One of the first to invade Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, Don McCarthy, 92, clearly recalls the events of that day.
By Mark Patinkin
Journal Columnist Posted May. 28, 2016 @ 3:50 pm
He is 92 and one of the few left who can still testify about D-Day — and whether it was really like the beach scene in “Saving Private Ryan.”
Don McCarthy lives in a North Smithfield nursing home, and was in the first wave to go ashore in Normandy 72 years ago this June 6.
I doubted he would remember clearly.
Related content 5 great things to do in R.I. this weekend, May 28-29At Roger Williams Park, 6,844 memorials to lives lostBut when we sat down last week, close to Memorial Day, McCarthy spoke of it in astonishing detail.
We met at the Providence VA Medical Center, where he’d gone for a check-up. He’s focused on making it back to Normandy for the 75th in three years.
I began by asking if the movie scene was indeed accurate. McCarthy nodded — every second of it. Though he gave two new insights.
The real assault lasted much longer — many hours. And the water was as deadly as the land.
Like many veterans, McCarthy seldom talked of the war in the decades after. He worked for New England Telephone, settled in Warwick, and with his wife, Elaine, raised four sons, all in Rhode Island today.
Elaine is still with him — the two live in St. Antoine’s Villa.
But now that he’s among the last witnesses, he feels an obligation to remember it.
“So many were killed,” he told me. “So many never got out of the boat.”
As we sat, McCarthy’s name was called and he went in to see Dr. Guang Hu, his longtime VA internist. He’d brought Dr. Hu a small jar of sand from Normandy, where he journeyed two years ago on D-Day’s 70th.
“He got me over there,” McCarthy said.
Tim Gray, 49, the local filmmaker who told me about McCarthy, was also in Normandy for the 70th, filming a PBS documentary on the anniversary.
“McCarthy,” he told, me, “saw the worst of it. He saw the worst of D-Day.”
Gray begins and ends the documentary with footage of Don McCarthy doing what he still does daily – thanking God in church for getting him off the beach and saying a prayer for those who never got off it.
Soon, the exam was done and we sat in a nearby room. McCarthy looked at me and said:
“You want me to bring you in on the day?”
He was 20 years old and a private first class in the 116th Infantry of the 29th Division — the first to invade Omaha Beach, where the Allies took the most casualties.
McCarthy’s battalion left England at 2 a.m. aboard a big ship that plowed through heavy seas until it arrived about 11 miles from Normandy. That’s when the GIs aboard were ordered to drop down into landing crafts. The smaller boats were heaving so hard the men had to time their drop or get slammed.
The soldier in front of McCarthy misjudged, broke his leg and had to be hauled back up.
McCarthy was told to take the man’s place in the front row, the last of 40 aboard a boat he wasn’t supposed to be on.
They threw the line off and the craft plowed ahead in the dark, bucking so wildly almost every soldier aboard got sick. Water sloshed in up to McCarthy’s knees. It was nearly pitch black. No one said anything. That’s how it went for hours.
Then they were among battleships firing at the German fortifications and bombers overhead and they knew they were close. McCarthy asked God to let him survive. He said Our Fathers and Hail Marys.
About two miles out, the craft next to them swamped from waves and plunged under in seconds. McCarthy knew that the men aboard were loaded with vests full of ammo and gear and not one of them came back up.
He wondered if that was the boat he was meant to be on.
Then the light came up and he could see the beach a half-mile away. German shells began landing. He’d hear a sound like a train engine, then a blast, some of them so close they showered him. He saw some boats get hit.
A few hundred yards offshore, McCarthy’s craft slammed into another and began to go over on its side. Their commander shouted to shed all gear — even rifles — or they’d die.
Seconds after McCarthy did, he was in the water, his helmet still on because in England his commander punished anyone without it strapped tight.
Inside the helmet, he had a photo in plastic of his girlfriend and future wife, Elaine O’Shea. The helmet caught enough of an air pocket to keep him from plunging too deep. Many in his boat sank out of sight.
He made it to the surface and yelled at a soldier next to him to head to a nearby capsized boat for cover. The soldier didn’t respond, so McCarthy grabbed and pulled him.
German fire hit the water around him and he realized they’d die if they didn’t make the beach, where they might also die, but that was the choice.
“Keep swimming,” McCarthy yelled, but the soldier didn’t. McCarthy saw his eyes were fixed; he was dead. But McCarthy held onto him because you don’t leave a buddy behind. He towed him until his own feet touched the bottom. He paused and said out loud that they’d made it — they were in France.
That’s when he realized that holding the floating soldier had helped him stay on the surface himself, so it was the last thing the dead soldier had done — helped a buddy ashore.
McCarthy crawled on his knees, still dragging the soldier, then tied him to an obstacle to give him the honor of having made it to the beach without the tide pulling him back.
Don McCarthy looked at his watch. It said 6:45 a.m.
He lay in shallow water with bodies nearby and machine-gun fire hitting everywhere. He heard a wounded man cry out the word, “Mama,” and McCarthy got angry at God — all those Hail Marys with no results.
Just then, the Navy put accurate shellfire on the Germans above them and the smoke gave the GIs enough cover to prompt a commander to yell:
“Go — get off the beach or you’ll die here. Get up on the shingle.”
He meant a rocky breakwater a football field away. McCarthy felt that God was back again.
He began to run, bent over, with mortars exploding nearby, as a staff sergeant shouted, “Ever forward, ever forward.”
McCarthy kept dropping as shells landed, but he made it. The breakwater was like a long berm stretching far down the beach but you still had to hug the sand. The soldier next to him half-stood and fell back yelling, “I’m hit,” and McCarthy and others called for a medic.
McCarthy’s mission was to get to a French church he now saw on the bluff down the beach that Germans were using as a firing point.
He and a few others from his platoon began to crawl toward it along the berm. That’s when he heard the whistle of American mortars firing back at the Germans, a relief, but more chaos, as he moved under criss-crossing shellfire.
Finally, they got below the church on a part of the beach with less German fire. By now, it was about 7:30 a.m.
A dirt road led up from the beach toward the church, and McCarthy and a half dozen others began to crawl and run up it. There was little German fire and then they found out why.
An old man stepped out of a small house by the road and using derisive French for Germans yelled out, “Boche — kaput.”
The church had been abandoned, though it was full of German shells.
McCarthy thought: “We’re here. America’s here.”
Except then shells began to land again and they realized it was the U.S. Navy mistaking them for Germans.
McCarthy’s sergeant said they had to report that the church was in friendly hands but they had no way to do it.
“McCarthy,” the sergeant said, “you were radioman. Go down to the beach and find one.”
So Don McCarthy had to run back to the shore. More craft were landing as he got there and he saw a soldier with a strapped-on radio step off. As McCarthy waved at him, a mortar burst in the air above them, blowing off the radioman’s arm and destroying the equipment.
Then another mortar hit nearby and shrapnel went into McCarthy’s hamstring and he went down, too.
A medic bandaged him and pulled him to a sandy foxhole and told him to stay there. Gradually, the firing began to die down.
As McCarthy phrased it to me — the Americans had done it, kicked their way through the front door of Hitler’s fortress.
McCarthy stood and looked at the waterfront. Bodies were washing back and forth. Everything smelled like oil, explosives and carnage.
He thought: “God, let me live.”
Tim Gray, the filmmaker, sees McCarthy as a symbol of World War II vets.
“They saved the world,” he said. “And are incredibly humble about it.”
Gray told me it was a remarkable American moment to see McCarthy at Normandy on the 70th. He and the other vets were frail, but the French saw them as giants.
Gray recalled: “To see women come up to him crying — who were 6 years old when Don McCarthy liberated them — he’ll never be old to the people who live over there.”
There in the VA, McCarthy thanked me for letting him speak for those who died that day. He said he knows his time is short and feels God has kept him to honor the lost.
He said his life’s last goal is to return to Normandy on the 75th.
“I want to be back there with my guys,” he said.
He hopes they know that through him, a part of them lives on.
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