In 1897, in a famous message from London to The Associated Press in America, Mark Twain cabled, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
I was reminded of that incident when I picked up my Pilot newspaper recently and was pleased to see a photo of my good friend Ed Black staring back at me.
I had not been able to determine if Ed was alive and well or otherwise. I’d tried to reach him by email and phone without success for a few weeks, and was worried that he might no longer be among us. The Pilot photo confirmed that my fears were also greatly exaggerated. Ed is in good health, living in Mount Gilead.
Ed almost met his maker when the ship he and his cousin Charlie Black were assigned to in the invasion of Normandy was sunk on D-Day Plus 1.
Both men had grown up and attended schools in Pinehurst. They enlisted in the Navy together in 1943, attended boot camp in Bainbridge, Md., and served as radiomen on the same ship. (Charlie died in 2009.)
Their ship, the USS Rich DE 695, was not originally part of the invasion plans of Ike Eisenhower. It had been doing dangerous convoy patrol duty between America and Northern Ireland when, on May 10, 1944, it was unexpectedly ordered to Plymouth harbor, England, to replace a disabled destroyer.
The Rich became one of the first ships off Normandy on D-Day. It made heavy smoke as it sailed back and forth shielding the battleships USS Nevada BB-36 and HMS Black Prince, and the cruisers Quincy and Tuscaloosa from the view of German shore gunners.
In his book, “The Last Voyage of the USS Rich,” Ed recalls looking over the ship’s side as it led landing craft filled with GIs toward the beach, and waving to a Moore County friend who was in one of the boats. His friend was lucky, surviving the landing and bloody battles 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. Both ships were under intense 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-114, 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 blown into the water clung desperately to floating debris. Wounded survivors crawled in a thicket of uprooted gear.
Then another mine detonated under the forecastle, blew the captain off the bridge, and threw the mast atop dead and badly injured men. The ship was shelled during the entire action and within 15 minutes went down by the bow.
Charlie suffered serious head wounds and a broken back. Ed was blown straight up in the air, receiving a fractured skull, shattered in five places and a broken leg. Spotting a friend from Thomasville, Ed shouted, “Carlie, we’ve got to get out of here!”
They locked arms and jumped into the water, and Carlie pulled Ed onto a life raft. Of the six men clinging to it, 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 and 73 were wounded.
Lt. Commander Edward A. Michel Jr., the ship’s captain, never mentioned his broken leg in his reports. His citation for the Navy Cross 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.”
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 man his age came over and said, “I got you out of the water after the Rich sank. I can’t believe you’re 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 Rich rests at latitude 49 degrees 31 minutes north, longitude 1 degree 10.6 minutes west. In 2006, the grateful nation of France flew Ed and Charlie to Paris on the Concorde SST, where they and 98 other American heroes were made members of the Legion of Honor.
I’ve know the survivors of the Rich for over 20 years. They have never flaunted their heroism or expected recognition for what they endured off the coast of France. They’re like so many of the “Greatest Generation,” noble, humble and deserving of America’s deepest thanks.