Our Lady of Guadalupe Parishioner and USS Corry (DD-463) Survivor’s First-hand Account of D-Day
World War II – Until June 6, 1944, Adolf Hitler had conquered most of Europe, maintaining his tyrannical grip in his quest for world domination. The invasion of the European continent at Normandy was the largest naval invasion in history, with more than 5,000 vessels leaving southern England, headed for the coast of France.
The enemy-manned Saint-Marcouf, or Crisbecq, artillery battery, was the only heavy battery on the eastern coast of the Cotentin Peninsula. It was located 1.5 miles from the shore on a crest overlooking all of Utah Beach. From Crisbecq, the Germans could see and defend the coastline from Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue to Grandcamp. Pre-D-Day Intelligence reported six 155-millimeter (6-inch) guns in the battery, but those had been replaced by three long-range 210-millimeter guns. This was Corry’s first bad break of the day. The Allies dropped over 800 bombs on Crisbecq between April 19 and June 6, but the guns were still intact.
As H-Hour neared (0630), when troops would begin fighting their way onto the beaches, two Allied planes began generating smoke screens between the shore batteries and bombarding warships. The plane assigned to lay smoke for the Corry suddenly got shot down, leaving the Corry fully exposed to German gunners who fired at her in full fury. This was Corry’s second bad break of the day. With its four 5-inch guns, the Corry moved close and attempted to eliminate the Crisbecq battery, but Corry’s 5 inch projectiles were no match for Cresbecq’s 8.25 inch guns. A prime target at the front of the invasion force, the Corry drew sustained shelling for more than an hour while successfully evading major damage.
At just about H-Hour, the Corry suffered direct artillery hits in her engineering spaces amidships below the water level. With her rudder jammed the Corry went around in a circle before all steam was lost. Still under heavy fire, she began sinking rapidly with her keel broken and a foot-wide crack across her main deck amidships. One man climbed the stern, removed the flag, and scrambled to the main mast. There, he ran up the flag, which opened into the breeze. In the Corry’s destruction, there was no defeat. Today, the wreckage is an unseen monument to those who helped to win this great war. Thirteen of the Corry’s crew rest there as well, and the waters are forever sanctified by their sacrifice. The story of raising the flag on the sunken Corry is a testament to the courage and commitment of the Greatest Generation in their devoted service to our Nation and freedom.
After the order to abandon ship, crewmembers fought to survive in rough, bone-chilling 54-degree water for more than two hours as they awaited rescue while under constant enemy fire from German shore gunners. The ship’s flag remained above the surface of the shallow 30-foot deep water when the ship settled on the bottom. The blast, along with other casualties suffered in the water, such as shelling, drowning, and exposure, resulted in 24 crewmen giving their lives and 60 being wounded. For USS Corry survivors, the morning of June 6, 1944 was one harrowing experience they’d never forget.
My memory of D-Day and the time preceding is of a religious nature but is highly unusual and the honest truth.
I come from a very poor but religious Roman Catholic family and in preparation for my first holy communion I received instruction from a nun named Sister Celest. She said that whenever she was in dire need of help she prayed to our Blessed Mother, and her prayers were always answered. She told us that any time we found ourselves in a desperate situation, to pray to our Blessed Mother and she would come to our aid. That has stayed with me my entire life, particularly on D-Day.
Just prior to the invasion and while we were in Plymouth, a British priest came aboard to give confessions to the Roman Catholic boys, and I thought the reason for his presence was because we may be placed in a very precarious situation. Confessions were in a small compartment in the deckhouse and I purposely went last to give me time to compile the long list of sins I had so recklessly accrued. When my time finally came, the priest was sitting in the center of the compartment and I knelt beside him and said, “Bless me Father, for I have sinned,” and proceeded with this ridiculous dissertation I compiled, which I’m certain indicated to the priest I was not planning on making it through D-Day. When I finally finished he turned to me and said, “Son, I’ve been hearing confessions for many years, and yours is the finest I ever heard.” I think he was attempting to assure me that Paradise was a possibility and not to worry. Of course, I wasn’t impressed.
When the captain gave the order on D-Day to abandon ship, I helped launch our life raft into the water on the starboard side. After jumping into the water we found it just about impossible to move the raft any distance at all, because the waves kept pushing us back against the side of the ship, so we all decided to abandon the raft and swim as far from the Corry as possible. In the meantime, shells seemed to be bursting all around us, and no matter what direction I swam a shell would fall nearby.
When the tank bearing our smoke screen was hit, a pall of smoke rolled over us and I couldn’t breathe. After the air finally cleared, Wainwright was close by and he looked at me and said, “This is Hell.” On three separate occasions while attempting to swim away from the gunfire, shell bursts were so close I was hit by the spray, and the odor from each of the explosions was quite strong and frightening because you knew death was close by. One of the shells burst so close the spray struck me directly in the face, and the needle-like feeling was scary because I thought I had been hit with shrapnel. I ran my hand over my face and was happy to find I wasn’t hit. All the time that I swam I remembered Sister Celest’s suggestion and prayed to our Blessed Mother. Since I was quite thin the cold water was taking its toll, and I felt I couldn’t continue too much longer. After swimming for what seemed like an eternity I simply stopped because I was totally exhausted and freezing and thought to myself, “This is it, I’m gonna die.”
Suddenly I woke up with a warm blanket covering me entirely, including my face, and immediately felt I had no clothes on. There was soft music in the background and the sudden and miraculous change from complete misery to divine comfort indicated to me I had died and was now in Purgatory. I still had enough sense to know that heaven was out of the question. I then removed the blanket from over my face and was actually disappointed to find I was alive and lying on the deck in the wardroom of the USS Fitch, and most of the wounded from the Corry were lying there as well.
Chief Petty Officer Rovinski was sitting up beside me because he was so badly burned and apparently found it too painful to lie down. Pharmacist Mate Carino was dabbing his burns with cold wet compresses. Later, together with others from the wardroom, I was removed by stretcher and put aboard the Barnett. I was placed in the upper sack aboard the Barnett while Ensign Biddle was directly below me in the lower sack. After spending a couple of days in a hospital in England, I was diagnosed with having suffered from hypothermia and released to join the rest of the crew.
I later learned that I had been spotted by the guys on the damaged whaleboat, but they had no room aboard because they were carrying so many of the wounded. They thought I was probably dead because I was floating still in the water and the area around my mouth was covered with foam and I looked like a mad dog. However, Lt. Vanelli had them take me in tow and tie me to the gunwale, and keep my head above water in hope that I would still be alive when everyone was picked up. That eventually happened when the torpedo boat picked us up and they apparently worked on me until I was put aboard the Fitch. I was unconscious the entire time until I awoke in the wardroom.
The most amazing thing about my entire experience was the feeling of complete misery and despair and the sudden and miraculous transition to warmth and compete tranquility. I can only say that Sister Celest was right and I thank our Lord and Blessed Mother every day for what was done not only for me on D-Day, but every day of my life as well.
Seaman, 2nd class
USS Corry (DD-463)