Today we celebrate the 60th anniversary of one of the greatest American and Allied victories of World War II. Called Operation Overlord, the Normandy Invasion, or just plain D-Day, it marked the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany.
The Allies, with 4,000 ships, carrying 176,000 troops and their materiel, escorted by 600 warships, with 2,500 bombers and 7,000 fighters and fighter-bombers overhead, conducted the largest amphibious assault in the history of the world.
We owe a great debt of gratitude to these men who put their lives on the line for the freedom of Europe and the Free World. My father, Donald E. Rivette, who died in 1999 at age 80, was fortunate to have participated in this campaign and many others and return home to tell about it. The following are his words about that "day of days."
Maj. Donald E. Rivette
U.S. Army, 1918-1999
Notes on Normandy Landing
June 6, 1944
The early morning of June 6, 1944, found me in an LST (Landing Ship, Tank) off the south coast of England heading east and south for the Normandy beaches. I was the executive officer of the Antitank Company, 26th Infantry Regiment, part of the 1st Infantry Division (The Big Red One).
As dawn broke, the English Channel was very choppy with an overcast sky -- very much like the weather the day before, when we were called back because of the stormy sea. I was overwhelmed by the sight of the endless array of ships stretching from one horizon to the other. How could any opposing force stop such a show of power?
Through the haze we could see the small landing craft making their circles as they got themselves organized and headed towards the beach.
Before dawn we had heard Allied aircraft flying toward the beach and listened to the distant detonation of their bombs. In the background, the big guns of the battleships and cruisers were firing over our heads. All seemed to be going according to the overall plan that we had been briefed on around the terrain mockups in England.
Our clam doors on our LST now opened and three DUKWs (amphibious vehicles) carrying 105mm howitzers slid into the very stormy seas, floundered and sank. I was never sure how many men on board were saved. No more disembarked for over an hour, waiting for the sea to subside.
Because we had an artillery command aboard, we had contact with the First Division Headquarters. What we heard was not good. It was now 0900, 2 hours after the first boats set out, and there was no confirmation of a landing. There was a very subdued atmosphere as we waited on deck. We were all certain that the invasion would eventually succeed by the sheer mass of troops committed to the attack, but more anxiety came over us as the morning wore on.
At about 0930, the sea seemed to calm down a bit and several more DUKWs launched. Most seemed to stay afloat.
About 1000 hours a destroyer went charging past us, fired several shells at the beach and quickly withdrew. Our LST was 5 miles out, too far to make out any activity on the beach. We felt a little more secure on this landing than on one in Sicily, where our LST was singled out by a German dive bomber that scored a hit on the bow doors, making them inoperable. The LST next to us, with the unlucky number 313, took a direct hit and exploded, with high casualties. We recalled this incident as we scanned the skies for enemy aircraft.
In the First Infantry Division sector, the 16th Infantry Regiment had been selected for the initial assault unit, followed by the 18th Infantry Regiment. My regiment, the 26th, was not due to land until the afternoon.
Waiting to land
Late in the morning, we saw a flight of B-24 bombers fly overhead, returning to England. Suddenly, a German fighter plane appeared out of the sky and shot down one of our aircraft. Immediately, one of our B-24s peeled off, went after the German plane and shot it down. Every soldier and sailor in the convoy stood up and cheered.
Around 1200 hours First Division Headquarters confirmed we had troops ashore, but had not broken out from the beach. Our schedule for landing was continuously pushed back. Initially, it was around 1300 hours. Now it was 1400 hours, and then 1600 hours.
As our ship began to move closer to the beach we could make out a column of tanks and other vehicles lined up on the shore. We could also hear bursts of artillery shells falling on the column. Late in the afternoon, we received word that the Division had finally broken through the beach defenses and that part of the 26th Infantry Regiment had landed. Our company was to wait until D+1, the next morning, to land.
The concern over enemy aircraft attacking the convoy was eased as we saw continuous cover of allied aircraft. Nighttime, however, was different. The enemy flew bombing missions over the blacked-out convoy all night, dropping bombs indiscriminately.
Our LST touched down at dawn on the Easy Red Sector of Omaha Beach. All up and down the beach we saw tanks and other vehicles stuck in the sand or destroyed by enemy mines or gunfire. Other debris, including hedgehogs, barbed wire and wrecked landing craft littered the beach. The Graves Registration units had been busy throughout the night, and bodies were piled in neat rows like cordwood. It looked like we had lost half the assault wave.
I stepped off the ramp of the LST and went up to my waist in the water. As our vehicles came off the ship we drove along a path cleared of mines and assembled just below the last hill. We were not too sure how far our troops had been able to push inland, but it seemed secure. Capt. Bidwell Moore, my company commander, sent three antitank platoons, each with three 57mm antitank guns towed by armored halftracks, to join our infantry battalions who were now in the attack, while I set out to locate the 2nd Battalion, 26th Infantry Command Post. There I saw eight or 10 wounded enemy prisoners, whom we later learned were from the German 352nd Infantry Division recruited from somewhere in Russia.
Following up our daytime attacks, we made a series on night attacks reaching Caumont, 15 miles from the beach in five days. There we stayed, out on a point for almost a month while we waited for the 2nd U.S. Infantry Division on our right and the British on our left.
When I returned home as a captain to Ann Arbor, Mich., in May of 1945 to see my dying mother, I swapped stories with my old boyhood friend, 1st Lt. Robert Lavey, who had flown B-24s in Europe. He told me he, too, would have been promoted to a captain -- if he hadn't broken formation to shoot down a German plane that had just shot down his buddy over Normandy on D-Day. In fact, he said he was lucky that he had not been court-marshaled for breaking formation!
About Donald Rivette
Donald Rivette was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant of Infantry in 1941 from the University of Michigan and was one of the first soldiers who trained in the newly created American airborne unit that eventually became the 502nd Parachute Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. He broke his leg during a jump at Fort Benning, Ga., and afterward was assigned to First Infantry Division where he served in World War II in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, France, Belgium and into Germany.
In Belgium he was ambushed and ordered to surrender by German paratroopers behind friendly lines. He refused and opened fire with the machine gun on his Jeep, killing 18 enemy soldiers and becoming badly wounded in both legs. He received the Silver Star for Gallantry in Action for this incident. At the Battle off the Bulge he commanded the Antitank Company of the 26th Infantry Regiment at the town of Dom Butgenbach, Belgium, helping to stem the tide of the German assault. One of his soldiers, Corp. Henry Warner, received the Congres-sional Medal of Honor in this battle. His book about the regiments' action is to be published this summer and is titled: Close Station, March Order, Tank Killers at the Bulge.
Maj. Rivette retired from the Army in 1964 after 22 years of service, his last four years as an assistant professor of Military Science at the University of Georgia. He died of heart failure in Alpharetta, Ga., in February 1999 at age 80. He is survived by his second wife, Thelma, (Helen, his first wife, died of cancer in 1987), five children, and 13 grandchildren.
(Lt. Col. Patrick D. Rivette, U.S. Army retired, is senior Army instructor with the JROTC program at Evans High School.)
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