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The Sergeant John W. Gabersek Jr. Memorial Scholarship
2007 D-Day Conneaut Re-enactment Story
When we were young.
Reflection’s by Eric Montgomery
Two years ago I was amazed that I had the opportunity to speak with not only my great uncles commanding officer, but as it turn out, his trusted friend, Ensign Joseph Vaghi, Beachmaster, Easy Red Sector, Omaha Beach. Since last fall’s reenactment I had the privilege to meet him in person. In fact, little did I know at the time that less than 6 months later I would meet many of the men who knew my great uncle and were under Ensign Vaghi’s command at their annual, and perhaps last, unit reunion.
On the 63rd anniversary of the Normandy invasion, ten proud sailors from all over the country met near Bedford, Virginia, site of the National D-Day Memorial, for 3 days over the course of the first week of June. To me this was a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet the men who served, trained and took part in what some would argue to be the pivotal moment of the 20th century, D-Day, June 6th, 1944.
Many of the soldiers training for the invasion as well as the surrounding townspeople of Salcombe England were quite confused over the sight of these men. Who were they these sailors dressed as soldiers, donning bloused trousers under tall paratrooper’s boots, who carried rifles, carbines and tommy guns, and wore helmets painted in strange colors? Were they commandos? Were they members of an elite Navy combat team of airborne frogmen? Or were they just young men assigned with one of the most important tasks on D-Day? The answer would definitively come on that morning of that Day of Days - the United States Navy Beach Battalion’s.
For nearly 50 years the sacrifices made by these Navy men under Army command was widely ignored so much so that the men of the Naval Beach Battalions coined the phrase “Son’s of Beaches” indicating the scope of their abandonment. It wasn’t until June 14th 2000 that the unit finally received the recognition that they deserved when they were finally issued a Presidential Unit Citation. Yet who were these men, who came ashore during the initial and second waves of the assault, who prepared the beach to receive more than 20000 tons of daily cargo, who cared for the wounded, provided boat repair services, established communications and then slipped quietly into history?
Aside from meeting Beachmaster Vaghi again along with his son Joe, I would have the honor of meeting Pharmacist Mate Andy Chmiel and Vince Kordack, Signalman Richard “Red” Onines, Motor Machinist Mates John Rogers and Clyde Whirty, Radioman Torre Tobiassen, Hospital Apprentice Frank Walden, and Seamen Curtis Fleming and Bob Giguere. With their wives in tow as well as the proud family of Lt. Commander Emmit Hall and the son of platoon C-8 Doctor Russell Davey, Ken Davey and family, I indeed was in the presence of forgotten heroes. My cousin Jim Ameen also joined me getting to know these men who emphatically declare that “we are not heroes, those who never returned are”.
Unfortunately due to an unexpected illness, my great uncle’s friend Coxswain Ed Marriott could not attend. I’ve spoken to Ed on a number of occasions and looked forward to meeting him for the first time. Yet those who were there did more than answer my questions regarding my great uncle, they inspired me to learn all I can, to explain what happened there on those blood stained beaches to generations of Americans to come. For that is why we are here today in Conneaut, to remember those lost, to relive the struggle and to celebrate the lives of the men who returned.
The first man I met at the reunion was Seaman 1st
Class Bob Giguere. Bob and I had spoken a number of times on the
phone prior to conversing at length about his D-Day experiences.
I ran across his video taped interview purely by accident on a web site
called witness-to-war.org. Until then, I did not know that Bob
would be one of the last men to see my great uncle alive. Seconds
from that chance meeting on the beach with Amin, he too was taken down
by the very same explosion. Knocked down but not out.
Moments before, Giguere was still aboard his ship, a LCIL or Landing Craft Infantry (Large). Hitting a mine as it approached the shoreline; the #85 was taking on water and lodged itself on a sandbar. First of the larger ships in, she presented herself as a huge target to the German coastal gun batteries. Shortly after jumping off the end of the starboard side ramp, Giguere was hit by shrapnel from an exploding artillery round which hit the ship. The explosion blew off the ramp Bob just leapt from and killed many of the men following behind. As a result Bob earned his first Purple Heart of the day. (The ship sank later that morning after striking another mine.)
The explosion on the beach which killed my great uncle would not deter the survivors as the Germans had planned. It would serve to inspire them. Just then 17 year old Giguere stepped into the history books. Although the jobs of the Beach Battalion men were limited to the beach itself, drastic times call for drastic measures. Seaman Giguere was to find himself at the forefront of an Army led assault on a series of bunkers. Bravely facing fire and slipping underneath barbed wire he along with his Army buddies moved up the beach onto a series of German pillboxes. Giguere played catch with a number of grenades which were being tossed to him over an anti-tank ditch. He and another man destroyed the emplacements one by one. For that, he was to be awarded the Silver Star, the only Navy man on D-Day to be so honored. After moving inland he secured the safe passage of some newly liberated French citizens to the relative safety of the beach. At that moment, a second blast from a mortar shell was to retire Giguere from the fighting in France and earn him his second Purple Heart for the day. He would awaken in England 4 days later on his 18th birthday. Ironically, he returned to the states via the Queen Mary, the same ship which brought him and his battalion to England. After his recovery, Bob was later to be wounded for a third time taking a bullet in the leg during the invasion of Okinawa, Japan.
Clyde Whirty, a tall an imposing figure, was also 17 years old on D-Day only older than Giguere by 3 days. His task on the morning of the invasion was to clear paths on the beach for the incoming troops by using a large bulldozer. Yes, a bulldozer. He came ashore on a LCM as part of the first wave. The ship is about the same size as the transports being used today here in Conneaut. Trouble is, no one checked to see if the imposing dozer would fit on a LCM until they tried the morning before the invasion. As a frantic search for a torch to remove a foot off of each side of the dozers blade ensued, Clyde ran into two very important dignitaries; the King and Queen of England. The royal couple was there to inspire the men and to pass out American flags as a show of support to the troops. Clyde was to receive one of these flags directly from Queen Elizabeth whom Hitler declared to be “the most dangerous woman in Europe.” Despite the warning from Herr Hitler, Clyde took the flag and proudly secured the Stars and Stripes to his dozer. Upon landing, the Germans didn’t take too kindly to the flag and zeroed in on Clyde and his dozer knocking it out and nearly the driver. Wounded, yet undaunted, Clyde commandeered another dozer, affixed Ole Glory again and went on about his duties. All the while the Germans continued to fire at dozer number 2 along with Clyde at the helm. They eventually found the beast’s weak point and knocked that one out as well. I was to learn at the reunion that it was Ensign Vaghi who ordered Whirty to stow that flag as he climbed aboard dozer #3 telling him that the flag was the focus of the fire directed at him. Despite orders, Clyde and our flag carried on drawing deadly fire away from hundreds of his brother in arms. Clyde still owns that very same flag, blood stained and bullet riddled, which is undoubtedly being the first American flag to be on the beach. Although his actions were never awarded with a commendation, the actions of this one man, determined to get the job done, embodies the spirit of every member of the Beach Battalion. Why he was never recognized for this obvious act of selfless courage escapes logic.
Frank Walden’s story is intertwined with the youngest of all the Beach Battalion sailors; Virgil Mounts. At 16 years of age, Hospital Apprentice Mounts of Kentucky, along with fellow Hospital Apprentice Frank Walden found cover along a stretch of the sand. The 88’s soon found them. Since I was not there, I will take a passage from “Red” Onines personal written memories to convey the story as it happened and as he saw it unfold. In “Red’s” words, “When the two stretcher bearers who had laid down in front of us were hit, Mounts & Walden were the two Navy medics who got up from the relative safety of the dip where we were lying. They both jumped up from the little bit of protection we had and went to help the wounded GI and the two GI stretcher bearers who were carrying him. While they were trying to treat these three wounded GI’s, the next group of shells landed and killed Mounts as he was kneeling about three feet in front of me with his left side toward me. I actually saw the shrapnel fragments go through his body front to back and saw him screaming even though I couldn’t hear him. He was screaming and spewing his insides out and died instantly. The shrapnel passed through him and struck Walden who was kneeling facing us. Walden was hit in the left side, arm, and leg. He and Walden should have gotten a medal.”
Frank Walden’s life was saved unknowingly by Virgil having taken the direct blow of the exploding shell. Some of those shrapnel pieces passed through Virgil’s body ending up in Frank’s. Frank would then be carried off the beach by “Red” Onines who had lost his hearing in the same explosion. Frank would take 6 months to recover. Hospital Apprentice Don Burrows, who also was injured in the blast, finally heard how he made it off the beach that day. At a reunion held 45 years later, Frank and wife Barbara took their seats opposite “Red” and wife Virginia on a chartered bus. Don Burrows, sitting in the seat in front of Onine’s along with his granddaughter, turned to Frank and said, “You know Frank, I wish I knew how I made it off the beach that morning. Frank replied, “That’s simple, turn around, it was Red Onines that carried you.” (If only to be a fly on the wall at that moment.)
Unfortunately space and time limits me from sharing all the story’s told to me over those 3 days, yet over the coming years, I will continue to share the bravery and dedication to duty that these men still exhibit today. To witness these 10 men standing tall so proudly, receiving both applause and tears from hundreds of supporters at the D-Day Memorial is a sight I will never forget. Capping off this extraordinary experience was a film presented by Joe Vaghi’s son which he acquired from a source in France. The film showed never before seen footage taken from the mast of my great uncle’s ship, the LCI-L #88, and footage of the LCI-L 85 as it sank in the channel. You could have heard a pin drop in the room as we all watched in great amazement over this newly discovered footage. At that moment, I wondered what these veterans may be thinking. What immediately came to my mind was...
“When we were young, when we were young”…
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