Manatee County's Normandy veterans remember D-Day invasion 70 years ago

jajones1@bradenton.comJune 5, 2014 

MANATEE -- Seventy years after taking part in the Invasion of Normandy, 90-year-old Jack King is going back.

It will be the first time the Heritage Harbour resident has returned to Normandy since D-Day, June 6, 1944, which sealed the doom of Nazi Germany. And King is steeling himself for all the emotions the anniversary is bringing to the surface.

"I am going to have a tough time when I get up in that cemetery," King said.

In 1944, King was a radioman in the U.S. Navy's Electronic Warfare Reconnaissance Group. He was stationed in Glasgow, Scotland, when he was called to London for a briefing.

"Four of us were scheduled for a special mission as part of the Big Show, but they wouldn't tell us when or where. After the briefing, we went to Exeter, Wales, to pick up the communication equipment," he said.

King then returned to Scotland to install equipment on two of 13 derelict ships.

On June 6 and 7, the "Gooseberry" ships sailed to Normandy's Omaha and Utah beaches, were pulled into position, and sunk with explosive charges to provide beachheads for smaller landing craft. Reinforced concrete caissons were then added to create artificial harbors, called Mulberries.

"We were as far in as we could go on D-Day," King said.

At low tide, Omaha Beach was about 300 yards wide, and the troops who slashed ashore off landing craft "just got slaughtered," he said.

"I remember the clutter. It was a mess. You would see the floating life jackets," he said. "Later on we found some of the remnants of the 29th Infantry Division."

For the next couple of days, King's life was ruled offshore by four-hours on, four-hours off shifts as a radioman, sending and receiving code to the amphibious command

in England and the flagship of Admiral Alan Goodrich Kirk, senior U.S. naval commander during the Normandy landings.

"Then we transferred to the beach and set up the radios on a hill," he said.

Over the years, King thought about revisiting Normandy, but didn't want to go back alone.

Finally, he learned about Forever Young, which is taking a group of D-Day veterans back to Normandy.

King and his wife Marion were selected for the Forever Young group making an all-expenses paid trip to Normandy. Also expected at Normandy are many world leaders, including President Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Michael Reagan, son of President Reagan, will host the Forever Young group at Sainte Mère Eglise, which was liberated by American paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions.

***

Ed Kellogg, 93, hasn't forgotten the Invasion of Normandy, either.

Kellogg, now living at the Windsor of Lakewood Ranch, was a Navy ensign on D-Day, the officer in charge of three boats that brought troops ashore.

"We were supposed to go June 5, but we had strong winds and heavy rains," Kellogg said. "Eisenhower decided to hold off for a day.

"We had warnings that the enemy was going to drop gas on us and we had to wear gas masks, even to bed," he said.

On the 6th of June, Kellogg's landing craft were launched into rough seas from the USS Thomas Jefferson, seven miles off the coast of Normandy, as part of the third wave at Normandy.

When the soldiers stepped off the landing craft, it was into knee- or waist-deep water.

The landing craft would also take wounded men back to the Jefferson, which had six doctors and a dentist onboard.

Kellogg does not remember taking fire from the Germans, and he credits American air power.

"The planes were dropping bombs left and right all the time. The Air Force got them the hell out of there," Kellogg said.

Normandy was the biggest invasion for Kellogg or anyone else. But it wasn't Kellogg's only invasion. He also took part in the invasions of Sicily, Salerno, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

***

Bill O'Brien, 90, of Bradenton, didn't hit Omaha Beach until five weeks after the first wave, but he saw some of the most horrendous fighting of the war as he slogged his way across France and Germany as an infantryman.

When Germany surrendered in May 1945, O'Brien was a squad leader in the 8th Infantry Division, one of only six from his original company of 120 still fighting.

O'Brien came across the English Channel as a replacement, and remembers the silenced, but still impressive, German pillboxes above the beaches at Normandy and hearing artillery firing in the distance.

For the next three months, O'Brien and his company helped mop up German resistance in the hedgerows of northern France. The fighting was fierce, and there were many casualties at places like Brest, the Crozon Peninsula and Dinard, he recalls.

One of his most harrowing memories was being buried in the Hurtgen Forest during a barrage of German artillery fire.

A German 88mm round hit near a foxhole that O'Brien and a buddy were digging, he says, gesturing to a nearby cabinet in his kitchen to show how close he came to obliteration.

O'Brien heard the round coming and ducked prone into the foxhole, which was about 3 1/2 foot deep.

The blast collapsed the wall of the foxhole, pinning O'Brien with so much earth that he could not move. The concussion, the heat and the weight of the earth is something O'Brien has never forgotten.

He might have died there had his friend, who had broken free, not grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him up through the soil.

During the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944, he suffered frost bite to his hands and feet and was hospitalized in Liege, Belgium. He says he was fortunate, though, because some of the more severely frostbitten soldiers had hands or feet amputated.

"We were all scared, the next bullet or shrapnel might get you. You just go about your duty and do your best," he said.

O'Brien was shot in the leg while riding atop a tank April 15, 1945, bandaged up and sent back into the line.

After the Germans surrendered in May 1945, he was shipped to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., where he was training for the invasion of Japan.

The anticipated deployment to the Pacific never happened, because the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forcing Japan to surrender.

O'Brien, a retired Manatee County public school educator, has been working a book, titled "Life of a Dogface - WWII Combat Infantryman" about his World War II experiences and hopes to publish it this year.

Although O'Brien returned to Germany for the 1972 Munich Olympics, he never wants to revisit his old battlefields.

"Emotionally, I couldn't," he said. "I remember too much about that, seeing my buddies killed. People ask me why I remember so much. I say it's because I lived through it."

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.

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