Bob Ryan spent months preparing for D-Day as a Seabee in the Navy, building barges that were used to transport tanks, equipment and troops for the Allied invasion of Normandy.
When Ryan, then 18 and now 93, arrived at Omaha Beach in the late afternoon of June 6, 1944, after crossing the English Channel, he came across a scene of devastation. Several hours after the first wave of combat, the fighting by then had moved inland from the beach, but the U.S. had suffered 2,500 casualties taking the beachhead from the Germans.
“The scene was pretty bad,” Ryan said from the apartment where he and his wife live at The Atrium retirement home in Portland, recalling the events of 75 years ago. “There was a tremendous amount of wreckage, wrecked equipment. There were bodies on the beach, and some were pretty mutilated. Bodies floating in the water from drowning. Those guys really had a tough go.”
Ryan witnessed Army soldiers undertaking the grim task of processing the dead – identifying and removing the corpses from the beach for burial.
When he waded in, the water came up to his chest, but he was wearing a heavy-duty life jacket so he had no problems reaching the beach. Ryan said he noticed many of the soldiers who drowned were wearing a belt-like life preserver. They were carrying heavy equipment and the small life preserver couldn’t keep them afloat, he said.
As a Seabee, Ryan’s primary job was unloading the massive amount of military equipment, tanks, supplies and food that crossed the English Channel and were used to fortify American troops. He did that grueling work from June through November.
“I never moved off the beach,” said Ryan, originally from Weehawken, New Jersey. He moved to Maine as a retiree about 15 years ago to be close to his daughter and grandchildren, who live in Cape Elizabeth.
Ryan also served as a guard on top of a 200-foot bluff that the first wave of soldiers had to climb – under heavy fire – to force the German army to retreat inland. As a guard, Ryan dug a foxhole and lived in it for about 10 days after D-Day. He didn’t encounter the Germans except for an occasional airplane.
“One time I heard a loud noise, and I looked up and there was a big German plane right above me,” Ryan said. The plane wasn’t attacking, but scouting the beach, Ryan said.
Once troops pushed farther inland, Ryan and other U.S. troops lived in large tents set up for those who were working on the supply lines.
From Weehawken to D-Day
Ryan grew up in Weehawken, and was 17 when he enlisted in the Navy shortly before he graduated from high school in 1943.
Ryan said he was randomly selected for the Seabees, whose primary function was for military construction projects. The military claimed he was color blind – even though he wasn’t – and Ryan believes that color blindness, for some reason, was used as justification for being assigned to the Seabees. Ryan said most of the Seabees were men in their late 20s and 30s who had experience working in the trades, such as electricians or pipe-fitters. Ryan said many of the sailors assigned to the Seabees who were about his age also said they were also incorrectly designated as color blind.
“We were all told we were color blind,” Ryan said, laughing.
Ryan believes the Seabees needed more people to build the military infrastructure required to fight World War II.
After basic training in Virginia and advanced training in Rhode Island, Ryan was shipped to Plymouth, England, in January 1944 to help build the barges, called Rhinos, used to ferry equipment across the channel. He said his crew built about 20 of the giant, flat-as-a-pancake transport ships. The military never told them what was to occur after they were done with construction, Ryan said.
“You know what they tell you as an 18-year-old 2nd Class Seaman? They don’t tell you beans,” Ryan said. “We were pretty sure we were involved in a big undertaking.”
That “big undertaking” was D-Day, which involved more than 150,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops, nearly 7,000 ships and 3,000 airplanes, according to the D-Day Center. It was a major turning point in the war, tipping the advantage to the Allied forces.
He said he didn’t even know he was on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, until someone told him weeks after he had landed.
“I didn’t really know where I was, and nobody ever told me very much,” Ryan said.
From France to the Philippines
In November 1944, Ryan returned to England on leave, traveling on the same ship with thousands of German POWs. In January, he was re-assigned to the Philippines in the Pacific Theater.
Ryan was stationed on Samar, an island in the Philippines, and the fighting there was already finished by the time he arrived – although combat continued in other parts of the Philippines through the end of the war.
Ryan said he spent several months on Samar building pontoons. The pontoons would have been used as temporary docks in a planned invasion of Japan, Ryan said, but were unnecessary because the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 after the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After the surrender, Ryan was part of the occupying force of Japan, but was back in Weehawken by December 1945. He was discharged from the Navy as a 3rd Class Petty Officer.
“After 2 1/2 years, I went two-thirds of the way around the world and by the time I got back to Weehawken, New Jersey, I was still 20,” Ryan said, noting he was still not old enough to vote or buy an alcoholic drink in New Jersey, despite having served in World War II. Eighteen-year-olds didn’t obtain the right to vote until 1971, upon passage of the 26th Amendment to the Constitution.
He married his high school sweetheart, Vivian, in January 1946. They had three children in five years, and Ryan started a business, a fire prevention and sprinkler installation company, in Fairfield, Connecticut.
Ryan said he never dwelt on World War II, as he had a family and needed to hustle to make enough money to support them financially. He returned to the site of the D-Day invasion in 1997 and the early 2000s.
Ryan’s eldest daughter, Valerie Hall of Cape Elizabeth, said her father didn’t talk much about World War II while they were growing up, but they started asking him more questions about his wartime experiences when they were young adults.
“My dad had never really left New Jersey when he was growing up, so to think that right after graduating high school, he signed up and then found himself in Europe, what an adventure. What a big change in his life,” said Hall, 72.
Ryan said he “was one of the lucky ones” as many died and didn’t get to live a full life like he has done.
“I have often thought, ‘Why me?’ Why did I survive when so many others made the ultimate sacrifice,” Ryan said. “Why was I where I was, and came out of it all without a scratch?”
© 2019 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.