BY THOMAS J. MORGAN
Journal Staff Writer
Cumberland man recounts that morning off Omaha Beach, D-Day 1944
Vets, visitors flock to Normandy to remember D-Day
SMITHFIELD, R.I. — Everybody talks about the dangers that faced the first wave of troops to land on Omaha Beach in France on D-Day 70 years ago, but Ernie Corvese went in before the soldiers of the 1st and 29th Divisions came ashore.
Corvese was a seaman first class in the Navy. His job was to blow up beach obstacles that stood in the path of the attacking troops. It’s no exaggeration to say that this was about as dangerous as a mission gets — he was the sole survivor of his little Navy outfit.
He is standing on Omaha Beach today, his first return to the battlefield that proved so nearly fatal to him.
After finding the approximate spot where he landed, he told his story to Tom Brokaw of NBC News. The interview is to air on the “Sunday Nightly News.”
Corvese was flown to France earlier this week in a partnership between the World War II Foundation and an organization known as “Wish of a Lifetime,” said Tim Gray, chairman of the World War II Foundation. “They grant wishes for seniors,” said Gray, who accompanied Corvese on his journey.
“I was getting too old, I had to go back,” Corvese said.
A Providence native, Corvese quit school and enlisted in the Navy with the permission of his parents, because he was not yet 18 years old.
“I volunteered for a Navy combat demolition unit,” he recalled in a telephone interview from France.
Those were the days before the SEALS were formed. Because the war in the Pacific was essentially an amphibious one, the Navy created Underwater Demolition Units, or UDTs, to clear away mines and other obstacles meant to impede landing craft. The same defensive tactics were employed on European beaches.
“We went in just before the first wave,” Corvese said. “We were the first Navy personnel to be on Omaha Beach.”
Was he under fire?
“Greatly,” he said. “Too much.”
Corvese’s eight-man team motored to the beach in an LCM — a Landing Craft Mechanized. The plan was for the team to launch from the LCM a small rubber boat filled with explosives and paddle it to the beach. As Corvese worked with the others to launch the rubber boat, he tripped and fell into the water.
It was a stroke of luck that would save his life. At that moment the LCM exploded. His seven buddies vanished.
The blast was probably touched off by a shell from a German 88mm gun, one of many employed in the Normandy defense that wrought great carnage before they could be knocked out.
Corvese crawled 400 yards on his belly “to what was called a safe point.”
“You couldn’t stand up, or kneel, because the German fire was too much,” he said.
“They had us pinned down until an Army officer stood up and said there were ‘Two kinds of people on this beach — those that are dead and those that are going to be dead, let’s get going.’”
That was Col. George A. Taylor of the 16th Infantry Regiment, whose rallying cry became legend.
“A couple of GIs stuck Bangalore torpedoes under the barbed wire and set them off, and GIs started going forward,” Corvese continued.
He remained on the beach another three or four days before rejoining the rest of the Navy.
Corvese came home to Providence after the war — he now lives in Smithfield — and finished high school. He got a job as a photo engraver with The Providence Journal Co. and retired in 1989 after 25 years.
“The last time I counted I had six great-grandchildren,” he said.
Gray said that the beach interview with Brokaw was an emotional one.
“Brokaw has interviewed hundreds of vets, world leaders, but when Brokaw interviewed Ernie he was crying. [Brokaw’s] producer said that rarely happens.
“There are five of Ernie’s guys on the Wall of the Missing here, which means they never found their bodies, and he was able to touch their names.”