Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a two-part story of two local heroes who were part of the D-Day operation to liberate France in World War II, some 75 years ago. It is printed here courtesy of the author, local historian J. R. Vanhoose.
The noise of the naval shells that arched overhead as the men of Company E, 16th United States Infantry bobbed up and down in the rough English Channel was deafening. The soldiers were seasick, nervous, scared and unsure of what they were about to encounter. Aboard hundreds of Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVPs) – American, British, Canadian and other Allied soldiers were beginning their mission to liberate Europe. Today, June 6, 1944, a fleet of LCVPs carried thousands of troops toward their objective, designated beaches along the Normandy coastline of France. Among the men in the first wave of landing troops were two men from Johnson County, Pfc Curtiss Burchett and Pfc Onda Murphy.
Both men had been inducted into the United States Army on October 20, 1942 in Huntington, WV after the latest draft call had taken them into service. Taking different paths after boot camp, the two men had been sent overseas as replacement soldiers in the summer of 1943, first to North Africa and later to Sicily. There, in the Mediterranean, both men were assigned to the same unit – Company E, 2nd Battalion, 16th United States Infantry, part of the 1st Infantry Division. Assigned to their company at the end of the Sicilian Campaign, the two boys were still “green,” having not yet experienced combat.
Being assigned to the 1st Infantry Division, “The Big Red One,” was seen as a huge honor. The “Fighting First” had been in existence since World War I and had seen extensive combat in North Africa and Sicily in 1942 and 1943. After months of heavy fighting, the men of the unit were exhausted and ready to go home. The veteran soldiers believed that their days on the front lines were over. Unfortunately, they were being called upon to lead the invasion of Europe, at a time and place to be revealed to them later. Omar Bradley, who commanded the 1st United States Army in the D-Day Invasion, later spoke of why he selected the 1st Infantry Division to lead the attack, “Rather than chance a landing with two inexperienced divisions, I looked around for a veteran division to include in the line-up... There was only one experienced assault division. Once more the Big Red One was to carry the heavy end of our stick.” The division would be led into Europe by a man who would soon come to be known simply as “The Coach” – Major General Clarence Huebner, a veteran of thirty-four years of experience, including service in World War I, where he was awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses and a Silver Star Medal.
On October 23, 1943, the men of the 1st Infantry Division loaded aboard ships at two Sicilian harbors and prepared for their trip to England. Many of the soldiers were simply unhappy with another combat assignment. They had just experienced months of tough, heavy fighting, “bad living conditions,” as well as “malaria and jaundice.” It was also reported that many of the men in the 1st Infantry Division were also suffering from malnutrition. Lieutenant Colonel William B. Gara, who was the commanding officer of the 1st Engineer Combat Battalion, remembered the grumbling among the men in the ranks of the Big Red One, “When we got through with the Sicilian Campaign, the men said, ‘we’re ready to go home now - we’ve done our share - get somebody else to do it.’ But they took us back to England and started prepping us for the Normandy invasion.” The soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division had been selected for an honorable but deadly task.
After a voyage of ten days and nearly 4,000 miles, the convoy carrying the 1st Infantry Division arrived in Liverpool, England on November 5, 1943. It was a drastic change from the warm, sunny Mediterranean coast to the “cold, gray” landscape of England. According to a later history of the division, “Rather than concentrate the entire division in one location, the units of the 1st were billeted in different towns and villages around Dorset County, in southern England – Weymouth, Lyme Regis, Bridport, Swanage, Maiden Newton, Warden Hill, Puddleton and others...” It was in these villages that the veterans could unwind after seeing action in North Africa and Sicily. “There were football and softball games, movies, real beds, real food... and USO shows...” The division also continued to replenish its casualties with “a flood of replacements.”
The men also had plenty of free time in England, some – including the two boys from Johnson County – took the time to write loved ones back in the United States. Curtiss Burchett told his sister how nice the weather was in England, “Today sure is a spring day. I have been talking all day about it being a good time to plow and how I’d love to…” Onda Murphy told his aunt how much he enjoyed the landscape, “This is the most beautiful place you ever saw. I wish you and Mom were over here to see all the fields I have seen. It sure is beautiful....” He even mentioned that he was with someone he knew, “There is one boy from Paintsville with me [Curtiss Burchett].”
The free time also allowed the soldiers to take leave on passes to the local villages or even London. Curtiss Burchett met a local family in Bridport that treated him very well. The mother of this family, Mrs. Alice Bowers, later wrote to Curtiss’ sister in Ohio:
“I don’t know why Curtis gave us his home address but he just did, so I thought it would be nice to write to your mother. It seemed to me I knew her. He was always talking about home, family and his girl friend, and when he would get back, or else he was singing. He was so cheerful and good natured. A real good boy. Nearly all through the war, from time to time, my sister and a friend and I used to get up a party for a few of the boys, one friend had a hut and we invited perhaps a dozen boys and girls and played games and etc. and had refreshments. It made a nice evening and kept the young people from the streets. I felt terribly sorry for the boys standing about in the street with nothing to do. Then one day I asked Curtis to supper and from then on he came and went as he pleased...”
Everyone though, regardless of their position as a grizzled veteran or a newly arrived replacement, was put through a grueling training regimen. Major General Huebner recalled the preparation, “The period in England can be compared to that of the normal training of a division in the States. The development of the skills and techniques of our weapons, the training of specialists and the molding of our battle teams were the primary requirements. To assist in these aims, we had the services of many combat-wise and experienced leaders who could impart to our new replacements the know-how of battle…” Assault teams were organized. The soldiers were given training in the use of flamethrowers, Bangalore torpedoes, bazookas, automatic rifles, light machine guns and mortars. Veterans of North Africa and Sicily were helping train the replacements and prepare them for what was to come. The men were becoming a well-trained assault force. In February 1944, with the basics having been mastered, the soldiers began practicing intense amphibious landing maneuvers on the beaches at Slapton Sands “where live ammunition was used to lend reality to the landings…”
In late April 1944, after an extensive period of training, the troops to be used in invasion were moved to new quarters along the southern coast of England. These areas were placed “off-limits to all but essential visitors.” The troops were restricted to their new camps, there would be no more passes to London or the surrounding towns and outgoing mail was cut off. It was almost as if the troops were prisoners instead of a liberating force. Here the men learned of their destination – they would be landing along the coast of France at Normandy.
Captain Fred Hall, the Operations Officer of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry recalled, “We moved into our marshaling areas where we were quarantined until the invasion. We were in a stand of trees surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. Security was tight. We were housed in tents, with foxholes nearby… We now broke out our unit invasion orders, maps and photographs and briefed our battalion officers and non-coms with the help of a sand table. Soon other members of the battalion were briefed.” The 16th and 116th Infantry Regiments from the Big Red One, would each be landing two companies, totaling close to 750 men, in the first wave to land at Omaha Beach, the name assigned to a particular area of the Normandy coast. Company E, including Curtiss Burchett and Onda Murphy, along with Company F, were selected from the 16th Infantry to be in this dangerous first assault wave. The men of the four companies would be transported to the beach in twenty-four landing craft. According to the invasion timetable, twelve Navy LCVPs from the transport USS Henrico would land the two companies (E and F) from the 16th Infantry on Omaha Beach at 6:31am, near the village of St. Laurent, in an area code named “Easy Red.” The two companies forming this spearhead had a straightforward mission, to brush aside any pockets of enemy resistance that had survived the scheduled pre-invasion naval and air bombardment and to lead the way off the beach for follow-on waves of troops.
Training continued in their new camps, the men studied the sand tables and photographs of the landing beaches, learning and memorizing where their objectives were located and what was expected of them. Two formidable enemy strong points sited on high ground overlooking the landing beach, along with minefields, barbed wire, and a long water-filled moat would make any direct attack against these strong points exceptionally difficult. However, according to intelligence reports, the Germans had only about 800 to 1,000 troops to man the defenses in the Omaha Beach sector. With a planned bombardment prior to the landings, it was hoped that the German forces would be to disorganized to put up much of defense.
With preparations finally complete, it was time to carry out the invasion. On the evening of June 3, 1944, Curtiss Burchett, Onda Murphy and the rest of the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry began boarding the ship that would carry them across the English Channel, the transport USS Henrico. Captain Fred Hall recalled, “The morning of June fourth dawned misty and cool with heavy rain all day. There wasn’t much to do aboard ship once everyone was accounted for... There was tenseness and expectation in the air. We had been trained for our mission and we were ready to go...” Unfortunately, because of the heavy wind and rain on June 4, the invasion, originally scheduled for June 5, was postponed a day. The men would have to remain in the cramped conditions on the transport for an additional day, waiting for the weather to clear.
The next day, the Allied commanders agreed that the weather had cleared enough to go and thousands of Allied ships left their English ports, sailing toward the French coast. Early in the morning of June 6, after a very restless night, the men began to prepare for the invasion. The crew of the Henrico served the soldiers a breakfast “consisting of bologna and luncheon meat sandwiches and coffee.” Four transport ships carrying the men of the Big Red One met at a rendezvous point and began unloading the infantrymen into the LCVPs that would carry them the rest of the way. Curtiss Burchett, Onda Murphy and the other men of Company E, were some of the first to climb down into the LCVPs. They, along with the soldiers of Company F were scheduled to hit the beach just one minute after the “swimming Sherman” tanks from Company A, 741st Tank Battalion reached the shore.
After loading into the smaller LCVPs, the landing craft began circling the large battleships, cruisers and destroyers that had already began bombarding the Normandy coast. The men felt comfortable that the navy ships were causing such devestation on the beaches that there would not be much fighting for them to do. An officer in one of the many LCVPs recalled, “Suddenly, a deafening, thunderous roar sounded behind us, then over us, then ahead of us. Nevada led the ships out at sea in a saturating, long-range bombing of the beach defenses... Violent explosions and colossal blazes changed the scene and bursts of smoke, dust and scurrying sand curtained our view.” The men headed for the beaches were encouraged by the amount of destruction the naval bombardment appeared to be causing on the Germans. Al Littke of the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion was in awe as the shells arched toward the beaches, “With all this firepower, it should be a cinch,” he remembered saying to a nearby soldier.