Seventy years ago today 160,000 allied troops put their lives on the line in defense of freedom. Collectively they have been recognized for decades as The Greatest Generation. Today we bring you the stories of four servicemembers who would accept “nothing less than full victory.”
Coast Guard veteran Frank DeVita – USS Samuel Chase
In August 1943, an 18-years-old Frank DeVita enlisted at the Joint Service Induction Station in New York City. He had dropped out of his high school leaving behind Brooklyn for his first assignment: USS Samuel Chase, a Coast Guard-manned U.S. Navy attack transport.
70 years later, DeVita traveled with four generations of his family to recall memories, still vivid, of the invasion.
“We had 30 men on the boat. Three men made it to the beach. They were all wounded and some were dead,” said DeVita in an interview this week as he stood on Omaha Beach.
DeVita was a gunner’s mate third class aboard the Samuel Chase, manning 20mm anti-aircraft guns. During both the Normandy and Provence campaigns of the Liberation of France, he crewed a Higgins Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel, on repetitive landings, carrying the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division to Omaha’s Easy-Red beach in June 1944, and then the 3rd Infantry Division to the southernmost beaches of the St. Tropez peninsula in August 1944.
“My family thinks I’m a hero. I’m not a hero,” said DeVita in the interview. “When you go up to the cemetery above Omaha, those are the heroes. Those are my heroes.”
Coast Guard veteran John Gatton Jr. – LCI 96, Flotilla Ten
There were close to 100 warships and large landing vessels manned by Coast Guardsmen for Operation Neptune and the Coast Guard lost more vessels that day than on any single day during its history.
Of the many landing crafts that approached the beach on D-Day was LCI 96. John Gatton Jr. was a chief quartermaster aboard the landing craft, assigned there from the date of its commissioning, Feb. 15, 1943. Gatton remembers the ever-present dangers and complexities of the operation that each crew faced.
“The 96 carried men from the 4th Infantry Division and was scheduled to go to Utah Beach, but, while in the English Channel, on the 6th of June, we were ordered to go to Omaha Beach,” recalled Gatton in a 2010 interview. “We were armed with four 20 mm guns and during actual landings, two men floated an anchor, attached to a life line into the beach for the troops. Flotilla Ten lost four units at Omaha Beach.”
After departing Operation Neptune, LCI(L)-90 was involved in other key naval battles and in June of 1945, which engaged in a smoke screen, was hit by a Japanese suicide plane and was forced to depart for repairs. On April 8, 1946, the landing craft was decommissioned after valiant service to the nation.
LCI(L)-90 earned five battle stars for service in World War II and all of the landing craft infantry of Flotilla 10 were retroactively awarded the Coast Guard Unit Commendation for their service in the invasion of Normandy.
Navy veteran John Cummer – LCI 502.
Born in Tennessee on Oct. 12, 1924, John Cummer was a U.S. Navy gunner’s mate aboard LCI 502. Cummer attended today’s commemoration at American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach and tried to sit with his close friend, Coast Guard veteran Gatton. He was told there wasn’t a sit for him next to Gatton and was moved to another seat – right next to President Barack Obama.
Cummer sat center stage at today’s ceremony and was at the center of D-Day’s invasions.
“As the sun rose that morning, we could make out the vast armada around us, and the almost-total canopy of allied aircraft overhead with the distinctive D-Day markings of black and white stripes painted on wings and fuselage,” wrote Cummer in a journal after the invasion. “Someone, later describing this scene, said that it looked like you could walk across the English Channel on the wings of the aircraft.
Cummer made multiple trips between England and Normandy, France, and during the D-Day invasions landed British troops on Gold Beach.
“My battle station was at the number one gun atop the focs’l, thus placing me in the farthest point forward aboard our ship, a genuine ring-side seat, but one which had the drawback of being an excellent and highly visible target,” wrote Cummer. “With our gun cocked and loaded we talked, watched and waited, speculating as to what was going on ashore, when we would head in, and how much opposition we would face.”
Coast Guard veteran Jack Hamlin – Rescue Flotilla One
The Coast Guard was involved in combat operations; ship and small boat handling; loading and discharging cargo at sea and ashore; directing vessel traffic; and search and rescue operations – in most cases under enemy fire. The rescue operations were led by the 60 83-foot patrol boats that formed Rescue Flotilla One.
Jack Hamlin served in Rescue Flotilla One and was part of the effort that saved more than 400 men on D-Day alone. Crews worked through the night to rescue the troops who were injured ashore and at sea.
“The current was going 15 to 20 mph coming out of the North Sea. That channel had a terrible current and you’d go to reach for a soldier and tried to save him and they’d wash away from you,” said Hamlin in an interview earlier this week.
“We did get a hold of some of them,” added Hamlin. “But they’d either have an arm gone or half their face blown off. It was the sickest thing you ever wanted to see. Pulling them out of the water was the worst thing in the world.”
Hamlin and his fellow rescuers braved 48-degree water, jumping in to haul out soldiers and airmen. By the time Rescue Flotilla One was decommissioned in December 1944 they had saved 1,438 souls.