Veterans from Lexington, Louisville areas mark D-day anniversary this weekend

jwarren@herald-leader.comJune 5, 2014 

On D-day morning, 70 years ago Friday, Winchester's Jonah Thomas was an Army combat engineer in one of the first landing craft to hit Omaha Beach.

German shells obliterated the boat almost the instant it touched the sand.

"I didn't see anybody else there when we hit the beach, so maybe they didn't have anybody else to shoot at," Thomas recalled. "They blew that boat to smithereens."

A soldier in front of Thomas was struck in the face. Thomas was covered with his blood.

"I would have been hit if he hadn't been there," Thomas said. "There were 44 men crammed in that boat, and hardly anybody survived."

Thomas, now 89, was one of the few who did.

He'll be among about 80 veterans from the Lexington and Louisville areas who are flying to Washington early Friday, the 70th anniversary of D-day. They'll visit the Korean War Veterans Memorial, the Iwo Jima Monument, and the National World War II Memorial before returning Friday evening. A public welcome is planned at Blue Grass Airport when they return.

D-day, June 6, 1944, was when roughly 160,000 American, British and other Allied troops stormed into Nazi-held France along a 50-mile stretch of beaches in Normandy.

It was one of history's biggest military operations. More than 5,000 ships and 11,000 planes supported the landings, which launched the final campaigns that ended World War II in Europe in May 1945.

Within five days after D-day, more than 300,000 soldiers, 54,000 vehicles and 104,000 tons of supplies had come ashore.

But for the first few hours, the D-day invaders struggled just to survive a wave of bullets and shells from German guns. About 12,000 Allied soldiers were killed, wounded or captured, including roughly 6,000 Americans.

London's Owen Edwards, then 18, was a Navy coxswain, steering one of the landing boats headed for Omaha. His job — delivering a 20-man medical team to the beach — looked impossible.

"Eighty-eight millimeter shells were hitting so close they were throwing water into the boat," Edwards remembers. "It was so intense, that I finally turned the boat toward another part of the beach where the shelling wasn't as heavy. I probably wouldn't have made it if I hadn't done that."

Edwards, now 88, is another veteran who'll be making the trip to Washington Friday. He eventually landed the medical team safely on Omaha, one of two runs he made to the beach that day.

"It was complete chaos," Thomas said. "There were bodies everywhere, wrecked equipment, tanks that never made it, soldiers that drowned going in. It's a miracle that we took that beach."

Thomas visited Omaha Beach in 1993, and stood on the spot where he landed his boat.

"The beach was so quiet and peaceful then, but I could visualize what it was like on June 6, 1944," he said. "It was pretty emotional."

The French invited Robert L. Williams to visit Normandy for the 70th D-day anniversary. But Williams, 91, decided to stay home in Kenton County.

"I'm getting too old for nine hours on an airplane," he said. "Besides, I've been there and done that."

Williams, a 101st Airborne Division paratrooper, had one of D-day's most dangerous jobs. He was among about 13,000 Allied paratroopers who parachuted into Normandy to seize and hold strategic roads and bridges before the invasion.

Williams survived days of heavy fighting in Normandy, but was seriously wounded on June 16, 1944.

Fifty years later, he helped organize a re-creation of the original parachute jump for the 50th D-day anniversary on June 6, 1994. Williams and 18 other original D-Day paratroopers parachuted into Normandy from a World War II era C-47.

"The government said, 'There's no way we're going to let you do that, you're all too old,'" Williams recalls. "We did it anyway."

He says the 1994 jump was one of the most satisfying things he's ever done.

"People were beginning to forget about World War II back then," Williams said. "I think that jump kind of brought it all back. To me, it was more exciting than D-day."

The boat carrying Lexington infantryman John A. Palumbo was blown out of the water 100 yards off Omaha Beach on D-day. It was his first taste of combat.

Palumbo splashed shore. But a bullet destroyed his BAR light machine gun and left shrapnel in his right arm.

Eventually, he hooked up with some more experienced soldiers, helped them get through a minefield, and found cover on a bluff behind the beach. He never fired a shot on D-day, but saw much heavy fighting later.

Palumbo, now 93, landed on a sector of Omaha Beach code-named "Easy Red."

"There was nothing easy about what we went through there," he recalls. "No one on that beach was rear-echelon. Everybody was a front-line soldier on D-day. Period."

Palumbo often says that every day of his life since D-day has been a bonus, because he didn't expect to survive.

"I'm glad I went through it," he said, "rather than having any of my heirs go through it."

Ray Swafford, now 88, of Manchester, was a sailor on the minesweeper YMS-247, destroying underwater mines to clear a safe path for ships taking troops to Normandy.

It was dangerous work. The night before D-day, another minesweeper hit a mine and exploded.

"We had to leave the survivors in the water, and that hurt real bad," Swafford remembers.

After clearing mines, Swafford's ship spent D-day guiding landing craft toward shore, picking up survivors, even trying to draw German gunfire away from soldiers on the beach. They also went to assist the destroyer USS Corry, which was sinking.

But Swafford was most unnerved by German "E-boats," small fast craft that fired torpedoes.

"We couldn't shoot back at them because we might hit our own ships," he said. "Those torpedoes still bother me today. I really don't like to think about it."

Swafford isn't going on Friday's Washington trip, but he said he might mark the 70th anniversary by cooking out with some friends.

"The captain of my ship stopped here to visit me once about 20 years ago," Swafford said. "He asked what I thought about D-day, and I said, 'It seems like a bad dream.'

"He said, 'That's the way it seems to me too.'"

Jim Warren (859) 231-3255. Twitter: @heraldleader

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service