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Edward Gorman’s memories of June 6, 1944, are stark. He remembers the constant artillery fire and the mine blowing out the tank of his flat, barge-like boat. He remembers the desperate swim to shore and the barbed wire, minefields and dead bodies once he arrived there.
“That’s all you saw,” said Gorman, 90.
Nearly 70 years after one of the most important and harrowing assaults of World War II – the Invasion of Normandy – Gorman recalled his experiences landing on Omaha Beach in an interview with NBC News.
The invasion, which was famously portrayed in the film "Saving Private Ryan," opened the Allied Forces’ Second Front against the Germans, and was massive in scope: Gorman was just one of 150,000 servicemen that landed on that stretch of shore in Nazi-occupied Northern France.
Omaha was one of five designated landing beaches in an operation that was code-named Overlord and included more than 15,000 ships and airplanes.
In the end, the battle was successful. But the shore was heavily fortified by Nazi forces, and there was little to protect Gorman and other soldiers as they leaped from their boats and swam to shore. There were nearly 10,000 casualties, and thousands were killed.
“We were getting shot to hell,” Gorman said.
Gorman was a young Boy Scout-turned-Army radio operator from a waterfront section of Brooklyn. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he and three friends walked to Manhattan with a single purpose: finding an office where they could enlist. “The line was around the block,” he recalled.
After waiting for more than two hours, Gorman, who was only 17, was turned away.
“They said, ‘Well, go home,’” he said. “Get your parents approval.”
Gorman’s father was a wounded World War I veteran. He had shellshock, and refused to allow his son to join the military.
“They just said, ‘You’re in the first units.' That’s all they said to us.”
So Gorman waited a year. By the following October, he was 18 and on his way to Fort Dix,N.J., to be sworn in. He would travel from Virginia to Boston, from Newfoundland to England; once there, he and fellow soldiers practiced mock landings on the cliffs of Dover.
None of them knew what they were practicing for. Then, on June 5th, Gorman got the news. “They just said, ‘You’re in the first units,’” he recalled. “That’s all they said to us.”
By the next morning, Gorman had boarded the flat boat, called a Rhino ferry, and was on his way to the invasion. As the ferry neared the shore, the mine exploded, damaging the unloading ramp. The soldiers were stuck, and German planes were dropping bombs all around. "How they missed us, we don't know," Gorman said.
The scene as he and his compatriots reached the shore was horrific and still shakes Gorman to his core.
"When they talk about a pool of red, I mean, you see the whole -- hundreds of yards of shoreline," he said, crying.
Despite the heavy casualties, by June 6, Gorman and other soldiers had begun capturing German trenches; in one, they set up a brigade headquarters. Gorman remembered arriving at the French town of Coleville St. Mere and, despite the heavy fire that still surrounded the area, witnessing the sheer joy of the townspeople.
“They were out in the streets jumping up and down. ‘The Americans are here,’” he recalled them saying.
By August, the Nazi forces had retreated.
Gorman was 21 when the war ended. He eventually settled in Woodbridge Township in New Jersey, where he started a support group for military families, and where May 21 is now celebrated as Ed Gorman Day. In 1999, while participating in "Lest We Forget," a documentary about the invasion, Gorman returned to the French coast for the first time since the war.
“The flashback was just overwhelming,” he said.
The trenches were still there. So were the gun mounts. After a ceremony, as he was sitting on the cliffs overlooking the beach, he saw a single boat in the water. He could've sworn it was a Rhino ferry.