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66 years ago on D-Day, he had front-row seat

PALMETTO

The memories appear and vanish for Elvin Mahan.

They are the ghosts of D-Day.

Sixty-six years is long, long ago.

“It just fades away,” said the 90-year-old Navy veteran.

Yet there are moments the visions return. Compelling images for an Indiana kid who had a ringside seat aboard the battleship Texas for the historic invasion.

Everywhere Mahan turned those first few days of June 1944, he saw an armada of 5,000 ships with 155,000 allied troops steaming toward France for a place called Normandy.

“It looked like a big city, all the ships out there,” he recalled, sitting in the mobile home he’s shared with wife Dolores for 39 years. “It was just tremendous.

“You knew something big was going to happen. You just didn’t have any idea what. I was too young to realize the danger. I didn’t have enough brains to be scared.”

The Terre Haute, Ind., native was in his early 20s.

Before the war, baseball had been his livelihood after a Chicago White Sox scout signed him out of Wiley H.S.

“There was no draft back then,” Mahan said. “Either you were found or you weren’t found.”

During 1940 and 1941, he played shortstop for the Lubbock Hubbers in the Class D West Texas-New Mexico League, and the Saginaw White Sox in the Class C Michigan State League, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

“I’d told my mother I wanted to be Babe Ruth,” he said. “Then Uncle Sam wanted me and I dropped out of baseball for good.”

Early on the morning of June 6, Mahan was aboard the Texas, its big gun turrets trained at Pointe du Hoc on Omaha Beach almost seven miles away.

According to historical documents, the Texas and accompanying warships began initial bombardment of German positions at 5:50 a.m., in advance of the first waves of troops headed ashore in landing crafts.

When the Texas held its fire at 6:24 a.m., 255 14-inch shells had been fired by its big guns — an average of 7.5 shells per minute.

“It was a hell of a noise, a big roar like a tornado or a building falling down and it rocked the ship,” said Mahan, a second class fire controlman with smaller five-inch guns.

Lt. G.K. Hodenfield, a reporter going ashore with the 2nd Ranger Battalion, wrote this account for the Stars and Stripes:

“The Texas, bulking heavily against the horizon in the half-light of early morning, was sending shell after shell screaming into Pointe du Hoc, the sound of the firing reaching us long after we could see the blast of flame from the gun muzzles.”

At 6:26 a.m., the Texas resumed firing at targets around Omaha Beach.

But as the fighting continued, American troops struggled to establish a beachhead against German resistance.

So the battleship and other warships drew closer to fire on the enemy, risking grounding and exposure to German shore batteries.

“It was hard to tell what those soldiers were up against, us being out on water,” Mahan said. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. Or whether you’re going to get hit. You just don’t give it a thought.

“You get the command to fire, you fire.”

Though a foothold was achieved by D-Day’s end at the cost of 2,200 American killed or wounded, historical accounts said it took two additional days to fully secure “Bloody Omaha.”

“What they accomplished, what they did, it’s amazing,” Mahan said. “Those poor guys who didn’t make it, I feel sorry for them and their families.”

After the D-Day engagement, the Texas and Mahan went to the Pacific Theater.

The battleship was eventually deactivated in 1948 — the same year Mahan was discharged — and it is now a museum in San Jacinto, Texas.

Mahan hasn’t seen it in ages.

There are no more reunions for him, either.

Only memories that appear and vanish like ghosts.

“It’s been so many years,” Mahan said. “I’m just thankful I made it.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.

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