Selma resident recounts horrific events, images of D-DayPublished 8:18pm Tuesday, June 5, 2012
June 6, 1944 is a date almost as recognizable as Dec. 7, 1941 to senior citizens. It is the date Allied troops stormed the Normandy coast of France beginning the liberation of Western Europe from the grip of Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Operation Overlord, as it was code-named, began on June 6, 1944 with over 150,000 Allied troops disembarking on a 50-mile stretch of Normandy coastline. An armada like never seen before in the English Channel of 5,000 ships and 11,000 aircraft took part in the invasion. At the end of the day 9,000 Allied troops had been killed or injured, but they had managed a toehold on mainland Western Europe.
In the armada of ships was Selma native Lee W. Ratliff (aka L.W.) serving on the USS Nevada. Ratliff had a bird’s eye view of the naval proceedings and chronicled his experience on that fateful day. He was not too far removed from roaming the streets of Selma and attending Central Baptist Church with neighbor and pal Joe McKnight. McKnight, (a reporter for The Associated Press) recalls Ratliff as one of his best friends while growing up in Selma.
Ratliff enlisted in the Navy in 1943 at the age of 17. He was discharged in 1946 and then attended Howard College in Birmingham receiving degrees in education and religion. A later degree in theology and church history from Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Ky., set his life’s work of church ministry in Alabama and Florida.
The following is an eyewitness account of D-Day, June 6, 1944, as written and experienced by Lee W. Ratliff. Presently, he is a retired Baptist minister living in Eustis, Fla.
I had sat in a harbor in Scotland aboard the battleship USS Nevada for about a week, waiting the time we would be ordered to cross the English Channel and begin shelling the German gun emplacements along the Normandy Beach of France. The Harbor was full of ships, all anchored with just enough room to swing with the wind and currents without hitting the ship anchored next to it. The weather was stormy and had been for a couple of days, threatening to postpone the invasion of France.
However, the storm seemed to give evidence of coming to an end and June 6 looked as if it would be an OK day to cross the channel. So, in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944 the command came to proceed across the English Channel while it was still dark and begin shelling the French coast by 6 a.m. The water in the English Channel was still very rough, causing slow progress in crossing it. By the time we reached the French coast, the massive array of ships had been spotted by the German army, which opened fire on the ships. The ships began to return fire and the invasion had started on the day planned, if not the planned hour.
The day was to be long, difficult and unfortunately blood. The USS Nevada patrolled the shoreline bombarding targets on the land. These targets included gun emplacements, tanks and anything else that our “target spotting” airplane could find. Three of such planes were shot down during the course of the day. We never heard what happened to the pilots of the “spotter aircraft.” One of the many things at the time that caused me to wonder at what was happening was the fact we had a person firing a 20 MM gun on the bow of our ship blowing up floating mines while at the same time a mine sweeping ship was following the Nevada blowing up mines behind us. Why was not the minesweeper out in front of us rather than following us? I learned later that our ship was equipped with what was called “paravanes.” These paravanes were designed to cut cables, which anchored mines to the ocean floor and caused the freed mines to rise to the water’s surface along the sides of our ship, but not near enough to touch the ship. The minesweeper would then fire on them and blow them up.
However, this procedure did not save all the ships. I saw a destroyer hit a mine with its bow and while backing away from the other mines in front of it hit two other mines behind it. The destroyer sank within 10 minutes. However, most of the ships had no, or very little damage, from mines, shore guns or German airplanes. The ships’ anti-aircraft guns fired very little for there were very few German planes in the air above us. Those German planes, which became airborne, were shot down by either the ships or by American fighter planes. German shelling did reach the ships but little damage was done.
By 8 a.m. on “D Day” morning the invasion was in full swing. Landing craft were headed toward shore loaded with soldiers and equipment. The sky was full of planes loaded with bombs or towing gliders, which were loaded with paratroopers and their equipment. The sky was also filled with German anti-aircraft fire seeking to shoot down these loaded planes. Yes, some of these planes and gliders were destroyed with paratroopers aboard. The planes hit by anti-aircraft fire usually blew apart in a cloud of black smoke because of the bombs on board. Many of the paratroopers were dropped in the wrong places and some were too scattered to be effective against the German army. Many of them were killed either before they touched ground after jumping or shortly thereafter.
However, many did land safely and with much difficulty made a significant difference in the advance of US forces after the beach was taken.
The beaches of Normandy were a slaughterhouse. The Germans not only had strong gun emplacements along the beaches, but had also erected barriers on the beach of thick hedges and in the water, thousands of spikes designed to rupture the bottoms of landing craft and sink them. Many of the landing craft sank before they reached shallow water and hundreds of soldiers either drowned or were shot while swimming with their backpacks in town before they could reach the beach. I saw many bodies of the dead float past our ship being carried by the wind and the tide into the English Channel.
The USS Nevada not only bombarded German shore targets, some as many as 30 miles inland, but the doctors aboard performed surgery on the wounded, [who] were brought to the ship by landing craft, whose deck would be covered with blood.
These days were overwhelming. The battle lasted for three days before the beachhead was secure. During this period of time, no one slept and no one left their battle station. At the close of the third day the USS Nevada, having expended all of its 16-inch ammunition except for five rounds and all of its 5-inch ammunition, headed back across the English Channel to load more ammunition. This reloading was accomplished in Plymouth, England by our crew and the help of many English sailors. During this day in Plymouth, England I observed a number of LSTs unloading Germans who had been taken as prisoner. After reloading ammunition the USS Nevada returned to Normandy and began serving as field artillery for the advancing American troops.