Author chronicles less-publicized naval side of Normandy invasion

Q&A

May 31, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

Much has been filmed and written about next week's 50th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, concentrating on the history-making beachhead and the land war that followed.

Annapolis naval historian and writer Paul Stillwell is right in there with a new book on D-Day, his sixth.

But Mr. Stillwell's approach in "Assault on Normandy: First-Person Accounts from the Sea Services," is less conventional and, given his background and employer, not surprising. His book is a collection of interviews done over two years with many who experienced various aspects of the comparatively less-publicized naval side of Normandy.

The Ohio-born Mr. Stillwell, who served aboard a tank-landing ship and the battleship New Jersey during the Vietnam War, has been on the U.S. Naval Institute's staff since 1974. He directs its history division, which includes an oral-history program, photo archive and reference library.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: While I was serving on the New Jersey, I took a teacher to downtown Long Beach, Calif., to see "The Longest Day." The movie, which is three hours long, spent less than 15 minutes on the naval aspect of the D-Day landings.

It portrayed the invasion from the perspective of the ground forces and not the Navy, Coast Guard and merchant ships. The naval and maritime contribution has been largely overlooked by history and taken for granted.

But the troops had to get across the ocean, and they came by ship. They were supported by naval gunfire as landing craft took them to the beaches. Over 5,000 vessels participated in the invasion. The ships delivered, and kept on delivering, men and equipment which made it possible for the armies to keep moving toward Germany.

Then again, the Navy was faced with maximum peril for only a few days while active combat went on for months and months.

Another interesting fact is that so much of the senior leadership that planned the invasion was composed of Naval Academy graduates.

Q: You've interviewed perhaps over a hundred participants of the invasion and selected 50 first-person accounts for your book. Was there any common thread or experience of those you interviewed who participated in the invasion?

A: It was the sheer stubbornness of their personalities that got things done at Normandy.

There were examples that day of heroism and stupidity. Yet, there was a willingness to sacrifice for the larger interests that transcended personal interests.

The common thread was the taking on of a tough job and doing it. Those who were there are still proud of what they accomplished.

It brings to mind what Robert E. Adams, who was a Coast Guard coxswain of a landing craft and who revisited Normandy on the 40th anniversary of the battle, said in his interview: "It's pretty obvious that any sailor or soldier who survived that day should be thankful every day of his life. . . . I saw it all once again, and what we had achieved became more unbelievable."

Q: Why are they willing to unburden themselves and talk about what happened 50 years ago?

A: As a researcher, you know you're not seeing and talking to the same person. The vision of youth is gone, and some have changed, and the memories have softened with the passage of the years.

In some cases, nobody had bothered to ask what they thought, felt and remembered. Some of the stories sound almost too fantastic to believe.

Oral history is not fair. It's like taking a test on your life and not being able to study for it.

I included three accounts by Army veterans whose day-to-day existence was certainly more hazardous than that of naval personnel.

Rex Barney, former Dodger baseball player and public address announcer for the Orioles, said that he went through the war with an M-1 [rifle] and a rosary and that he had more faith in the rosary than the M-1. He said, "I saw things that I never want to see again."

Bob Lee, who lost three men in his platoon, is still haunted by the memory of what happened when a German plane bombed their gun site. A victim of survivor's guilt, he has spent the last 50 years wondering what he could have done differently that would have spared their lives.

Q: Why was the invasion a success?

A: Luck had a lot to do with it, along with the in-depth planning.

The Allies were prepared to go back again and again until the landing was successful. It was a willingness and determination to succeed.

But there were problems, such as Exercise Tiger off of Slapton Sands in southern England, when 750 men were lost during a rehearsal during a German torpedo attack that sank two American landing ships and damaged another. Some historians have suggested that there was a cover-up of what happened there, but there wasn't. In 1944, all details were withheld because of military security.

Q: Is there a tragic figure associated with the Normandy invasion?

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