At the 40th Anniversary William Ryan met up with a party of British Normandy Veterans and was pleased to accept an invitation to join the Wirral & Chester Branch of the NVA. As a distinguished veteran of the American Armed Forces, Bill was a unique and valued member of the Association. Bill was very pleased to be included in the 65th Anniversary pilgrimage to Normandy which D-Day Revisited ran in conjunction with the NVA Wirral & Chester branch and returned with us again in 2010 and 2012.
“It’s marvellous to have Bill Ryan as a member of our branch, keeping strong that symbolic link between the American & British Allies. I know Bill treasures his membership with us and that he has made a lot of friends amongst our Normandy Veterans, just as we value his friendship. We always look forward to seeing him again our very own Private Ryan, although strictly speaking it’s Sergeant Ryan!”
– Yvonnes Innes, Secretary of the Chester and Wirral Branch of the NVA
This account was written by Bill Ryan in April 1994 in preparation for his return to Normandy after 50 years:
On 6th June 1944 I was assigned to Company 1 of the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division. In conjunction with eight other rifle companies, we constituted the initial assault force which landed on Omaha Beach. In the early hours of 6th June we proceeded to disembark from the transport into six 30ft LCAs, which were the landing craft allocated to our Company.
We had been on this transport for quite a few days because they had rescheduled the Invasion from 5th to 6th. As a result of the cramped quarters and the rough seas, most of the men were already seasick, or at the very least felt really nauseated. Once all our boats were loaded, we proceeded to form up ready for the twelve mile run into our assigned sector of Omaha Beach.
Once we departed from the lee side of the transport, we were like a cork in a bathtub. Everyone who was not already sick became sick I believe I was the only one in my boat who was not seasick. This was no doubt due to my service in the Merchant Marine before I enlisted in the Army.
On the way towards the beach we lost two boats which were simply swamped by the high waves. The coxswains of the four remaining boats became disoriented; this was mainly due to the disappearance of the patrol boat which was supposed to ensure we were on the correct course for our assigned area. The beach was covered in haze and smoke from earlier heavy bombardment, which made the identification of any landmarks completely impossible.
As we neared shore the strong current forced our boats off course, taking us about two miles to the west.
By the time we re-traced our proper course we saw that the two rifle companies which were supposed to land on our right flank at Easy Red’ had actually landed on our beach which was identified as Fox Green’. Their landing craft had the beach fouled, so we were unable to land. After circling around off the beach like sitting ducks, we finally made our run in. By this time the Germans had the beach under heavy fire.
Even before we hit the beach, our four boats suffered many casualties in those last few yards of approach. The command party craft struck a mine and was set aflame by concentrated machine gun fire. Two other boats received direct artillery hits or struck mines, it was impossible to tell. The fourth boat was hung up on one of the beach obstacles and it too was under heavy machine gun fire.
The situation was just about as bad as it could get and we were taking lots of casualties. When my boat was hit I was knocked unconscious. It was explained to me later that two men from my boat dragged me ashore and placed me up against the face of a small embankment at the foot of the hill. I remained at this location until that night when the wounded were evacuated to England. All day long on 6th June I had a front row seat, observing all the organized and disorganized action being played out not only on the beach, but also on the water. If only I’d had a tape recorder or a movie camera. It certainly was the longest day!
After all these years one particular incident has remained with me, I vividly remember a US Navy Destroyer coming as close to the beach as he could without running aground. He turned the ship broadside and commenced firing on the various bunkers, gun emplacements and trenches that had not been already destroyed by the Army Air Corps and the British Royal Navy during the pre-invasion bombardment. These enemy positions were keeping the troops pinned down on the beach and we were taking terrible casualties. This Destroyer was later joined by other ships. I firmly believe that the fire power of these small ships turned certain defeat on Omaha Beach into a victory.
I remember reading after the war that the Skipper of this first Destroyer was ordered back out to sea to a more protected position. He refused saying he was not going to leave his position as long as troops remained pinned down on the beach. This is just one of the many acts of heroism that took place during those first few hours on Omaha.
Investigations later revealed the germans were well prepared to heavily defend these beaches. A count found 8 concrete bunkers with guns of 75mm or larger caliber; 35 pillboxes with artillery pieces of various sizes and automatic weapons; 4 batteries of artillery; 18 antitank guns (37mm to 75mm); 6 mortar pits; approximately 40 rocket-launching sites; each with four 38mm rocket tubes and no fewer than 85 strategically placed machine gun nests.
The cease-fire order which was in place suspended supporting naval gunfire at H-hour (06:30) and left the assault troops of the 1st and 29th Division without naval support for approximately 2 hours. USS Carmick had been guarding the flanks acting as antisubmarine and anti-E-boat screen, before she broke the ceasefire and moved closer to give fire support to the soldiers who were pinned down on the beach.
A USS Carmick action report from that morning reads:
“Early in the morning a group of tanks were seen to be having difficulty making their way along the breakwater road toward Exit D-1 (the Vierville draw). A silent coorporation was established wherein they fired at a target on the bluff above them and we then fired several salvos at the same spot. They then shifted fire futher along the bluff and we used their bursts again as a point of aim.”
Soon after USS Carmick opened fire, the USS Frankford also arrived off the beachead. Concerned about increasing casualties on the beach, Frankford’s Commander Captain Sanders ordered all destroyers to close on the beach as far in as possible and support the assualt troops. First hand accounts agree that the situation on Omaha Beach was vastly improved by mid-morning thanks to this naval assistance.
After his head injury Bill was evacuated back to Blighty on the evening of 6th of June, but others were not so lucky. The horror Bill witnessed watching his fellow countrymen suffer on that foreign beach is unimaginable. Over 2000 American troops are known to have lost their lives on that first day on ‘Bloody Omaha’.
The topography and high cliffs alone meant taking this beach was always a formidable objective. Early allied air bombardments had failed to destroy all the coastal defences, so the German troops awaiting the invasion were greater in number than the Allies had believed. Under heavy fire the engineers could not clear the beach obstacles which made landing challenging. Weakened by the heavy casualties taken during the landing itself, the surviving assault troops could not clear the heavily defended exits off the beach. It was days before the original objectives for D-Day were achieved.
Sixty-five years later in the company of his British comrades who shared those events of June 1944, Bill Ryan once again stood on Omaha Beach. The strong allied bond remained. Bill took part in visits to Pegasus Bridge, Colleville-Montgomery and Hill 112 as well as joining in the parades at Bayeux and Arromanches with his friends from across the pond.
Ellwood von Siebold invited the D-Day Revisited group to attend ceremonies in the American Sector at Sainte-Mre-Eglise. The veterans visited the C47 Airborne Museum before marching to the C47 cafe, by which time Bill felt right at home!
Bill sadly passed away in March 2015 at home in Florida. He was full of life and had plenty of stories to tell in that unmistakable Boston accent! We’re honoured to have the opportunity to share his personal account of D-Day with you here.