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World War II veterans share memories of D-Day invasion

U. S. Army troops crouch behind the bulwarks of a landing craft as it nears Omaha Beach on D-Day. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Photographers Mate Robert F. Sargent.)

Clayton Hayden and the crew aboard USS LST-374 were aware they were about to participate in a moment in history the morning of June 6, 1944, but they remained focused on their duties.

“I don’t think it ever entered our minds,” said Hayden, a Navy quartermaster, 3rd class. “We had a job to do and we did it. It had to be done and we did our best.”

USS LST-374 (Landing Ship Tank) was anchored 5 miles off the coast of Omaha Beach in the early-morning darkness. Hayden, a 19-year-old college student who was studying engineering when he was drafted into the Navy in early 1944, was stationed in the engine room below deck the morning of D-Day – the largest seaborne invasion in history. The Hamden, Connecticut, native was tasked with overseeing the steering engine, and if it failed, he would have to operate it by hand.

“We couldn’t see a lot of what was happening,” the Shrewsbury resident said.

Hayden did, however, recall seeing ships as far as the eye could see anchored miles away from the beaches of Normandy.

Troops aboard USS LST-374 piled into amphibious boats and one-by-one headed for the beach where fierce fighting awaited. Hayden was fortunate to stay behind and avoid the bloody battle.

“I think we were all glad to be a part of it, more glad to escape it,” Hayden said of his unit.

Hayden’s vessel never fired a shot nor was it fired upon on D-Day. Nearly 20 hours after arriving in the waters off Omaha Beach, his LST headed back to Portland, England, a journey Hayden would make countless times during the summer of 1944. His unit was tasked with supplying tanks and ammunition to troops in northern France.

The destination was different each trip, as the crew was often given orders during their journey to steer toward various beaches in Normandy. Hayden’s second voyage brought him all the way to Omaha Beach, where he saw debris from the battle spread across the sand.

“D-Day was not the end,” said Hayden. “We knew it was not the end. There was an awful lot to go through before the end of the war.”

The massive scale of the invasion – 175,000 men, 50,000 vehicles, 5,000 ships and 11,000 airplanes – is a main reason why it is remembered as the seminal battle of World War II. Susan Wilkins, director of education for the International Museum of World War II in Natick, said the liberation of Rome – which occurred June 5, 1944 – was overshadowed by the invasion the following day.

“So much was riding on this invasion,” said Wilkins. “It had to work. … It is the greatest and biggest sea and air invasion in history.”

Historians believe the Allies would have still won the war without the Normandy invasion, but it would likely have lasted about a year longer and the Soviets would have had a bigger presence in Europe, said Wilkins.

MetroWest World War II veterans shared their memories of D-Day, calling it one of the most important events in modern history.

George Worthington, Navy Fireman, First Class: Worthington, 92, enlisted in the Navy a month after the D-Day invasion.

“I don’t think that made a difference,” Worthington said of his decision to enlist in the Navy. “I was ready to go.”

He was living in Dallas, Texas at the time of the invasion and recalled anticipation was very high in the weeks leading up to the invasion.

“The whole nation was at war,” he said.

A local theater in Dallas put out newsreels each day updating locals on the happenings on the beaches of Normandy. Americans also relied on radio reports to stay informed.

“We didn’t have all the internet that exists now,” he said. “We depended on radio. That was the source of our information. … We were on a war-based footing. I think the country was pleased the invasion finally happened, but we were losing people, so it was not a time of joy.” Worthington lives in Natick.

Charles Rogers, Army 2nd Lieutenant: Seeing row after row of white crosses in Normandy American Cemetery marking the sacrifices thousands of soldiers made during D-Day is a vision that will never leave Rogers. The Geneva, New York native visited the cemetery on the 50th anniversary of the invasion with members of his local American Legion post.

“The cemeteries of Europe for the fallen soldiers is my most important memory,” Rogers, 99, said with tears in his eyes. “It stands out in my mind and I will never forget it.”

Rogers flew about 100 unarmed missions over the fierce fighting on the front lines in Germany, France and Austria in 1944 and 1945 to scout the terrain and direct artillery fire. Rogers lives in Marlborough.

Bradford Greason, Army Air Corps, 1st Lieutenant: Greason, 94, called the D-Day invasion “clearly a pivotal point in the war.”

The Wellesley native was in flight school in Texas when the invasion occurred. Much of his focus at that time was on his training.

“You’re very close to what is around you,” said Greason. “A lot of things were going on.” He learned much more about the D-Day invasion in the years to come. “It has received a lot of attention, which it deserves,” he said. Greason lives in Shrewsbury.

Lester Gediman, Army Air Corps, 2nd Lieutenant: A close childhood friend of Gediman was killed storming the beaches of Normandy. Gediman’s friend was originally from France, but moved with his parents to America early in his life.

“All he wanted to do was get back to France and get even with the Germans,” said Gediman, 93. He never got that opportunity, however. Gediman’s friend was killed coming up shore during the invasion.

“He never really got back onto the land to enter France,” said Gediman, who grew up in Boston. Gediman recalled seeing upsetting photos of the soldiers who were slaughtered on the beaches.

Gediman inadvertently witnessed the first atomic bomb test while stationed at Alamogordo Air Base in New Mexico. Unable to sleep, Gediman rose from his bed, laced his boots and went for a walk along an airstrip in the early-morning darkness. More than 30 miles from where Gediman walked, a massive explosion lit up the desert sky and mountain range and could be seen upwards of 180 miles away. He recalled watching the bright blue light slowly turn into embers in the sky. Later that day, the Army Air Force announced the blast had been an ammunition shack in a remote part of the base being blown up. He later found out the blast was actually the first atomic bomb test. Gediman lives in Marlborough.

Blake Heath, Canadian Navy, Seaman Gunner: Heath, a native of London, Ontario, Canada, was attending college when the Allies invaded. A handful of his friends were among the 14,000 Canadian troops who landed or parachuted into occupied France. His friends were eager to get the invasion underway.

“I had good friends that took part in the Canadian operations,” said Heath, 92. “Good friends in poor shape. I know it was a pretty rough go.” Heath joined the Canadian Navy in late 1944. Heath lives in Shrewsbury.

Ed Daly, Army, 3rd Technician: Daly was half a world away from Normandy the morning of June 6, 1944. He was in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) program and was stationed in China where he encoded and decoded.

“I benefited very much from the sacrifices of many,” Daly, 98, said of the soldiers who participated at D-Day. Daly traveled to Normandy several years ago to pay respects to the soldiers buried in French cemeteries. He called the experience “enormously moving.”

“If you can do it, you have a new dedication to the guys who did it,” he said.


© 2019 MetroWest Daily News, Framingham, Mass.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.