View Full Version : D-Day: A memory forever etched

12-28-07, 07:44 AM
Article published Dec 28, 2007
D-Day: A memory forever etched

By Bruce Edwards Herald Staff

Editor's note: The Rutland Herald is proud to recognize our war veterans with an ongoing series on World War II vets and their families.

For more than 60 years, the memories of that day have haunted Jack Hennessey.

"I've been going to a shrink ever since World War II," said Hennessey, a Navy combat veteran.

Last summer, the 81-year-old Rutland man decided to confront his nightmares head on and return to the scene of the largest amphibious invasion in history: D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Shortly before 6 a.m., on that morning, the 17-year-old Hennessey was at the helm of a landing craft packed with American troops headed for a section of the Normandy coastline code-named Omaha Beach - one of five invasion beachheads.

The beachhead became a shooting gallery, later nicknamed Bloody Omaha, as the Germans perched atop the bluffs laid down a sheet of withering gunfire. Many aboard the landing craft - known as Higgins boats - were cut down before they ever reached the beachhead.

One soldier aboard Hennessey's landing craft hailed from a town in New York not far from the Vermont border.

"I had one guy from North Hebron, which is outside of Granville, that I took in my boat into Normandy and he got killed there," Hennessey said, his voice trailing off. "I went to see his dad when I was home on leave."

Sitting at the kitchen table with his wife, Pat, in their Lincoln Avenue home, Hennessey said he had no idea what to expect going into combat for the first time.

"To be honest with you, I was so damn scared, I don't know what it was like," he said, recalling the devastation of that morning when so many lost their lives. "You were scared out of your wits."

He spent D-Day and the day after ferrying troops and supplies to the landing area. The return trips to his ship, LST 501, remain etched in his memory. Each landing craft brought back the dead and wounded.

"You could do what you had to do," he said, reflecting on the grim task.

Born in Delanson, N.Y., just outside Schenectady, Hennessey grew up in Poultney. At 16, an altercation with his high school principal landed him in hot water. He was given a choice: Join the service or spend time at the state reform school in Vergennes.

He chose the Navy.

Enlisting in the service at 16 forced the teenager to grow up quickly.

"I was robbed of all of my youth," said Hennessey, whose once thick mane of black hair has turned silver. "I don't think I spent much time being a kid."

From basic training in Samson, N.Y., Hennessey attended landing craft training in Maryland. From there, he reported to Indiana where he was assigned to LST 501. The ship then made its way down the Mississippi to New Orleans and from there, in the spring of 1944, to England to await the invasion.

Bad weather in the English Channel had postponed the invasion, but on the night of June 5, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, gave the go ahead to launch the attack on Nazi-occupied Europe.

On that night, Hennessey's ship, loaded with troops and supplies, weighed anchor at 11:30 p.m., bound for France. The slow-moving trip across the channel was marked by continued bad weather.

"It was an awful ride," Hennessey said.

Positioned off the French coast that morning, he said another nearby troop-carrying ship was blown out of the water by German shell fire.

When asked to recall the worst scene he witnessed that day, Hennessey didn't hesitate. He recalled seeing the body of an Italian woman, who apparently had been living with the Germans. "They had her on the deck of the ship," he said. "She was a mess. I guess she looked like she might have been a pretty girl once in another life."

Normandy wasn't Hennessey's last combat experience. In August of that year, LST 501 took part in the invasion of southern France. The following year, Hennessey found himself in the Pacific Theater taking part in the invasion on Okinawa.

For the Marines who landed on Okinawa, he said the dug-in Japanese soldiers proved a tenacious foe. "The hard part of Okinawa was those damn Japanese didn't care whether they died or not."

But for Hennessey, Normandy remains the most painful and vivid memory in the three-and-a-half years he spent in the service. The memories, he said, caused disturbing dreams. So at the urging of his daughter, Mary, Hennessey returned to Normandy last summer in hopes of exorcising the memories. His good friend, George "Mich" Braves, who also drove a Higgins boat that day, was haunted by those same memories until his death last year, Hennessey said.

The bad dreams continue to surface, but Hennessey said not as frequently as before his return visit to Normandy and the American cemetery with its 9,387 crosses and Stars of David that overlook Omaha Beach.

Normandy during the summer of 2007 was a far different place than the Normandy of 63 years earlier. Spread out on Hennessey's kitchen table are color photos from his trip: homes that have long ago replaced German bunkers that looked down on the beach and where beachgoers now run up and down the sandy shore where Allied soldiers once dodged lethal beach obstacles and machinegun fire.

"The beach was beautiful," said Hennessey, who spent much of his adult life in the car business. "I didn't think that's where we were ... at Omaha beach."

Contact Bruce Edwards at bruce.edwards@rutlandherald.com.