USA TODAY-The last time Ernie Corvese set foot on Omaha Beach, he spent 12 hours pinned down by German artillery. Much of that time he spent face-down and motionless, hoping he wouldn’t attract a sniper.
Today, as Corvese prepares to return to Normandy for the first time since he arrived on D-Day with his Naval Combat Demolition Unit, you can hear the emotion in his voice as he talks about the experience.
“I never told anybody,” he says. For decades, his four children and extended family knew little, if anything, about his WWII service. His sole confidant has been his wife, Dolores, who has been by his side for 62 years.
Few know that his demolition team was among the first to arrive at Omaha, ahead of the infantry units depicted in many World War II films. They were sent to destroy hedgehogs — X-shaped obstacles made of steel beams — and other structures the Germans placed along the coast to try to thwart Allied attempts to land on the beach.
‘One hell of an explosion’
“Everything got fouled up,” Corvese says, explaining that rough conditions and heavy fire from German defenses made completing that task impossible. As the landing craft carrying Corvese and the seven other men in his unit approached the coast from 14 miles out, it was bombarded by shells from the fearsome German guns known as 88s.
“Just as I jumped off, there was one hell of an explosion,” Corvese says. “I had tripped and went under and forgot to unbuckle the strap on my helmet. It filled up with water, and I went to the bottom. I don’t know who it was, but somebody pulled me up by my collar.”
Corvese would spend many more frantic hours navigating the 400-yard battlefield of Omaha Beach before he learned what happened to the other seven men on his team. “The next day, I found out the rest of the guys in the unit were all dead,” Corvese says.
After he left the Navy in 1946, he moved back home to Providence and took a job as a photo engraver for The Providence Journal, a position he held for 30 years until his retirement. He and wife Dolores have been married for 62 years and reside in Smithfield, R.I.
Revisiting the memories
Like many other veterans who experienced the profound loss and vivid images of that day, Corvese did all he could to leave D-Day behind him.
Then, several years ago, a chance encounter would change how Corvese felt about going back to Normandy, and confronting the memories of that day.
Tim Gray, a filmmaker and founder of the non-profit World War II Foundation, was planning a documentary on the U.S. Navy in Normandy. At that time, the Navy was the only branch of the armed forces without a dedicated monument in Normandy. (In 2007, a Navy memorial was erected on Utah Beach.)
Corvese rarely spoke of his experiences in the war and had no interest in returning to Normandy.(Photo: Courtesy of Ernie Corvese)
“We were looking for people to interview who had been there, so we put an ad in The Providence Journal,” Gray says. Corvese responded, and his participation made a lasting impression.
“It was one of the most emotional interviews we had in that entire film because of what he had seen,” Gray says.
Corvese’s story stuck with Gray as a unique opportunity started to unfold in the buildup to this year’s 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
Gray came across Wish of a Lifetime, a foundation started in 2008 by former Olympic skier and National Football league player Jeremy Bloom that grants wishes to senior citizens. Gray thought about what a return to Normandy could mean for Corvese.
“When I saw what they did, the first name I thought of was Ernie,” Gray says. “The 70th anniversary will be the last major anniversary that the majority of these men will be able to travel back for, and I just thought it would be something that would bring it full circle for him, and help him to understand what a beautiful beach it is today, and how much they appreciate what those guys did.”
‘I realized I should go there’
For 65 years, Corvese had no interest in going back, but as Gray discussed this opportunity, his feelings began to change. “Seventy years is a long time, and I’m not getting any younger,” he says. “I realized I should go there and pay my respects.
The World War II Foundation is working with Wish of a Lifetime to send Corvese and his wife to Normandy during the anniversary week, put them up in a hotel, and arrange a tour guide to be at their disposal throughout their stay. “It just so happened the stars aligned this year with what we do and what they do and Ernie’s own personal story,” Gray says about the joint effort. “I thought this would be a good partnership if we could make it happen.”
Everything seems to be coming together. Travel arrangements are being made, and Gray says the foundation is in the process of finding a corporate sponsor to offset costs.
For Corvese, his own preparations have already begun. “I bought some plastic bags, and I want some sand.”
For more information on these organizations, visit wwiifoundation.org and www.seniorwish.org