enemy fire. German snipers halted scores of Allied soldiers wading in the shallow water after they left the landing boats or as soon as they hit the beaches.

“They went to shore under a hail of bullets,” Shockley said. “The Germans knew we were coming, and they would just shoot everyone who tried to land.”

Kenneth Shockley
Kenneth Shockley

Shockley said everyone involved with the invasion prayed for the best, yet—to this day—he doesn’t consider himself a hero or a Merchant Marine who had courage.

“You get there safely, or you die. That was the choice,” he added.

Although military planners deceived the Germans of a supposed invasion near Calais, Shockley said the enemy was still entrenched in concrete bunkers that overlooked the Normandy coast.

“The top of the cliffs were supposed to be barren, but they were full of soldiers,” he recounted. “The Germans were on top, opening up with machine gun fire. We lost half our men before they went to shore. I could’ve driven on the beach, but I would draw fire from the top of the cliffs.”

Once the U.S. soldiers secured the beachhead, Shockley and his comrades stayed one night on the beach. Each soldier or sailor staying on the beach carried weapons … for Shockley, he had to carry a machine gun.

Yet, etched in Shockley’s mind was a horrifying experience for an 18-year-old Iowa boy who quickly grew up to be a man fighting in defense of his country, and despite good odds, he avoided the hail of German bullets that came from the cliffs, easily targeting the intrepid landing ship pilot.

Besides the D-Day invasion, Shockley also saw other action. He was part of a crew that transited the Panama Canal to the Pacific, and near the end of the war in 1945, his ship sailed through the Suez Canal on its way to fight the Japanese. They never arrived in the Far East.

Shockley said they received word that the Japanese had surrendered, so the ship stopped in India and unloaded most of its supplies and equipment.

An eyewitness on the beach

Army Pvt. First Class Lynn Bradt, who grew up in upstate New York and later moved to Nevada, witnessed the first-day attack from LCI-99, which landed on Omaha beach at H-Hour+1 or 7 a.m. The chaotic scene of soldiers wading to the shore in strong currents and high tide was harrowing to all, including Bradt, a member of the U.S. Army’s 5th Division. LCI-99, though, struck an underwater mine and became immobile after Bradt went to shore in a “Duck” or DUKW, a six-wheel-drive amphibious vehicle.  

World War II veteran Lynn Bradt, right, visits Pearl Harbor in February 2020. Steve Ranson/NNG file photo
World War II veteran Lynn Bradt, right, visits Pearl Harbor in February 2020. Steve Ranson/NNG file photo

During Operation Overlord, 4,126 landing ships and crafts participated in the invasion, which Bradt, who died in 2020, called the most harrowing experience of his life.

Bullets whizzed by soldiers’ heads to keep the Americans pinned down on the shore until they could reorganize and begin their drive toward a long bluff dotted with German bunkers. Gunfire grew intense as one soldier described it as the rapid striking of typewriter keys on a metal surface. Of the five beaches, Omaha endured the heaviest fighting, with an estimated 34,000 soldiers rushing the heavily mined beach, many of them falling in a swath of German machine-gun fire. More than 2,400 hundred soldiers and sailors died or were wounded or missing on the first day.

Paratrooper becomes a POW

After spending 14 months in Europe, Army veteran and paratrooper Alfred Pawley knew he was going home. Doris Day’s song “Sentimental Journey” resonated with the California native after Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945.

“That was his favorite song,” recalled his son Robin Pawley of Carson City. “He heard that on the ship back to the United States.”

The elder Pawley died in 2007, but during World War II, he served with the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne and was part of the world’s greatest invasion — airborne and amphibious — on July 6, 1944. Generals and their staffs had planned for Operation Overload to be the definitive drive into Normandy by putting the Germans on the defensive while the Allies stormed across northwest France toward Paris.

Alfred Pawley didn’t see much of the fighting on that June day. He, along with other paratroopers, veered off course and was captured by the Germans after they landed. Consequently, he became a prisoner of war with other Allied soldiers at a camp deep inside Germany’s heartland. As Russian troops began to descend into the area in April 1945, the German officers and guards — many of whom were older men and some teenagers —  vacated their positions, thus leaving the prisoners on their own.

Many of the prisoners moved out on their own, and according to Robin, the men eventually traveled more than 1,300 miles to Turkey when they boarded a boat to Cairo and then home to the United States.

Shockley remembers when paratroopers jumped behind enemy lines and heard of one place where the Germans were overrun. They retreated into a tunnel system that connected the bunkers.

Although thousands of lives from both sides were lost on June 6, Shockley said the invasion had to be executed.

“D-Day put the Germans on the run … they had to retreat,” he said.

Excerpts on the D-Day invasion are from the book, Legacies of the Silver State: Nevada Goes to War written by Nevada News Group journalists Steven R. Ranson, Kenneth Beaton and David C. Healy. With more than 70 stories on our World War II heroes, the book reinforces the idiom of freedom isn’t free.

Steve Ranson
Steve Ranson
Steve Ranson is Editor Emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.

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