Michael Maloy looked out the porthole at a gray sea, gray sky and what seemed like a hundred dark gray ships of all shapes and sizes. It was the 5th of June, 1944 and they were anchored somewhere off the east coast of England.
Wind driven spray on the glass made the scene fuzzy as the drops trickled downwards. He could distinguish the ships, but the sea and sky merged together into a smoky haze. Like his ship, the dark silhouettes were waiting. Waiting with anticipation; waiting with apprehension.
He stepped away from the porthole and turned back towards his bunk. The SS WINONA was an old ship and berthing was tight and uncomfortable. He shared the small space with the other five Able Seaman. Most of the time it wasn’t too bad, you learned to get along. At any given moment half were usually working somewhere, and the others asleep or hanging in the crew mess. The older guys were easy to live with, it was Johnson that caused the most trouble. Always wanting to argue, to fight, like he had to prove something. The older seamen ignored him, or, at times, gave him a look that made him pause. Some of these guys had been around and weren’t likely to take anything from some nineteen-year old 4-F deckhand. That left Michael, the other nineteen-year old 4-F deckhand. At 120 pounds Michael was easy pickings, at least that’s what Johnson thought.
Michael looked at his watch, 1930, time to go up on deck and relieve his “buddy” Johnson. Despite the almost summertime date, he put on his wool sweater and his rain slicker over the top. The English summer had been wet and nasty.
They had been at anchor for days, loaded, waiting and ready. They all knew something was coming, but no one knew where or when. Even at the dock loading cargo, they had been restricted to the ship, armed guards at the gate and at the gangway. Everyone knew something was coming. He was going to be part of the biggest military operation of all time. Not in the way he had originally thought but part of it none-the-less. When he had turned eighteen he tried to sign up for the Army, 4-F, medically disqualified they said. He tried the Marines, the Navy, even the Coast Guard. Medically disqualified. One of the doctors had looked at him and told him he should be grateful he wouldn’t have to go off to war. Michael didn’t feel grateful, he felt cheated.
He refused to be left out, he signed up for the merchant marines and 60 days later he was on a ship going somewhere. He had never been on a ship before, had never even seen the ocean before. He reported aboard his first ship, his first convoy and his first night he didn’t sleep at all. The first of many. The escorts would drop depth charges at random to scare off the U-boats. The explosions pounded against the hull of his ship. On the way across the Atlantic, four ships had been torpedoed. Without warning, they just blew up. A fiery death and a watery grave. One must have been carrying ammunition, there was a bright flash and a concussion that he felt hit him in the chest even though he was two miles away. The ship had been there one second and was gone the next. Some people back home thought he was safely out of the war. Some people were always wrong.
Two years later he was a veteran seaman, a survivor of multiple convoys. Lucky, he knew, just lucky. This time it was different though, this trip he was part of the effort that the world had been waiting for. He was part of the biggest event of his life.
As he stepped on deck the scene opened before him. A wet, wind driven mist was slinking over the water, winding its way between the gray silhouettes spread out before him. Each of those specters was carrying a cargo for the effort, each a small piece of the whole.
“Its about time,” said Johnson as Michael stepped onto the bridge wing, his lookout position for the next four hours.
Michael ignored the dig and asked, “Any news about when we’re leaving?”
“No, the Captain was up in the chartroom a little while ago and they had a pow-wow in there, then he went below. Didn’t tell me anything. Here, its your watch. I’m cold.”
Johnson handed Michael a pair of binoculars and headed below.
Michael stood next to the pilot house door, trying to use it as a windbreak. He looked into the pilot house but the mates must have been talking in the chartroom. He’d get called when they had something to share. No matter, he thought. He pulled up his collar and hunkered down to wait and watch. Over the last couple of years he had gotten very good at waiting and watching.
An hour or so later the mate opened the door to the pilot house and stuck out his head. “Go knock on the Chief Mate’s door and tell him 30 minutes until we weigh anchor. Then get back up here and we’ll test gear.”
Later, Michael was standing by his position at the ship’s big wooden steering wheel. They had tested steering and the engine order telegraph. Now it was wait some more. He had gotten good at waiting.
The Captain finally came up and walked straight to the sound powered phone. He turned the dial to the number for the bow and then turned the handle on the side three turns so it would ring at the bow. Michael heard a voice at the other end. The Captain spoke.
“You can start raising the anchor now Mate, let me know when you’re off the bottom. After we get underway you can secure for sea.” The Captain turned to Michael, “You ready Mike.”
Michael and the Captain had sailed together before. The Captain had taken a liking to the young seaman and had encouraged him to sit for his license. Michael was thinking about it. The longer he lived in the Able Seaman’s quarters the better the idea sounded.
“Yes sir. I’m ready. Do you know where we’re going?”
The Captain smirked, “All I know is we’re to meet up with a convoy about ten miles from here and then fall into line. We’ll know where we’re going when we get there.” He looked over at the mate on watch, “Slow ahead,” and then to Michael, “Give me right ten degrees Mike.”
Michael put the rudder over ten degrees and the WINONA was off.
Slowly the WINONA parted the mist, weaving through ships that were also getting underway. Puffs of black smoke coming from smoke stacks all around.
The Captain was good, Michael thought. So many ships in so little space. He gave helm commands and appeared so calm. A pipe stuck in his mouth producing smoke like an old freighter. Appearances could be deceiving.
Through the watch they maneuvered until finally they joined up with the convoy. Michael turned the wheel over to his watch relief and snuck a look at the chart. They were heading southeast. To France. To some beach. He couldn’t see them but he could feel the presence of the other ships around him. Like flocks of geese, he thought, giant flocks of ships all following someone up front, all heading for the same place.
“You better get some sleep Mike,” the Captain said. “We’ll probably call ‘all hands’ in a couple of hours.”
“Yes sir,” answered Michael. There would be no sleeping tonight. Not on the WINONA, not for the thousands of men within miles of the WINONA.
Sometime later, the general alarm rang and Michael sat up like a shot. He hadn’t slept, maybe he had dozed, he wasn’t sure. He dressed quickly, bumping into a couple of the other seamen in his haste. There was no talk just movement in the dark, confined space of their berthing area. Michael went to his station at the helm. The Naval Armed Guards were at their guns. The Captain still producing smoke from his pipe.
The sun came up early this time of year but there was no sunshine this day, June 6. It was gray and windy and the air was wet. Not the storm of the past few days but still wet and overcast. Michael looked around the horizon and all he saw were ships. In the night they had joined their convoy and, with ships from horizon to horizon they swarmed east towards a still unseen shore.
“Do you know where we’re headed Captain?” asked Michael.
“Not really Mike but from the looks of it, Normandy.”
Minutes later, the horizon off the bow seemed to erupt in fire. A second after there was a crash. The crashing and firing continued without stopping as the WINONA came closer to the French coast. The big guns on the cruisers and battleships had started their bombardment of the coast still miles away.
What must it be like on the receiving end, thought Michael. How the earth must be shaking. How could anyone live through it?
The WINONA wound its way forward, passing some ships, being overtaken by others. The second mate was doing his best to fix their position as they worked towards their anchoring spot in the great armada. Their position was near the front, near the beach, their cargo scheduled to off load late on the first day.
By then, the planners had said, the beach would be secured, the fighting would be inland. Most of the planners were back in England.
Michael was focused on the wheel and the compass when, no more than a hundred yards off, there was a thump and an explosion on the ship next to them. He turned his head in time to see a pillar of water come up from the middle of the ship. A small English coastal freighter.
“Jesus, she must have hit a mine,” said the second mate.
“Mind your helm Michael. Second Mate how far to our anchor position,” said the Captain.
The second mate looked down at his chart, “The best I can tell another half mile Captain.”
The Captain just nodded. How the hell are we supposed to know where we are in all this mess, he thought. The WINONA steamed slowly forward.
The firing of the big guns continued, the WINONA slowed and dropped her anchor in what they thought was their position two miles from the beach. Someone would eventually tell them if they were wrong. All hands stood by their stations.
A sleek hulled, low to the water destroyer flew by up their port side, too close any other day, but today wasn’t any other day. The destroyer was heading straight for the beach.
“She’s too close to shore, she’ll run aground,” said the second mate as they all stared over the railing on the bridge wing.
Michael watched, waiting for the ship to grind to a halt on the sand beneath her keel or hit one of the mines they all knew were floating unseen somewhere around them. At what seemed beyond the last minute the destroyer came hard around and ran parallel to the beach. It slowed and its guns roared to life, hitting the cliff that rose behind the long sandy beach.
The sound was enormous. There were rockets firing from ships on either side, planes overhead, the whine of 16-inch shells from the big ships behind them flew over the now anchored cargo ship. Their own small anti-air guns and the Naval Armed Guards were waiting for something to shoot at. Waiting in awe, in fear, in wonder.
The guns of the battleships stopped. The roar of the others continued. It was then Michael realized the shells were not all going in one direction. Michael instinctively ducked as a large column of water exploded not far from their bow. The Germans were shooting back. Artillery from somewhere inland was peppering the beach and the ocean. Everyone, everything was a target.
It was 0600 when Michael looked at his watch. As the big guns stopped swarms of landing craft pulled away from the transports. Like bees around a hive, the boats milled about, going this way and that. In time they seemed to straighten out. All heading in the same direction, all heading for the beach. Bouncing on the waves, their blunt bows sending up spray over the hunched soldiers within. Hundreds of boats, thousands of men heading to some invisible, pre-ordained portion of sand. Their little part of the Normandy coast, their part of the invasion of France. Each a small piece of a big, powerful machine.
Michael looked past the landing craft and back to the beach. The high cliff that had been peppered by the destroyer had awakened. A hundred points of light sprung up from the cliffside. For a second Michael wondered what they were. It didn’t take him long to realize the Germans were shooting back. Despite the tons of ordinance from the naval guns that had been fired at them, they were alive and fighting back trying to stop the tide of men and ships in front of them. Spouts of water began to pop up everywhere. Around the WINONA, around the landing craft.
Michael knew he should get down but he couldn’t, he had to see. The landing craft were slowly making their way towards the beach, water erupting around them. There, a near miss. There, a hit, men in the water, the landing craft broadside now to the beach and waves.
Michael heard the roar of a diesel and looked down from his perch on the bridge wing. A landing craft had come close aboard, maybe trying to use the WINONA for cover. The gray box of a vessel passed beneath him and Michael saw it was packed with men, their round green helmets looking like so many buttons as they swayed and pitched in the tight confines of the boat. He saw one man throw-up, the movement too much for him. Another looked up at him, dark eyes in a scared, confused, young face. The young soldier seemed to look directly at him, Michael looked down and saw the face with a clarity he didn’t understand. The moment passed as the landing craft moved off. Michael would remember that face, that look, in nightmares for years to come.
The landing craft moved passed the bow of the WINONA, spray erupting from its blunt bow. At 50 yards away it exploded, stopped, spun around sideways and seemed to break in half, its cargo of green uniforms spilling out into the cold waters off Normandy.
Helpless. Michael watched as the men in the water floundered. Some tearing at their heavy gear, others grabbing at the man next to them. Some tried to grab onto the remains of the landing craft.
The WINONA’s Captain yelled down to the deck, “Get lines over, get the cargo nets over.”
The Captain turned back to the men in the water, there were fewer of them now. He reached out his arm towards them as if he could grab them and pull them back in to safety. His arm dropped to his side, his shoulders slumped. Helpless.
The second mate yelled out, “Captain, the lifeboat, maybe we can help.”
The Captain looked up, he was a man in his sixties, tired and worn by years of stress.
When they got to the lifeboat, they saw that the Chief Mate had had the same idea. Michael and Johnson started to turn the lever that pushed the bow of the lifeboat over the side, the two mates turned the lever for the stern.
It all took time, lowering a boat takes time. Not long, just minutes. For the men in the water minutes were hours. For most, one minute was too long.
The WINONA’s crewmen pulled at the oars, moving snail like in the turbulent waters towards the sinking landing craft. Some men had made it to the cargo nets hung over the side of the ship. Some cried desperately for help. Others floated face down.
Michael and Johnson pulled in six. By the time they got to where the landing craft had been there were only six. The soldiers coughed and spit and vomited as they came aboard, too tired to do anything but fall across the seats.
The WININOA crew rowed around for a short while, the world around them an insane rumble of explosions near and far. After a while the Chief Mate pointed back to the ship and they rowed for the relative safety of the WINONA.
Back onboard Michael helped move the soldiers inside the house to the crew mess. There were sixteen soldiers, the six they had picked up and ten that had made it to the cargo net. How many had been in the landing craft? Fifty? Sixty? He looked for the face. The young soldier that had looked up at him. He couldn’t find him.
Michael went back to the bridge wing, he had to see, he had to watch the great event, the great battle unfolding around him. He was mesmerized by what he was seeing.
The shelling had continued while they had been in the lifeboat. Rockets and cannon fire from the ships shooting towards the shore, artillery and machine gun fire coming from the shore.
Even as landing craft were shelled or lay disabled on the beach, more kept coming. An endless line of boats and men to push just a little further up the beach. Past the flat sand to the base of the cliff and then, finally, up the cliff to the French countryside beyond. All day the crew of the WINONA watched as the number of black spots on the beach grew while the points of light, the machine guns, coming from shore became fewer and fewer.
The next day, the soldiers the WINONA’s crew had picked up were taken off by naval launch. The ship began to discharge its cargo late in the afternoon on day two. The water around the ship spotted with the floating detriment of war and the endless line of ships still reaching as far as the eye could see.