— Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 6, 1944
Those were the words spoken to more than 160,000 Allied troops who would soon plunge head first into a 50-mile stretch of a heavily fortified French coastline in an all-out thrust to defeat Nazi Germany, 70 years ago today.
When it was over, U.S. forces had paid a heavy price: 1,465 dead, 3,184 wounded, 1,928 missing and 26 captured.
But, it was a strategy that worked. It forced Adolph Hitler and the German forces to fight a two-front war which they could not handle.
It was the beginning of the end for Hitler’s Nazis, but the beginning was a day later than planned.
“It was actually supposed to be on June 5,” said Richard Watson Sr., of Cleveland. “But, we had to wait until the weather cleared.”
If anybody would know that, Watson would. He was there.
It was 1942 when the young Watson was working in Atlanta for the New York Life Insurance Office.
His oldest brother had joined the Air Force, and the calling came to him as well.
“Every day I passed the Navy recruiting office, which was located in the building where I worked,” Watson recalled.
“I would go by the office to talk with the recruiter, but he never took me seriously because I wasn’t 17 years old, which was the minimum age to join.”
Once Watson turned 17, the attitude of the recruiter changed.
“He gave me a physical exam, told me to get a birth certificate and gave me the papers necessary for my daddy to sign because I was still underage,” Watson said.
He said he sent his father “a belligerent note” threatening to forge the papers if his dad did not sign them.
“Daddy signed the papers and returned them immediately by mail,” Watson said. “On the back of my nasty note, he wrote, ‘Son, if you want to join the Navy, I will not stand in your way. Your mother and I wish you the best of luck.’”
In May 1944, Watson was in Plymouth, England, aboard the YMS 305, a 135-foot long wooden ship which was a coastal minesweeper.
“It was so small the Navy didn’t bother to give it a name,” Watson said.
He recalled landing craft and troop ships loading up with soldiers around June 2. He said the ships were then sealed and no one was allowed to go ashore.
“I remember Eisenhower coming through in a small craft, waving and giving the victory sign to all of us,” he said.
A squadron of 10 YMS craft left Plymouth Harbor on the night of June 4 because the invasion was planned for June 5.
“That was because the spring tide was the highest tide of the month and it was preferable because the small landing craft could go over the obstacles built along the beach by the Germans,” Watson said.
But, the 24-hour delay decree came down because of one of the worst storms of the year hitting the English Channel.
Watson went off watch, but four hours later found his craft was back on course again.
The minesweeper arrived shortly after midnight on the morning of June 6, about six hours before the first landing craft were scheduled to hit the beach.
Watson’s vessel was assigned to Utah Beach, near France’s Cherbourg Peninsula.
“Our ship was the first to arrive as we had to clear the mines and mark channels before the Normandy invasion started,” he said. “That was living up to the minesweeping motto, ‘Where the fleet goes, we have been.’”
Watson said his ship was the third in a 10-ship column.
“We were so close to land that we could not use any lights or make any loud noises,” he said. “We had to get it right the first time.”
He said they spent the night within range of the German shore battery, but were never fired upon.
“As the landing started at 6:40 a.m., our orders were to leave the beachhead and go back into the ship channel,” Watson said. “I half jokingly said that we were going to miss all the action.”
That is when the Germans opened fire “and I was more than eager to leave the area.”
“We received two near-misses — one short and one over us. They now had us in their range, but before the third shot could be fired, a P-38 fighter plane came out of nowhere that we could see, and began laying down a smokescreen that gave us time to get out of range,” he said.
“The pilot that laid down the initial smoke screen was shot down on this dangerous mission, but another immediately continued the tactic.”
Watson said they remained in the area for seven months after D-Day, and participated in sweeping most of the French coast of Axis forces.
Now on the cusp of 90 years old, Watson said it does not seem like those events were 70 years ago.
“I came back to the States on a Coast Guard transport,” he said. “There was only about two dozen Navy men coming back for various reasons and most of the other guys, poor fellows, were crippled and shot up.”
“I remember several of those guys were afraid to death of just being on the ocean,” he said. “But, to me it was normal.”