WWII - Navy
Like a trail of ants, men with rifles slung on their shoulders streamed up the bluff leading away from Omaha Beach. Prominently stitched to each of their sleeves- a black shield blazoned with an Indian head- distinctively identifying them as the 2ndInfantry Division. Just 24 hours prior, the coast, now densely ladened with vehicles and men, was the epicenter of extreme combat, the result of which dictated the future of the world.
On June 6th, 1944, the seaborne liberation of Nazi occupied Europe commenced along the Normandy coastline, with elements of American infantrymen rushing ashore on beaches designated “Utah” and “Omaha”. Among the olive drab clad GIs braving the surf that morning was 19 year old Navy Corpsmen Ron Reynier.
“Water had covered many of the German’s barriers they had put up, so they [the landing craft] got hung up,” Reynier recalled of Utah Beach, sitting in his home in Hood River, Oregon. “So many kids drowned cause they were loaded with all their gear. That was a sad thing to see.”
After retrieving the men floundering in the water, bursting shells from the dreaded German 88mm gun began smacking the beach- spitting a deadly spray of shrapnel among the American invaders.
“At the very beginning it was getting guys out of the water….then it was shrapnel and that kind of stuff. And that was our deal, to patch them, put them on the landing boats in the waves coming in.”
Ron Reynier would survive that historic June day, but many of his comrades were not so lucky. The final casualty figures for the Americans on D-Day sat at 6,603 men, of which 197 came as a result of the fighting on Utah Beach. It is without doubt that the number of deaths on Utah would have been far greater had it not been for Ron Reynier.
Despite heavy losses sustained in the initial day of fighting, the sacrifices made had not been in vain. A foothold in Europe had been established and men and supplies freely flowed ashore. Among the massive influx of American forces converging in Normandy, on June 8th, Ed Mucahy of Post Falls, Idaho arrived and rapidly found assignment to the 2ndInfantry Division.
“When I and another fella, Moriarty, arrived, we got up to the Lieutenant, and I told him what I was trained in. He said, ‘I know what you were trained in, but I need an automatic weapon guy’, what they called a BAR or Browning Automatic Rifle. And he says, ‘it looks like you can handle it.’ Then he looked at Moriarty and he says, ‘I need a flame thrower,’ and he was a little shorter and heavy, and he says, ‘it looks like you could handle that.’“
Before Mulcahy had an opportunity to test his new weapon in combat, another duty was first thrust upon him.
“June 9thwas the worst day I can say I had in my life. We were told we were to report to the Lieutenant, and the Lieutenant told us we were to report to graves registration. We went over to graves registration and they took our weapons and gave us a stretcher.” Thus began the grizzly duty of recovering the rotting remains of men killed in the previous day’s combat.
“When you pick one of them up, you took one of their dog tags and put it on their toes and stuck one in their mouth. Then you take all their personal stuff and put it in a hankie. One thing I still think about: when we were out there early in the morning, we were ducking, but then we started to get nobody shooting at us. The only thing I could think of, the Germans are paying respect to us for picking up their deceased comrades and getting them ready for burial.”
Among the bodies came a number of interesting souvenirs, most memorable to Mulcahy 75 years later were a number of pictures of young French women found on a German corpse. Excited by the discovery, he began passing them among his friends.
The commotion caused by the images drew the attention of the commanding officer who approached and inquired to what the men were looking at.
“Take those three pictures down to intelligence,” the Lieutenant directed.
Mulcahy complied with the order, and brought them to the intelligence section. The officer in charge inspected the pictures and inquired as to what Mulcahy planned to do with them.
“Once I get to Paris, I’m gonna look them up!” he replied.
“I’ll tell you what we’re going to do.” said the intelligence officer. “We’re going to take those pictures and we’ll look them up for you. When we’re through with them, we’ll send you the pictures.”
“I never did receive the pictures, so they must not be through with them yet!” said Mulcahy with a laugh.
With his duty of retrieving dead bodies completed, he regained his rifle and joined the men fighting in Normandy’s distinctive maze like hedges. “The hedges were probably about three or four feet high. Some much higher. You used them as a shield, fighting behind them, then you’d hop over them and move forward. The hedges were good protection.”
In the chaos of fighting in such rugged terrain, enemy soldiers would appear rapidly, then disappear as they flung themselves into the safety of the hedge. Each time, Mulcahy would cut loose with his BAR in the direction of the fleeing soldiers. “You never knew if you killed or wounded them. They’d just fall.”
After weeks of fighting in that fashion, the breakout from Normandy commenced on July 25th. This push would prove to be Mulcahy’s last. “When I turned, the mortar landed behind me. I got hit in the legs, the pelvis, and the back.”
Waking up in a field hospital, his mind was foggy and memory blurred. Shrapnel from the German mortar had ripped his flesh to shreds.
The next ten months would be spent in and out of hospitals as he recovered from the ghastly wounds. Much of the shrapnel still rests in his body to this day. “When I was first married to my wife, she sat up at night and picked the shrapnel out of my back.”
Mulcahy still marvels at having survived. “I don’t know. I don’t know why he (his fellow soldiers) made it, he was wounded...you don’t know. You just don’t know what’s in the Lord’s mind.”
This year we celebrate the 75thanniversary of the liberation of Nazi occupied Europe- the last major commemoration in which the actual veterans of the Normandy Invasions will be present. It is important we, as freedom loving people, remember the momentous struggle fought on the shores and fields of France in 1944, as well as the incredible catastrophe that occurred in the efforts to rid the world of fascism in the months to follow. Those who experienced the horrors of World War II have never forgotten the names and faces of the men slain in the “Great Crusade” fought between 1944 and 1945. Before we know it, the last survivors too will join their brothers and sisters.
Time, it seems, has shifted the responsibility of remembrance to you.