Seventy-five years ago, D-Day, June 6, 1944, fell on a Tuesday, and a bloody day it was.
It was the largest seaborne invasion in history. It was code-named Operation Overlord. The amphibious landings were preceded by extensive aerial and naval bombardment and an airborne assault, including the landing of 24,000 U.S., British and Canadian airborne troops shortly after midnight. Allied infantry and armored divisions began coming ashore at 06:30. The action covered a 50-mile stretch of Normandy coast, divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
It entailed 5,000 landing craft, 289 escort vessels, 277 minesweepers, 160,000 troops with 10,000 casualties and 4,414 confirmed dead. 875,00 men disembarked by July 1.
The USS Rich, DE-695 was one of the first ships off Normandy on D-Day. On board was Ed Black, a resident of Pinehurst who was joined by his cousin, Charlie Black. Both men had gone to school in Pinehurst and enlisted in the Navy together in 1943. They attended boot camp in Bainbridge, Md., and served as radiomen on the USS Rich, a destroyer escort.
Initially they performed convoy duty between America and Northern Ireland. On May 10, 1944, the Rich was ordered to Plymouth, England, to replace a disabled destroyer. Ed and Charlie Black found themselves on one of the first ships off Normandy on D-Day. The Rich’s assignment was to make heavy black smoke as it sailed back and forth shielding the battleships Nevada BB-36 and HMS Black Prince, and the cruisers Quincy and Tuscaloosa from the view of German shore gunners.
Ed remembers looking over the ship’s side as it led landing craft filled with G.I.s toward the beaches and waving to a Moore County friend who was in one of the small boats. His friend was lucky, surviving the landing and the bloody battles waged to defeat Germany.
On D-Day-plus 2, the Rich was ordered to steam to the aid of the disabled USS Glennon, which had steamed over a powerful German mine, and was dead in the water and taking fire from enemy shore batteries at Quineville. The Glennon’s skipper warned the Rich to beware of mines. When she was about 300 yards from the minesweeper USS Staff AM-14, which had taken the Glennon in tow, an explosion occurred directly under the Rich. Men on the bridge were thrown to the deck. A 50-foot section of the stern was blown off. Sailors thrown into the water clung desperately to floating debris. Then another mine exploded under the forecastle, throwing the captain off the bridge, and threw the mast atop dead and badly injured men. All the while the ship was shelled. She went down by the bow in 15 minutes.
Charlie suffered serious head injuries and a broken back. Ed was blown straight up in the air, receiving a fractured skull, shattered in five places, and a broken leg. Ed and Carlie, a friend from Thomasville, locked arms and jumped into the water. Of the six who got onto a life raft, four died, including Carlie. Ed and Charlie underwent long medical treatments in London and later in Charleston, S.C. Out of the crew of 215, 89 officers and crew were lost; 73 were wounded.
Lt. Commander Edward A Michel Jr., the ship’s captain, never mentioned his broken leg in reports. His Navy Cross citation reads, “Despite severe injuries he steadfastly refused to leave his ship and directed and assisted in the removal of all possible survivors until his ship sank beneath him. By his example, all able-bodied survivors on board were inspired to remain with the ship and assist in the rescue of the greatest number of men.”
Forty years later, when Ed was at Normandy on D-Day, he wore a jacket with the message “Ed Black, USS Rich” on the back. A veteran came up to him and said, “I got you out of the water when the Rich sank. I can’t believe you are alive. You were more dead than alive when I pulled you out!”
Later, Ed visited his savior, Frank Calvo, in Connecticut. Frank gave him a 40-year-old diary that had fallen out of Ed’s pocket that fateful day. Calvo had added a final note, “USS Rich, 2 PT boats picked up survivors and brought them to our LST 57. We worked like mad taking care of them, and the fellows appreciated it very much. Some weren’t so lucky.”
The diary is now in a French D-Day museum. In 2006, the grateful people of France flew Ed and Charlie Black to Paris on the Concorde SST, where they and 98 other Americans were made members of the Legion of Honor.
I’ve known Ed and some of the survivors for over 20 years. They never flaunted their heroism nor sought recognition for what they endured to liberate France. They are typical of the Greatest Generation. They deserve America’s deepest thanks.
The USS Rich lies at latitude 49 degrees 31 minutes, longitude 1 degree 10.6 minutes, in 40 feet of water. May God bless the Rich and the men who sailed her.