Remembering D-Day, 70 years later
On Jan. 12, 1944, U.S. Navy Lt. JG Jack Hughes, a doctor, received orders to report to an amphibious base in Maryland. A dozen days later, he was at a Navy base on Long Island, New York, with 120 other doctors plus 2,400 hospital corpsmen, the Naval equivalent to medics. There were enough men for 100 LSTs, or landing ship, tanks. Hughes was 24 years old, and only out of medical school for about a year. He soon would be part of the largest military operation of World War II, the Allied invasion of Normandy, France, against the Germans. Friday is the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Hughes is 94 now, and has lived in Durham since 1950. He grew up in Tabor City and went to UNC-Chapel Hill for undergrad – Class of 1939 – then on to the University of Pennsylvania for med school. He spent his medical career in Durham as a urologist. But in early 1944, the young doctor had another task. On April 7, 1944, he went to Nova Scotia to wait for a convoy to build up. The convoy left April 17 and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Wales, arriving May 1.
“Everybody knew that there was going to be an invasion eventually. We knew that’s why we were going,” Hughes said. He was issued clothing appropriate for the Arctic Circle. “We weren’t told where we were going.”
It took two weeks to get to Europe in the 55-ship convoy. They lost one ship that had engine trouble, dropped out of the convoy and was torpedoed. Once in Wales, they were sent to Scotland erroneously, then on to Cornwall, England. And they waited.
On May 13, Hughes boarded LST 497. For the next two weeks, they did practice loading and unloading, and going up and down the coast. They practiced rigging devices to pick up casualties off small boats, which became very useful later on, Hughes said.
“We didn’t know exactly what it would be, but we knew it was getting ready,” he said. There were bombings, and one bomb hit a nearby tanker one night.
“By the fourth of June, we were loaded with big guns, and the Army 29th Division hospital unit came aboard. Then on the afternoon of June the fourth, they sealed the ship,” he said. The captain took officers into the ward room, Hughes said, and showed them the detailed plans for the invasion – Operation Overlord. The file was about 6 inches thick, Hughes said, and they spent hours going over what to do and what the beaches would be like. They were told they would go in at 8 a.m. June 5, the next day. Before midnight, they pulled out, but got the call it was postponed and went back in.
“On the night of the fifth, we took off and didn’t come back,” Hughes said. Arriving two hours after the first wave of the invasion, they expected to take on casualties by the time they got to the beach, he said. They were prepared for gunshot and high-explosive wounds.
“On Omaha Beach, none of our LSTs got ashore that day,” he said. “There was trouble on our beach, Omaha, from the very beginning. They told us we would have no problem on the beach – casualties but not mass casualties. As I got closer into the beach, I said, ‘This ain’t what it’s supposed to be.’ There were no vehicles, no tanks on the beach. They’d all sunk. I saw one truck; it was burning. It wasn’t supposed to be happening. You could see the gunfire.”
Standing on the bow without binoculars, Hughes couldn’t see the men running up on the beach. He did see the LST in front of them take a direct hit. Hughes ran to his battle station. The Navy and Army Air Corps had not been able to knock out the German “pill boxes” as expected. The reinforced concrete bunkers withstood bombings and gunfire from Destroyers. Eventually troops took out the bunkers with flamethrowers, he said. Inside those pill boxes, Hughes said, were drawings of the beach and diagrams showing where to aim guns at the Allies.
“It was like shooting fish in a barrel to them,” Hughes said.
At nightfall, LST 497 moved closer to take on casualties. There were 100 wounded troops on an empty LSM (landing ship, mechanized), but not on stretchers. A colonel was laid on a house door. All but 20 were walking wounded, Hughes said.
On the LST a few hundred yards out in the water, seas were rough, and as corpsmen crawled down to get the wounded, they got sea sick and started vomiting. More corpsmen went down sea nets to load the wounded, but they got sea sick, too. So then Hughes went down, and the same thing happened to him.
“But we got them on,” he said. Hughes said he has never been as sea sick as that night. “But there’s enough adrenaline working to keep you going in situations like that.”
He doesn’t remember the first casualty he loaded. “It was dark, almost pitch dark. It was more feels than looks.”
As a stretcher basket with a wounded man was lowered down, it would bounce up with the waves.
“I was so sick. After the last one up, I crawled up topside,” he said, and on to his bunk.
Later, after casualties were moved to a hospital ship, they took on more walking wounded on D-Day+2, then headed for a Navy hospital in England.
Hughes stayed with the ship as they made dry runs across the channel and unloaded supplies. By December, he received orders to return to the U.S., then on to Parris Island, South Carolina, where he was transferred to the Marines in anticipation of going to the Pacific theater of the war. Hughes stayed at Parris Island through the end of the war until he was discharged in September 1946.
About 20 years ago, Hughes received a call from a corpsman he knew from the LST, and they met up for lunch.
“We all went our ways,” he said. Hughes had two brothers who also served and survived WWII. He has six children and nine grandchildren. Hughes retired from medicine in 1988 and spent another decade working in insurance part time. He keeps busy. He shared his D-Day experience before, to a Rotary Club on the 50th anniversary of the invasion, now 20 years ago.
“Has it been that long?” Hughes asked.
On Twitter: @dawnbvaughan