Middlebury veteran recalls WWII invasion of Normandy
MIDDLEBURY — World War II veteran Ron Hadley of Middlebury has condensed many of his military memories into a couple of photo albums and a small booklet in which he wrote some of the details of his travels throughout the Atlantic and the Pacific.
But those pictures and a few words committed to paper don’t do justice to a man who participated in some of the most critical military operations of the war, including the invasions of Normandy and Iwo Jima. Hadley, gregarious and vital with a steel vault of a memory uncommon for a man of 91 years, is helping to keep alive the history of the greatest generation, one vivid story at a time.
Hadley was raised in California and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942 while still a student at San Jose State University studying business administration. His enlistment allowed him to complete his college studies prior to shipping off, which he did in July of 1943, to Columbia University for a 90-day boot camp.
“Annapolis couldn’t handle all the officers they needed, so they set up Columbia University, Northwestern University and Notre Dame (to help with training),” Hadley said. “It was pretty tough training; we learned navigation, seamanship and a lot of book work and some physical training, too. If you didn’t make your grades, you became an apprentice seaman, and went to Great Lakes Naval Training Station.”
Fortunately, Hadley made the grade at Columbia, graduating with an officer’s commission (ensign) in November of 1943. He received orders to report to Little Creek, Va., where he dispensed — and received — training in the use and deployment of small boats.
“Small boats were 36-foot LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) or 50-foot LCMs (Landing Craft, Mechanized),” Hadley said. “These were the workhorses of the invasions.”
The LCVPs and LCMs are, of course, the iconic amphibious vehicles that transported troops from the ships at sea to ferociously defended coastal battlefields in Europe and the Pacific. Hadley was destined to help navigate troop-bearing LCMs to some of these hotbeds, including the seminal battlefields of Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima.
But first, he and his colleagues had to go through a lot more instruction at such locations as Fort Pierce, Fla., for advanced amphibious training. There, Hadley’s unit conducted some mock landings in anticipation of the liberation of Europe from Germany.
“We learned how to keep the boat square and get it on the beach,” Hadley recalled.
Next, Hadley was assigned to a ship — an attack transport, the Thurston AP77, which he boarded in New York City in March 1944. With around 1,800 personnel on board, the AP77 joined a convoy and churned through North Atlantic storms and dodged some German U-boats on its way to Bristol Channel in Great Britain, en route to Loch Long in Scotland.
“We ‘hid out’ waiting for the Normandy invasion,” Hadley said. “We got to see Scotland and enjoy the very fine people there.”
They conducted another mock landing near Portsmouth in England, then returned to Loch Long until the end of May 1944.
On the Sunday before the Normandy invasion, U.S. military leaders brought together the officers who were going to be involved in the actual landing and showed them maps and gave them details on how the deployment would occur.
“We went back to our ships, and no one was allowed off the ships until we left for the invasion,” Hadley said. “Just a couple of days before the invasion, we were bombed by German bombers.”
Fortunately, they didn’t take out a lot of the U.S. fleet. Though the AP77 did sustain some minor damage, it would not keep her from her role in the ensuing invasion. The troops were informed of the invasion only a matter of days before the cataclysmic event.
“We explained to our crews what was going on,” Hadley said. “The Sunday after that, we had the biggest turnout for church services that we ever had.”
He explained that the Normandy invasion was originally scheduled for June 5, 1944. But the weather was so bad, military commanders elected to delay if for one day. Hadley recalled that the waves were still very aggressive on the morning of the invasion, as the fleet gathered 10 miles off shore of Omaha Beach. The AP77 stopped at its position at around 2 a.m. and meticulously unloaded the combined total of 18 LCMs and LCVPs into the water. The soldiers and boat personnel descended debarkation ladders into the boats that were being tossed to and fro by the turbulent waves. The soldiers were carrying heavy gear and weapons, to the extent that one misstep could send them plunging into the water and potential death by drowning before firing a single shot at the enemy. Indeed, Hadley believes some of the boats swamped under the weight of the soldiers and gear they were forced to bear.
“You don’t hear much about it, but some of them didn’t make the beach,” Hadley said of some of the LCVPs.
The LCM could carry up to 50 soldiers, Hadley said. On this particular mission, Hadley’s boat carried 36, most of them combat engineers equipped with plastic explosives designed to take out any Nazi obstacles left on the beach.
The soldiers’ hearts were pounding and tensions rising as the boat churned in unison with others in what was the fifth wave of boats headed toward the shore, but the brave men thought they could take some solace in the notion that the German defenses had already been bombarded during the preceding hours. Tragically, that did not prove to be the case, Hadley noted.
“They had called all the officers who were going to be in the invasion into the wardroom and as an observer, we had a British Air Corps officer tell us we had nothing to worry about, since the Air Force was going to take care of things,” Hadley said. “He explained they were going to bomb the whole of northern France, starting roughly four hours before the actual invasion.”
The officer further told the group that massive bombing would occur in the actual invasion landing point, according to Hadley.
“But they didn’t bomb the beaches,” Hadley said. His subsequent research indicated that the Air Force instead bombed “a bunch of gardens and cows within about three miles of the beach. It didn’t help any on Omaha Beach.”
Hadley — at this point pressed into service as a wave commander — could see the challenge the soldiers would be facing as they got within sight distance of the beach. First, most of the Nazi-placed mines and other obstacles hadn’t been removed — and U.S. forces knew where they were because of intelligence that had been funneled to them by the French Resistance.
OMAHA BEACH LANDING
As they got closer, the LCM reverberated with the sounds of explosions and gunfire. German forces were firing from stone cottages and emplacements along the beach, which had been a resort area.
“We looked for a place where we could get in between obstacles, because we knew some of these obstacles were mined,” Hadley said. “We got in as far as we could, dropped the ramp, and… ”
Hadley pauses briefly at this point for the first time during the interview, to maintain his composure as a searing, 68-year-old memory resurfaces to jab at his heart.
“Just as the ramp dropped, they started a crossfire of machine gun fire right across the bow of our boat — and this is the part that is always tough to live with — I have every belief that all 36 guys were killed immediately,” Hadley said.
The four boat personnel, including Hadley, were protected behind steel compartments and survived the deadly volley as they raised the ramp and headed back toward the U.S. fleet. There, Hadley and his crew loaded more soldiers for what would be the 27th wave. This trip went a lot better.
“There was no problem at that point,” though Hadley soberly noted they were careful to drop the LCM ramp in a spot that would not strike the numerous bodies of dead soldiers that were rolling in and out with the waves.
The rest is history; and a lot of it. And Hadley played a great role as future events of World War II unfolded in both the European and Pacific theaters. Hadley participated in military operations in southern France, North Africa, the Philippines and the invasion of Iwo Jima — and that’s another story.
Hadley exited active U.S. Navy duty as a full lieutenant on June 6, 1946 — exactly two years after the Normandy Invasion. He returned to civilian life, enjoying a 38-year career with Pacific Bell Telephone Co. and AT&T. He and his wife of 68 years, Dell, moved to Vermont during the late 1980s, living in Lincoln for many years before moving to Middlebury in 2006. They have five daughters, 10 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
He is happy to share the stories of his military service, knowing that the passage of time continues to thin the ranks of those who fought in World War II.
“There aren’t too many of us left,” he lamented.
Click here to read our Salute to Veterans.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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