By Jarid Watson
WASHINGTON — Just after his 18th birthday, my grandfather Donald Pike volunteered for the U.S. Army and soon after began chemical warfare training at Camp Siebert, Alabama.
Upon completing training, he was assigned to the 81st Chemical Mortar Battalion, which would come to play a significant role in the D-Day invasion.
“The mortar was highly mobile,” he said in an unpublished family memoir.
“That gave the Army the ability to have heavy artillery support for infantry and it actually pushed us up between the infantry and the normal artillery as far as our position in battle was concerned.”
He was shipped out to England in October of 1943 and began preparation for what would become history’s largest amphibious military assault.
My grandfather earned the Purple Heart for injuries sustained in combat at Omaha Beach as well as the Bronze Star with cluster. He passed away in 2010 at the age of 85.
In honor of the 73rd D-Day anniversary, here’s his account of what happened on that pivotal day.
The following is an excerpt from Pike’s family memoir. This is the first time his story has been published.
The logistics on D-Day were absolutely unbelievable.
I didn’t hear anything about Operation Tiger (code name for a massive D-Day rehearsal) when I was in England. We didn’t know where we were going to invade Europe, all we knew was that we were going to.
In our camp in May, we received final briefings.
We were attached to the 16th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Division, which was the Big Red One, and were put on the USS Henrico.
We found out that D-Day had been postponed to June 6th because of bad weather and that “H” hour was to be at 6:30 in the morning.
We were scheduled to land on Omaha Beach and “Easy Red” was the description of that section of the beach.
Once we got in our landing craft, we rendezvoused away from the ship and kept circling until all our craft for our wave were in position.
The water was choppy but it wasn’t raining.
You had a certain amount of adrenaline flowing and everybody was crouched down in the craft.
As we got closer in, the shells were hitting the craft and bouncing off the ramp.
As it turned out, the boat I was on was grounded before it went all the way in. The tide was out and we had life preservers on when the ramp went down. All our equipment had life belts so it would float.
I was a technical corporal, a T5 in the communications section, and it was necessary to carry spools of combat wire with our telephones so that when we got ashore, we could set up communications among the outfit.
Everybody went off the boat as quickly as possible. I was up to my waist in the water.
We strapped a couple of spools to the mortar carts so we could have our hands free to help get the carts ashore. We got out of the water and headed for cover.
We’d had all our weapons waterproofed and when we got into a position that seemed to be secure, I tore the waterproofing off my rifle and tried to fire, but it was jammed.
I remember the waves washing up and the bodies floating in the water. Official documents would later indicate that Omaha was the bloodiest beach.
We got orders to move up inland and since the carts were no longer as mobile, we had to hand-carry everything.
There were paths that had been outlined with tape by the engineers because this area had been checked and found to be clear of mines.
It was difficult going up that hilly path and keeping your feet inside the lines because it was rather narrow. We lost some of the guns in the process of getting them ashore but were able to set up the mortars by noon.
We were receiving artillery fire on the beach when I got hit with a piece of shrapnel in the left elbow. I must have been unconscious for a period of time because the next thing I knew, it was 4:30 p.m. and I was laying on my back and I really wanted water.
I saw that my arm was bandaged and put into a sling and my canteen had been blown apart. After I came to, they flushed out two Germans that were sitting nearby in a machine gun nest. They were probably afraid to breathe because there were so many Americans all around them. The Germans hadn’t fired their guns for quite some time and were eventually captured.
I got on my feet and began carrying stuff up a hill until I was ordered to go to a hospital. They checked my injury at the hospital and tagged me as walking wounded who needed to be evacuated.
My life wasn’t in danger, so I didn’t get off the beach that night. We ended up sleeping in a tank trap that was just down the beach from where we landed. It got real cold.
Even though I had two layers of clothing on I was still wet, and I about froze until one of the medics came along and gave me a blanket.
When it became daylight, we went down to the beach, and we sat waiting for the landing craft to come in.
The guy on the craft hollered at us and told us that we couldn’t come and that he couldn’t take us back out. He said that we had to get on another craft because that on belonged to General Bradley.
The general was walking straight into the beach and into the water when he heard the fella and told him not to worry and that he would get back another way. He said to evacuate us.
We continued toward this landing craft and before we got to it, the engine conked out and the guy couldn’t get it started again. We turned around in disgust and started walking back onto the beach until we heard the engine kick in. We turned around and started back toward him, and the engine went out again.
We said the heck with it and just came back to shore. Later that day, another craft came in close to where we were. We walked out and got on this one and when we backed out, we ran into an underwater obstacle and the landing craft started to sink.
A rhino, a floating docking unit run by Navy’s Construction Battalion, was coming into shore at the time so we were able to back onto its flat surface. I was one of the last ones to get off the craft when a wave hit the side of the boat, and it started to tip.
I tried to hook my foot under the ledge to keep me from falling overboard, but I missed and there I was, with my arm in a sling and no life preserver.
Fortunately, someone threw me one of those donuts with a rope on it and got me out of the water and into the rhino.
I was really freezing then. We eventually loaded onto another landing craft, which took us out to an LST (landing ship tank). The doctor on board examined all of us, gave me a shot of whiskey, and determined that maybe I could stand another one.
I got rid of my clothes and got wrapped in English wool that was really scratchy and uncomfortable, but, nonetheless, it was warm. They assigned me a bunk and put me to bed, just one level below the main deck.
That night, we were still in the beach area and another plane or two came over. My ship had a lot of anti-aircraft equipment that they had not unloaded on the top deck. They were all firing at this enemy plane and all the empty shell casings were hitting the deck.
Swaying in the water, with shells rolling on its deck, the ship sounded like it was being pounded with shrapnel. It hadn’t been hit, but those sounds scared me for awhile.
Our ship was assigned to convoy back to England and the danger of being attacked by U-Boats still existed. Once the lead ships got into the harbor, the Navy patrol ships were ordered to leave the convoy and return to France. At that point, a pack of German U-Boats attacked the convoy and cut it in half. My ship was on the tail end of the convoy, and we were ordered to take off on our own for whatever safety we could find.
We managed to get away safely and I woke up the next morning to find that we docked on the British beach Juno. We stayed in Juno all that day until the British Navy worked up a convoy, and then we went back to England. This time, the escort stayed with the convoy until al the ships were in port. Then they sealed off the outside of the harbor so nothing could get in.
We docked on a Saturday in England, we were discharged from the boat and walked ashore on the pier. There I was, walking in my birthday suit with an English wool blanket wrapped around me. I wanted to get rid of it as quickly as I could but I had nothing but that blanket and my dog tags.
I had lost everything.