In 1999, I was researching the D-Day landings for a radio project. As part of my research, I was lucky enough to start corresponding with 29er veteran, Donald A. McCarthy. Sadly, Donald passed away in 2017 at the grand age of 93. He lived a full and active life. He was rightly proud of his military service. He was Commander of the 29th Division Association from 1995-96 and made 14 trips back to the Normandy beaches and battlefields. In 2014, he was awarded the French Foreign Legion of Honour. As part of the 75th anniversary of D-Day and battle for Normandy, I thought it worth sharing Donald’s own experience of landing on Omaha Beach as he told it to me.
Training for D-Day
I was a member of Headquarters Company, First Battalion, 116th Infantry, 29th Division. I was drafted in July 1943 after graduating from High School. I completed basic infantry training in Alabama, shipped overseas on the Il de France, assigned to 1BN 116t RCT at Ivybridge, 26 January 1944. The RCT (Regimental Combat Team) began intensive training at the Assault Training Centre, Woolacombe Beach on the North West Coast of Devon, and later in April participated in Exercise Fox at Slapton Sands. We were fortunate to have preceded the horrible debacle of Exercise Tiger of 27th April.
Again, I was fortunate to have survived the landings of the third wave at Omaha Beach. Although the flotilla was originally scheduled for Dog Green sector of the beach, the British Coxswain and the entire flotilla of LCAs (Landing Craft Assault) from the SS Empire Javelin (Infantry Landing Ship, Large) were carried in an easterly direction by the tide toward the Dog Red sector and the Moulin Draw.
My LCA had taken on water, was swamped and sank about 200 yards from the low watermark and beach obstacles. Several of us swam in behind bodies and attempted to hide behind the obstacles from machine gun and artillery fire. Although the MG fire was intense, the Germans on the bluff were unable to see us because of smoke from burning grass and buildings blowing east from the Vierville (Vierville-sur-Mer) area. The smoke screen provided an opportunity to run from the water’s edge, and the fear of getting run down from incoming landing craft, and find protection from the high water shingle.
Some of us managed to crawl toward the Vierville Draw and were eventually able to move up the draw and reach our objective, the church in Vierville. We came under fire from our own navy and I was ordered to return to the beach and attempt to contact the US Navy beach master. I was hit by an overhead shell burst in my left leg after finding a radio. The radio caught the brunt of the burst and both my leg and the radio became inoperative. A medic dragged me to a makeshift slit trench near the shingle within 100 yards of the draw. The following morning hundreds of us managed to walk towards the Moulin Draw and most were evacuated on LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) back to ports in Britain. Some of us recovered and returned to Normandy within three weeks.
I was able to re-join my company by early July and participate in the battle for St. Lo and Vire. During the attack at Vire, I came under heavy fire in an abandoned garage. The roof collapsed and debris hit my hand and neck. I did not consider my wounds serious until a form of blood poisoning finished my days with the 116th in France.
After several weeks in a General Hospital at Great Malvern, I was assigned to an Infantry Training Centre at Tidworth Barracks. We ran a training facility for Air Force personnel and shipped them to Holland and Germany as infantrymen.
I remained a PFC (Private First Class) throughout my time in the ETO (European Theatre of Operations). In January 1946, I returned home to Boston and enrolled in college. I got married and worked for Bell Systems for 30 years. My work with Bell Systems centred on defence telecommunications with the US Navy including a period in Vietnam between 1967 and 1968. After leaving Bell, I worked for the Chamber of Commerce in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1969, I returned to England, chartered a small sailboat at Gosport, and sailed to Omaha Beach to recapture the event that changed my life. Since then I have returned to Normandy to take part in D-Day anniversary events with many other 29ers.
Visit the 29th Division Association website to learn more about the unit’s contribution during World War Two. Additional material courtesy of US Department of Veteran Affairs and Back to Normandy website.