Boston Herald and Providence Journal

Providence filmmaker to land at Normandy — honoring the Navy’s unsung role in D-Day

Providence filmmaker Tim Gray’s lifelong fascination with World War II will fittingly land at France’s Utah Beach on June 4-6, for the 65th anniversary of D-Day. His documentary, “Navy Heroes of Normandy,” is screening as an official part of the ceremonies.

Gray, who is making his fourth consecutive trip to commemorate D-Day, shares his thoughts on this honor with New England Film Junkie readers:

Guest Blog by Tim Gray

I was six years old when I picked up one of those think encyclopedia books on World War II. Not average reading for a kid that age, but full of drama. After all, what 10-year old asks for cassettes of Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts from the German “Blitz” of London in 1940, as a birthday present?

Over the next three decades, many of them spent as a television news journalist, my focus on a career may have been covering sports teams and news stories all around the country, but my fascination with World War II and the amazing stories of the people who fought and lived through it, never wavered. I certainly read my share of books and devoured films and documentaries on the topic, yet have only skimmed the surface of one of the most important periods of time in the history of the world.

As I was transitioning away from life in TV news and started a new company focusing on documentary films, there was no doubt my first project would be on the Second World War. I hit the pavement and did some serious begging (the professional word is “fund raising”) and found some great sponsors who were willing to send me and five D-Day veterans from New England back to Normandy in 2006 to recount where they were and what they saw on June 6, 1944.

My first film, “D-Day: The Price of Freedom,” was well received and aired nationally on over 140 PBS stations. It even won a couple of Emmy Awards in New England. Not bad for the first one out of the box.

To stand on Omaha Beach and look into the bluffs above with five men, now in their 80’s, was like opening up that book I first read when I was six and having it come to life. To hear their stories of survival and see these men cry when talking about the death that surrounded them, was to understand what happened on that day.

The one thing about war is that it is unique to every man who fights. No two stories in battle are ever the same. It’s something that I can never truly understand, even though I’ve read hundreds of books on the topic, viewed as many films, and stood in dozens of places where the battle was actually fought.

About 1,500 World War II veterans pass on each day and with them, some truly amazing stories of courage, sacrifice and dedication. It was a different time and they were a special group.

The first film led to a second project called “Navy Heroes of Normandy,” which chronicles the building and dedication of the first monument in Normandy honoring the contribution of the United States Navy on D-Day. Every other branch of the U.S. Armed Forces had monuments in Normandy, but for 64 years, the Navy had been neglected.

Now on Utah Beach, there is a beautiful 14-foot-high memorial to the Navy’s efforts on D-Day and the over 1,000 sailors who died in the initial three days of the invasion to liberate Western Europe. My high-definition film brings the story to life.

In addition to Navy D-Day veterans and French civilians who lived through D-Day, we also interviewed General Erwin Rommel’s son, Manfred, for the film. He was at home with his dad when the call came in that the Allied invasion was underway; a 15 year old German boy witnessing history in the making as he looked into his father’s shocked and sullen eyes.

This June, I’ll be making my fourth trip to Normandy’s shores in the past four years. This time, I will be taking part in 65th anniversary ceremonies for D-Day, our new film making its European debut in the historic town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise (the first town to be liberated on D-Day) and at the Utah Beach Museum. It’s truly an honor for me.

We’ve added French subtitles to the documentary so that those who benefited from what the United States did on June 6, 1944 will once again have the chance to hear from the men who landed on their shores and parachuted into their fields, as 18 and 19-year-old kids 65 years ago. The French still remember and honor these men as heroes when they return.

They still see them as young liberators, even though they are now elderly men. The 9,386 crosses and Stars of David in the American cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer are one reason why.

President Obama, French President Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Brown will be in the area somewhere. They’re welcome to stop in to see “Navy Heroes of Normandy.”

While I’m in Normandy this June, I’ll probably look back and see that picking up that World War II encyclopedia when I was six years old was probably one the most important things I ever did in my life and certainly, the most rewarding.

Tim Gray is president of Tim Gray Media, a documentary film company which focuses on films about World War II veterans.

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Bomb expert Ernest Corvese among first ashore on D-day

Tim Gray is making a documentary film, Navy Heroes of Normandy, that features Ernie Corvese.

By Mark Patinkin

I asked Ernest Corvese whether he planned to travel to Normandy in two weeks to mark the 65th anniversary of the invasion. It would be his day as much as anyone’s; Corvese was among the first Americans on the beach — earlier even than the infantry featured in the iconic landing scene in Saving Private Ryan.

He is 83. I was sitting at his dining table in Smithfield. We were joined by Tim Gray, a Rhode Island documentary-maker who will be making the trip to France to debut his new hour-long film called Navy Heroes of Normandy. It includes dozens of interviews with veterans like Corvese, most of whom have Rhode Island connections because so many were trained at the bases here.

Gray said few people realize the first troops on the beach were demolition experts sent to blow up obstacles. Corvese was among them.

He was barely 17 on D-Day, having left high school in February 1944 to sign up. He only got a few weeks’ training before being sent overseas. He was a seaman first class, soon assigned to an eight-member Naval Combat Demolition Unit (NCDU).

On the morning of June 5, after a short time at an American base in Falmouth, England, he was sent along with thousands of Americans across the channel for the invasion. Around 1 a.m. on June 6, they pulled among other U.S. ships about 14 miles off Omaha Beach.

Five hours later, at dawn on June 6, Ernie Corvese and dozens of others jumped into a Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel — an LCVP. It was like the Higgins Boats that would soon put infantry on the beach, but bigger. The LCVP also carried inflatable rafts filled with explosives — mostly foot-long sticks. Corvese’s job would be to use them to blow apart “Hedgehogs” — the X-shaped welded-steel obstacles set on the beach to stop tanks. The flat-bottomed boat bounced with each wave. Aside from a few men reciting the rosary, no one talked.

Corvese was a long way from the West End of Providence, where he grew up. He had decided to join the Navy because he didn’t like the idea of carrying a heavy pack in the infantry. Now, between his rifle, web belt, ammunition and extra explosives, he was weighed down with over 100 pounds. His unit of eight men readied themselves.

As they got close, shells from German artillery guns called 88s began landing nearby. Although Corvese couldn’t see them, the barrels of the 88s stuck out like tank barrels from concrete bunkers above the beach.

Corvese knew they were almost there when he began to hear the zip of machine-gun bullets. The boat came in fast and lowered the front ramp. Corvese was one of the first to leap off. He jumped to the side so the ramp wouldn’t run him over. The water was waist deep, but his equipment toppled him. Just at that moment, an 88 shell directly hit his LCVP boat. Corvese believes it likely struck one of the rafts, and ignited explosives. By the time he surfaced, there was such chaos, he did not even look back to see the damage. He would later learn that everyone still on the boat had been killed, including all seven others in his unit. He crawled through the shallow water onto the beach, and pressed himself into the sand. There was no cover. Men who knelt or sat up were targeted.

Corvese had lost his equipment and rifle coming off the boat. His inflatable was gone. He looked for other Navy demolition people, but saw none of their signature blue-striped helmets. Army demo units were by now on the beach, some going after the obstacles, but most men ashore simply tried to take cover. As planned, it was low tide, so that the Americans would be as far as possible from the bunkers, but that also left a 400-yard beach to cross.

Soon, the first wave of infantry landed. Ten feet away, Corvese saw two medics tending to a wounded soldier. Just then, an 88 landed among them. It killed both medics, though Corvese could see the wounded man was still alive. A piece of shrapnel from the 88 the size of a finger hit him below his back. The shrapnel didn’t penetrate his thick uniform. He picked it up and it burned his hand.

The infantry kept landing, but because everyone was pinned down, they began to bunch up. At one point, Corvese saw a half dozen GIs behind a Hedgehog. He started to make his way toward them, but they waved him off. They’d gone there for cover, but only ended up drawing German fire.

“You couldn’t move,” Corvese would later say. “They had you.”

Then an officer nearby shouted: “There’s two kinds of people on this beach, those that are dead and those that are gonna be dead. Let’s move.”

Corvese began to crawl forward. He ran into barbed wire and couldn’t get past it. Then some Army demolition people slid a Bangalore torpedo — a long metal pole filled with explosive — under the wire. It blew a hole through it. Some GIs went through and Corvese crawled after them.

Other Army units were trying to blow up the Hedgehogs. Just before they’d set off each charge, they would yell, “Fire in the hole.” Soldiers around would duck their faces into the sand.

At one point, a GI flopped next to him. As he did, Corvese’s gas mask rolled out of his grip and onto the man’s back. Just then, an 88 hit nearby and a piece of shrapnel slammed into the mask. Without that protection, the GI would have likely been killed, and he seemed to know it. He asked Corvese if he could keep the damaged mask as a souvenir.

“Yeah,” said Corvese. “You can have it.”

The tide began to rise and flood up the beach to where Corvese was lying, soaking him to his chest. He crawled forward to get ahead of it. He would stop when machine gun bullets began to kick up sand near him. The bullets made a “spack, spack” sound.

As he went, he passed bodies of other soldiers. Many were blown apart by 88s. He passed wounded GIs. He remembers two bleeding from the chest and shoulders. Mostly, Corvese lay with his head down.

“If you stood up,” he would later say, “you were gone.”

Corvese looked back toward the water to see boats bringing in tanks. The tanks had been rigged with buoyant “curtains” to float them ashore, but it was so rough most tilted and sank. He saw one tank making headway onto the sand when an 88 hit it directly and destroyed its turret.

Omaha Beach proved to be one of the toughest for the Allies to take. Movies about D-Day, like Saving Private Ryan, give the impression the fight went 15 minutes or so. In Corvese’s area, the Americans were pinned down for 12 hours.

The battle began to turn when U.S. destroyers that had been miles offshore sailed to within 800 yards of the beach and started firing at the German bunkers. Corvese saw the shells flying overhead.

Gradually, the fire from the German 88s subsided. It enabled teams of GIs to move forward and attack the pillboxes on the bluffs.

By dark, Corvese heard no more 88s coming at all. But there was still occasional German sniper fire. So he stayed where he was all night. He didn’t sleep. For him, it would be a 24-hour ordeal on Omaha Beach.

It wasn’t until morning that he at last felt safe enough to move around. It was quiet. Other Americans were walking, too, but few spoke.

He found some other Navy demolition people, but later learned that over half of the 180 NCDU’s at Omaha suffered casualties — among the highest rates of any unit during D-Day. Sixty were wounded and 31 killed. Someone told Corvese the body of his beloved lieutenant, whose last name was Vetter, was on the beach. He went to have a look, but by then soldiers were cordoning off that area.

After a few days, Corvese was told he would be given a Purple Heart. He assumed it was because he had been hit by shrapnel. He told them he hadn’t been wounded by it, and declined.

With his unit’s mission finished, the Navy sent him back to the States. Soon, the war for Corvese was over.

He got married and had three girls and a boy. He worked for 30 years as a photoengraver for The Providence Journal. Today, he has five grandchildren.

As we sat in his dining room, he chatted with Tim Gray, the filmmaker. The new documentary can be seen by anyone on Gray’s site, timgraymedia.com, and perhaps in time on PBS stations. Gray will be leaving soon to go to the 65-year commemoration in France. Many dignitaries, including President Obama, will be there as well.

Ernie Corvese will not be joining them. “Once was enough,” he said.

His wife, Dolores, said he considered it for a few years, but decided it would be too difficult.

I asked why.

He began to answer, then was unable to go on. For long seconds, he worked to compose himself as his mouth trembled.

“I lost some good friends,” he finally said.

Earlier, he had brought out an old photograph of himself in Navy uniform when he was still 17, standing with two buddies. Now, he stared down at the image of his younger self.

His thoughts seemed very far away.

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