On Saturday a week ago, the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings, Greensboro veteran John Cocklereece hosted a luncheon for any Greensboro residents who had been on the Normandy invasion beaches on June 6, 1944.
Cocklereece is a personal friend, and I asked if I could attend so the event could be recorded. He agreed, and I was delighted to see some old and very brave friends.
Cocklereece had hosted a similar lunch 11 years ago with 22 local veterans attending. Four of the 22 are no longer with us.
The D-Day landings were really an invasion of a hostile territory, one of the most difficult projections of power in any military operation.
The invasion of the European continent was a hinge-of-history event and no means a guaranteed success; it was defended by the most powerful military machine ever produced.
That it succeeded was due to meticulous planning, a great deal of luck and the personal bravery and determination of men like these:
• Bob Benbow, U.S. Navy, served aboard Landing Ship Tank No. 1.
Normandy was not his first invasion beach. Benbow had been at Anzio, and he said Anzio was the toughest landing area he had ever experienced. He said that there were times at Anzio when “I did not think I would live to be 21.”
Normandy was bad enough, and Benbow landed troops and supplies on D-Day and carried the wounded back to medical care in England.
He made 35 round trips to and from the Normandy beaches. His lasting impressions included the debris all over the beaches and the huge number of casualties.
• Bob Brisley, U.S. Navy, was part of amphibious forces of USN, where he served as engineering officer on both LST 49 and on an LCT, a smaller version of the hugely versatile LST. When his LST was ordered to Europe, the ship carried 500 soldiers to England. Before the invasion, they practiced the landings they knew were coming. On D-Day, with a new skipper, they were in the first wave with the 4th Division on Utah Beach. Records show that they were the first LST to hit the Normandy beaches. There were nine other round trips to and from Normandy, and then they were ordered to the Mediterranean. At the luncheon, he said, “I think I am lucky to be alive and lucky to be here.”
• John Cocklereece, U.S. Army, originally tried to enlist in the Navy but was turned down because of color blindness. He also tried to enlist in the paratroopers but was turned down because you had to weigh at least 165 pounds to join that elite outfit; he weighed 137.
He was assigned to Graves Registration unit, which he served throughout the war. On D-Day, he landed with the First Infantry at Omaha Beach and remembers the “huge amount of rifle fire that first day.”
By the second day, the division had pushed about a mile inland, and he began to do the job he had been assigned. By the end of the European war, the First Division had fought its way across 1,300 miles of Europe.
• Doug “Curly” Dickerson, U.S. Army, was in an elite unit of the 82nd Airborne Division.
Only a few men were in this unit, and their assignment was to drop into enemy territory several hours before the rest of the division would drop in. During those few hours, they destroyed whatever was considered most dangerous to the upcoming operation: communication capability, aircraft interdiction, artillery batteries or general hell-raising.
Dickerson’s unit dropped into the St. Mere Eglise area about 10 p.m. the night before the invasion with orders to blow up the communications center that controlled all German radio traffic in northwestern Europe. The unit was there when the rest of the 82nd Airborne dropped into the area. They helped secure the area, awaiting the arrival of the troops who landed from the sea at dawn on D-Day.
• Paul “Doc” Holliday, U.S. Army, landed at dawn on June 6, 1944, with the first wave at Utah Beach. His job was driver for the 4th Division commander, Gen. Theodore Roosevelt, and when the division landed a mile or so from its designated landing site, the general simply said, “Well, I guess we’ll start the invasion from here.”
By the second night, they had reached St. Mere Eglise and hooked up with Dickerson and the 82nd Airborne. The division fought its way across Europe and into Germany. Its worst battles were the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Heurtgen Forest. In both, the division sustained severe casualties.
• Joe Stafford. U.S. Navy, joined the Navy with Bob Benbow. He also served on LSTs and during the Normandy invasion served on five LSTs. Most of his landings were at Omaha Beach. He also was part of the invasion of Sicily.
• Joe Westbrook joined the Army Air Force, went to bombardier school and became a bombardier instructor. He was then ordered to England to fly with the 8th Air Force. He joined a crew that flew the B-24 heavy bomber into Germany.
On D-Day, “We flew over the invasion beaches, but cloud cover interfered with precision bombing, so we were not really sure what we hit,” Westbrook said. “We were shot up occasionally, but we did complete 30 missions, and they sent us back to the States.”
Cocklereece also invited these veterans of the D-Day invasion, who were unable to attend: Earle Colin, George Holmes, Frank Pequigney, John Presteska, John Zuydwedt and Ernest Miller.
Correction: Leon F. Bernard, Army Air Force, departed New York aboard the Queen Elizabeth May 30, 1944. The date was incorrect in last week’s Veterans column.
Next column: More reports on where veterans were on D-Day.