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Portland-area WWII veterans recall the largest invasion in military history

PMG PHOTOS: JONATHAN HOUSE - Abe Laurenzo, Ben Asquith, and Jerry Nudleman talk about their WWII experiences during the Celebration of Heroes event.Two local men in their 90s, who weren't yet in their 20s when they played a role in the most massive military assault from the sea the world has ever seen, shared some war stories 75 years to the day after the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

"I can't remember how our day went. I didn't think about anything. I just remember the firepower — especially the overhead firepower — and the machine gun chatter that vibrated on the water. The most vivid thing in my mind about the invasion was the noise. It was war," recalled Ben Asquith of Dayton, then a 19-year-old U.S. Navy Chief Mechanic on a 50-foot landing craft that transported hundreds of soldiers from warships to Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.

"What got us through? God preserved us. But as far as I'm concerned, I think I was too dumb to appreciate the danger. I didn't tremble or shiver about it. I just went through it and here I am," said Abe Laurenzo of Vancouver, Washington, a U.S. Navy Radioman First Class who was on a larger landing craft carrying 200 soldiers. His was one of the first to make it to Omaha Beach that fateful day.

Abe Laurenzo chats with supporters after giving his first-hand impressions of D-Day during the Celebration of Heroes event.Asquith and Laurenzo were honored guests at a reception and informal presentation on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, Thursday, June 6, at the Oregon Historical Society in Portland. They were joined by Jerry Nudelman of Portland, a thrice-wounded sergeant in the U.S. Army, who fought in Europe during World War II.

Omaha Beach was one of five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the coast of France that were assaulted that day and for weeks afterward, in the largest seaborne invasion in history. Asquith and Laurenzo were two of nearly 53,000 naval personnel from eight countries in 6,939 vessels who helped turned the tide of World War II by taking on the rough, choppy waters of the Atlantic Ocean to deliver what would turn out to be a fatal blow to Hitler's Third Reich.

A German officer looking out from a bunker on Omaha Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944, said he saw, "all the ships in the world."

Radioman Laurenzo was confined to the radio room of one of 4,126 landing crafts that day and saw no such sight.

"My experience came through the eyes of our signal man and bow gunner," he told 100 rapt listeners at the presentation. "I could hear the noise going on around us — shells dropping all over from those German 88 millimeter guns — but I didn't see with my eyes what was going on." (You've probably seen film of those 88 millimeter guns, which were mobile and among the best-known of German anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery in World War II.)

As his Landing Craft, Infantry (LCI), with its 200 young soldiers approached Omaha Beach at 11 a.m., Laurenzo said his skipper had a hard time making it through all the rubble — human and mechanical — floating in the water. The assault from the sea had started in heavy weather at 6:30 a.m. Many of the landing craft were blown off course.

"There was someone on the beach waving a flag and signaling to the skipper, 'You're going in,'" he said. "So we were among the first of 12 LCIs on the beach. We were on at 11:03 a.m. and off at 11:11 a.m. In eight minutes, we unloaded 200 troops and I understand our executive officer was yelling, 'Get those men moving, get those men moving' the entire time. It's a good thing the LCM (Landing Craft Mechanical) guys cleared the way for us to land," Laurenzo added.

Chief Mechanic Asquith was one of those "LCM guys." His craft could carry 60 troops and a Sherman tank. He was one of just four crew members and as chief mechanic was responsible for keeping the LCM running.

Asquith enlisted and went from Dayton to Farragut, Idaho, in 1943 for his first "boat training," which continued at Ames, Iowa, Norwood, Virginia, and Miami Beach.

"We were training all that time; that preparedness made the difference," Asquith said.

He specifically recalls one training exercise in Miami Beach in which sailors continually loaded and unloaded large sand bags from an LCM.

"It was a 72-hour maneuver. We were on duty the whole time. No sleep. No rest. There were a lot of unhappy kids telling the Navy what they thought of the training," he said, smiling. "Then when we went overseas for the actual invasion, we were up and awake for just under 72 hours. I guess the officers knew what they were doing."

Laurenzo, on the other hand, said, "I never had any training (other than radio training). I was about a week in Norfolk, Virginia, (in early 1944) before they put the radioman on the LCI 409 in the brig for some reason. So I was put on the 409. Twenty four hours later, I was on my way to England to train on an LCI."

While chief mechanic Asquith and crew made multiple trips carrying troops from war ships to Omaha Beach, radioman Laurenzo and crew were out of commission and headed back to England for repairs after the first assault.

"We were on and off the beach in eight minutes and on the way off, we picked up a wounded infantryman. We took him to an LST (Landing Ship Tank — three times as big as Laurenzo's LCM) with medical personnel on board. As we came alongside there was a steel arm reaching out that had small boats on it. Our skipper apparently did not see it and one of those arms came right through the bulkhead where I was seated in the radio room. I was thrown out of my chair and thought we had been hit by a German 88 millimeter gun but it was just that the captain had made a mistake," he recalled.

When Oregon Historical Society Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk introduced the veterans, he described June 6, 1944, as, "the most impactful day of the 20th Century," and told the story of what Allied leader General George Marshall said when asked if America had a secret weapon that helped it win World War II.

"No secret weapon," he said, "It's because we have the best darn kids in the world."

To which Asquith replied when introduced, "I appreciate being here and I appreciate being called a kid again."

One audience member, 14-year-old Toby Johnson of Vancouver, Washington, waited in line to meet Asquith, Laurenzo and Nudelman.

"I really feel honored when I get to meet these veterans," the teenager said. "I am actually shaking the hands of veterans who were in the war. They served our country and I'm really grateful."

Asked if she knew any boys the same age as the veterans were when they invaded Normandy, she said, "Yes. That's what crazy. They were so young. Imagine me, if I was one of those guys going off to war. That would be crazy."

The invasion of Normandy was not an immediate success but history has declared it to be a decisive victory as the beginning of the end for the Germans in World War II. They suffered between 4,000 and 9,000 casualties that day while 4,414 Allied troops died and another 6,000 were wounded. Omaha Beach saw the heaviest casualties of the five beaches attacked by the Allies.

"A Celebration of Heroes: The 75th Anniversary of D-Day" was presented by the Oregon Historical Society in partnership with The Mighty Endeavor, which is a local nonprofit formed to gather and share the stories of veterans like Asquith, Laurenzo and Nudelman, who served in World War II. For more information, visit www.themightendeavor.com.

Bill Gallagher

Editor

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