Today, sixty-nine years ago, up to 4,000 American troops died on the beaches of Normandy – in one day.
I have the honor of calling one D-Day veteran a friend, U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major (Ret.) William “Bill” Ryan.
|U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major (Ret.) William "Bill" Ryan|
Bill is a sprightly 88-year-old, retired Florida resident, but one who most definitely still enjoys traveling to different parts of the world. (Currently, he’s trying to figure a way to get over and see us here in Pearl Harbor :)
I first met CSM Ryan when I was a beat reporter for Hometown News, a weekly, which at the time had nineteen issues and a circulation of more than 500,000 copies a week.
I interviewed CSM Ryan several times over the course of a few months, and thought it would be appropriate, on this D-Day anniversary, to pull together some highlights of the two interviews.
However, before I do, why don’t you meet CSM Ryan yourself. Click here for this amazing, two-minute video clip from October 2012.(Go on. I'll wait :)
And now, for some highlights of the 2006 interviews:
A career soldier and veteran of three wars, retired U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. William Ryan, who served his country for more than 30 years, walked a personal memory lane during a recent visit to Melbourne's Liberty Bell Memorial Museum. CSM Ryan said he’s looking forward to sharing some of his experiences with other local veterans.
|CSM Ryan at the Liberty Bell Museum, Melbourne, FL, (2006)|
"They say a stranger is only a friend you have yet to meet," he said. "I appreciate the invitation and always enjoy these informal talks [at the VFW posts.] Staying busy helps me feel young and definitely keeps me out of trouble."
One memorable occasion when he found himself in a literal boatload of trouble was during the early morning hours of June 6, 1944. During the initial phase of D-Day, historians have said the armada carried more than 156,000 Allied troops into France.
Ironically, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander, Allied Expeditionary Force, originally picked June 5 as the “unalterable” date. As the day approached and troops began to embark for the crossing, bad weather set in, threatening dangerous landing conditions.
|U.S. Army Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower (Courtesy army.mil)|
After tense debate, Eisenhower decided on a 24-hour delay, requiring the recall of some ships already at sea.
"Because of the rescheduled date, we ended up stuck on our transport for quite a few days," said then-Pfc. Ryan, a young Army private assigned to Company I, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. "Many men were sick from the cramped quarters and the rough seas. But, once we loaded the boats and formed up for the 12-mile run to our assigned spot on Omaha Beach, things became much worse."Assured of a break in the weather, Eisenhower is said to have begun the largest amphibious attack in history with the simple command: "OK. Let’s go."
So, in the early morning hours of June 6, 19-year-old Pfc. Ryan disembarked from his transport ship into a 36-foot "Higgins boat," or Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel.( LCVPs carried about 36 combat-equipped infantrymen, or 8,000 pounds of cargo from ship to shore.)
Pfc. Ryan's boat was one of more than 3,000 landing craft, 2,500 other ships and 500 naval vessels - escorts and bombardment ships that had left several English ports earlier.
Throughout those early hours, 822 aircraft, carrying parachutists or towing gliders roared overhead to the Normandy landing zones, a fraction of the air armada of 13,000 aircraft that would support D-Day. However, Pfc. Ryan said he was more concerned with what was going on at sea level.
"Once we departed the lee side of the transport, we were like a cork in a bathtub," he said. "Everyone who wasn't already sick immediately became ill. I was lucky - prior to my enlistment in the Army, I had served in the Merchant Marine."
On the way in to the beach, Pfc. Ryan said he saw two boats lost to the high waves. Then the drivers of the four remaining boats became disorientated due to a missing patrol boat that was supposed to ensure they were on course to hit their assigned area.
|View from inside a "Higgins" LCVP (Courtesy army.mil)|
"The beach was also covered with haze and smoke from the aerial bombardment, making identification of landmarks impossible," he said. "Add to all of this a strong current, and we ended up two miles off course to the east."
Retracing the route took time. When they got back on course, another two rifle companies had already landed and thus fouled up their landing beach, codenamed FOX GREEN."We were circling around like great big sitting ducks,” he said.
He finally ended up on the beach, but only after the landing craft suffered heavy damage due to the continuous barrage of heavy fire by German soldiers.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica's guide to the Normandy invasion, Omaha Beach was the second among the five landing areas of the assault. The beachhead was attacked, in part, by the U.S. 29th and 1st infantry divisions, many of whose soldiers drowned during the approach from ships offshore, or were killed by defending fire from embedded German troops atop the beach.
"Everything was crazy during the last few yards of our approach," he said. "Then our boat was hit. I was knocked unconscious and injured."
(He jokingly calls himself the “other Private Ryan.”)
"No, it wasn't me, but (Stephen) Spielberg got it 99 percent right when he made the 1998 movie, Saving Private Ryan," he said. "Everything was going crazy, and I was knocked unconscious and injured when my boat was hit trying to get closer to the beach."
What was the missing one percent in Saving Private Ryan?
CSM Ryan said it was the "Tommy gun," an American-built Thompson .45 caliber submachine gun that was standard issue during the war."All through the movie, they never had to reload, not once," he said. "The Tommy gun was a good gun, but it wasn't that good. I wish."
He later discovered two men from his boat dragged him ashore, placing him against a small embankment.
|On D-Day, Wounded soldiers Were Pulled Toward the fight...|
"To this day, I've never met those two guys, but they sure did save one Private Ryan that day.”
Before he was evacuated back to England later that night, he had a front row seat and observed all the organized and mass confusion around him, not only on the beach, but in the water."Boy, if only I had a tape recorder or a movie camera.”
|Wounded Soldiers on D-Day Await Evacuation (Courtesy army.mil)|
After recovering, Pfc. Ryan was assigned to the 508th Airborne Infantry Regiment. He combat jumped into Nijmegen, Holland, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge before ending in Czechoslovakia at the end of the war.
While members of the media always contact him around the anniversary of D-Day, when it comes to what the armed forces accomplished during that dark period of the nation's history, CSM Ryan said he's detected a general note of apathy among the American public.
"I'm a representative of another generation. That's why I like to speak to groups. I'm trying to ensure our contributions will be remembered," he said. "I hope, by sharing my experiences of the past, that I'm contributing to the future."
The last time we corresponded (I send an email… and about a week later, a typed letter arrives at my door... which is awesome on many different levels) Bill said he’s on Chapter 53 of a book “I swear I’m not writing.”Boy, wouldn’t *that* be a story to read.
There’s also another reason why D-Day is very personal to me.
Holland was officially liberated May 5, 1945, but the first Allied troops entered the Netherlands Sept. 9, 1944, on a reconnaissance patrol. A small part of Limburg (in the southeast) was liberated by the U.S. 30th Infantry Division Sept. 12, 1944.
My father was born three weeks later, Oct. 2, 1944, in Amsterdam, Holland.
Da is on the RIGHT (Holland) - circa 1960)
Me and Da (Ireland, 2005)
Ultrasound of Son No. 1 (Mama's Tummy, 2007)
So, Bill, I dedicate this post to you, and all your warrior-brothers who fought for freedom on D-Day – and to all the men and women back in the homeland who kept the ammo coming and the tanks rolling.
CSM Ryan, you and your peers really are founding members of the Greatest Generation.And, I thank you, and all D-Day veterans who read this, for their service and their sacrifices.
Omaha Beach scene from Saving Private Ryan (1998)