The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

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June 6, 2014

Black humor broke tension

Hermitage man remembers being seasick, scared

- — Seasick and scared.

Fifty years after his Army heavy mortar battalion stormed Utah Beach, John Demchak vividly remembers how the landing craft pitched and rolled in the choppy English Channel off the coast of Normandy on D-Day.

“I was probably never more sick than I was that day after we got off the troop transport,” the 73-year-old Hermitage man said. “The channel just tossed those boats around like matchsticks.”

Few in the lightly armored craft were older than their 20s and many had been drafted just a year or two earlier. They tried to cut the tension with nervous attempts at black humor as they bobbed like corks and waited for the order to move in.

“We said the Germans would be doing us a favor if they hit us; that’s how seasick we were,” Demchak said.

Meanwhile, huge guns on the armada of Allied battleships pounded the entrenched Germans with artillery.

“The noise wasn’t all that great because the battleships were off in the distance,” Demchak said. “You would see the muzzle flash and then a second or so later you would hear the boom when the shells hit, but you couldn’t really see anything because they were firing pretty far inland.”

A few hours later, at about 9 a.m. June 6, the seasickness was over when the soldiers in the 87th Chemical Mortar Battalion followed the infantrymen who had gone ashore first.

“Once our feet hit the water, we were just worried about staying alive and getting dug in,” Demchak said. “We were really lucky because we caught them by surprise. The Germans were there, but they weren’t firing up to their potential.”

Naval bombardment deserved much of the credit. However, German military planners didn’t know where on the French coast an attack might come, so Utah Beach wasn’t as heavily defended as it might have been.

German machine gunners killed their share of Allied troops but many of the concrete pillboxes built on that stretch of Utah Beach turned out to be empty.

“I still say if we didn’t catch them by surprise we’d still be fighting to get them out because the cement was five- and six-feet thick,” Demchak said. “I’ve seen them hit with 155 mm shells that were seven or eight inches in diameter and they just bounced off.”

Mortar crew set up their artillery and began lobbing high explosive shells the size of feed sacks – about 35 pounds – at targets up to four miles away. Sometimes they used phosphorous shells to set a sheltering screen of smoke for advancing infantry units.

The assault force was supposed to move inland six miles the first day but it took nearly a week to get that far, Demchak said.

In the confusion of the first night, American P-47 fighters mistakenly strafed the stretch of beach with 50-caliber machine guns. By then, Demchak’s unit had dug foxholes and no one was hurt.

Some details of that day have begun to fade, but the retiree of General American Transportation Corp., Masury, said he has never stopped feeling lucky to count D-Day among the five battles he survived without being hurt.

“I distinctly remember Gen. Barton of the 4th Division saying during the briefing that it would be the biggest show of our life,” Demchak said. “He said we should have to pay to be in on it. That didn’t sound too funny to us at the time but now I see what he meant. I wouldn’t want to go through it again but it was really something.”

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