(June 6 marked the 68th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Normandy. This story on WW II veteran Richard Fahey was originally published in 2008. Mr. Fahey passed away in 2009.)
Lying prone on the beach, soaked to the bone by the cold waters of the English Channel, Richard Fahey looked at the scene around him and planned his next move.
Wounded American soldiers were falling all around while many others had already taken their last breath. As the commanding officer of a clearing company for the 60th Medical Battalion, the 27-year-old captain knew moving those injured men to safety was his responsibility.
Ignoring an air thick with bullets and fragmented steel, Fahey got to his feet, trekked across a ground littered with hidden mines, and began to help a bleeding soldier find shelter from the storm of German firepower.
It was at that moment that a chilling realization nearly froze Fahey in his tracks. Scanning the beach in all directions he quickly discovered that there was no safe haven for the wounded. Firing from the cliffs high above Omaha Beach, the Germans had a clear view of everything that moved in front of them.
He hurriedly dragged the wounded behind anything he could find – a blown up obstacle, a small mound of sand or a destroyed vehicle. Other than providing a small bit of shelter there was nothing else Fahey could do for them. Landing craft were hung up on obstacles offshore and few medical supplies or personnel had reached the beach.
As part of the first wave to land on Omaha Beach, Fahey knew the fighting would be tough and the casualties high. But the scene unfolding around him was much different than expected.
All along the shoreline landing craft and armored vehicles burned or sat half-submerged. Bodies floated ashore with the tide while soldiers hugged the ground searching for some way to move inland.
As the Americans continued to pour onto the beach the Germans methodically decimated their ranks with machine guns, mortars and artillery.
In those early morning hours of June 6, 1944 it appeared that something had gone terribly wrong with the invasion of Normandy.
Man of medicine
Landing in the first wave of the largest invasion force ever assembled is not something that Fahey seem destined for just a few short years earlier. He was, after all, a man of medicine committed to the preservation of life.
Born Richard Patrick Fahey on Oct. 19, 1916, he grew up in Chicago as the eldest of four siblings and fiercely proud of his Irish heritage.
Although life in the city was difficult Fahey’s father, Richard, was a police officer and always had a steady paycheck even through the darkest economic times.
It became apparent at an early age that Fahey was not just an average child. He taught himself how to play both the piano and violin and proved talented at both.
“I never had a lesson in my life,” said Fahey. “I learned everything by ear.”
Fahey was also an outstanding student and an avid reader. Those qualities served him well as worked toward his longtime goal of becoming a doctor.
Fahey attended Chicago Medical School and, upon his graduation in 1941, began his medical internship at St. Francis Hospital in Grand Island, Nebraska.
Fahey was helping student nurses wrap medical supplies in the obstetric ward on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 when he heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been attacked by the Japanese.
Just a few days later he was surprised to discover that he had “volunteered” for the armed forces.
“I learned that Dr. Eli Watson had written to Washington, D.C. volunteering himself, another intern and me as a surgical team for the service,” said Fahey. “He did not even tell me, or the other intern, that he was going to use us or ask our permission.
“I was flattered by his presumption and honored to be chosen by a guy like him. He was turned down, of course, because of his age.”
Once Fahey finished his internship on July 1, 1942, he personally volunteered for the U.S. Army Medical Corps. He was sent to downtown Chicago for a physical and was pleased to find his family physician, Dr. John Evans, as the examining doctor.
Evans did everything he could to persuade Fahey from joining the Army ground forces. He even wrote in large red crayon “U.S. Air Force” on each of Fahey’s medical papers.
“That is how I happened to be assigned to the ground forces,” said Fahey, indicating the Army’s penchant for doing things their own way.
Fahey was assigned to Camp Butner, NC, in November of 1942 as part of the 60th Medical Battalion.
The best thing that happened to Fahey during this time had nothing to do with the military. One day while in Raleigh he met a young nurse, Apex native Emmeline Reams. It was love at first sight.
He and Reams would marry less than a year later, stay together for more than six decades and raise 10 children.
Over the next several months Fahey taught compass directions, map reading, Morse code, semaphore naval flag code and first aid procedures to new recruits. Although he was far from an expert on any of these subjects his ability to learn quickly made him seem like one.
By June of 1943, Fahey had been assigned to detached service with the 630th Tank Destroyer Battalion. After assignments at Fort Bragg and Camp Pickett, VA, Fahey was promoted to captain on Nov. 11, 1943. He was then shipped to England where he began months of amphibious assault training.
In late spring of 1944 it had become obvious to the tens of thousands of Allied troops camped throughout England that D-Day was near. As May melted into June the countless hours of amphibious assault training gradually ceased. Now there was little to do but wait.
Fahey, a doctor serving with the 60th Medical Battalion, spent his final days in England at the invasion staging area in Southampton. There he shared a Quonset hut with about 20 officers he never met before.
On the afternoon of June 3 the officers in Fahey’s hut were given the opportunity to see secret maps and geographical mock-ups of German gun emplacements and minefields along the coast of Normandy. Because so many officers needed to see the same maps groups were only give 10 minutes to memorize the information.
The 10-minute session, said Fahey, was not nearly enough time to study such important facts.
“Well, I was impressed by all those welcoming gun emplacements and minefields but I’ll be darned if I could ever memorize all that I saw in that 10 minutes,” said Fahey. “What were they thinking?”
Fahey did learn that he was assigned to the Easy Red section of Omaha Beach. The landing area stretched about 200 feet from the seashore to a steep plateau that rose about 50 feet above the beach. The plateau ran along the beach for several miles and was interrupted at various areas by “valley-like” entrances that allowed access to the sea.
The orders that Fahey received certainly sounded simple enough. He was to disembark from the landing craft, run along the beach until reaching one of the plateau entrances and move inland.
They were warned that the beach was mined and the Germans entrenched but Allied commanders were confident that resistance would be quickly overrun.
Of course, reality often has a way of interfering with seemingly well-considered plans.
The men who landed on Omaha Beach were in for a terrible surprise on D-Day. A weak German division defending the area was replaced by the battle-hardened 352nd Division, an important fact that had escaped the eyes and ears of Allied intelligence. Worse yet, the fortifications shielding these veteran German soldiers were virtually unscathed by the massive pre-invasion air and sea bombardment.
On the day Fahey landed ashore he was also startled to find that the German defenses discussed during the 10-minute briefing on the invasion were nothing like the fortifications he was seeing with his own eyes.
“I did not know until I saw the beach that the plateau had long tunnels in them paralleling along the entire sandy beach and the Germans were inside the tunnel and were able to shoot out their peep holes at blank range” said Fahey. “They also had gun emplacements at the mouth of the tunnel overlooking the valley passageway between the series of plateaus.”
The orders were given on June 4th that the invasion would commence the next day. An announcement was made over the camp loudspeakers that told the troops, “there will be no going back even though the bodies be packed six feet high on the beach.”
But Fahey and the men around him no longer feared the inevitable. It was time to go and they were prepared for it.
“Most of the men did not care or have fear,” said Fahey. “This thing had dragged out too long and all of the men were anxious to have it over with. Like so many of my companions I had the idea that nothing was going to happen to me anyway and that I would be coming back home. We never lost any sleep worrying.
“I was never scared of dying. You have to die some day. When you are young you’re not scared of anything. I didn’t have enough brains to be scared.”
The massive invasion force was loaded onto ships and the largest armada ever assembled up to that time sailed for the French coast on the evening of June 4. But just as it seemed ready to begin Mother Nature intervened.
A storm moved through the English Channel and made an amphibious assault impossible. By morning the ships were back at anchor off the English coast.
The invasion begins
The orders came again on June 5th that the invasion would begin the next morning. The men were told to get a good night’s sleep.
“This,” said Fahey “was for real.”
In the predawn hours of June 6 Allied warships began bombarding the French coast. From the deck of his transport ship Fahey watched the naval guns blast away while bombers and fighters tore up the Normandy beaches from the air.
The only thing equaling the awe-inspiring sight of so many ships converging on one place was watching a multitude of planes fill up the French sky.
It didn’t take long for chaos and confusion to stake their claim on Omaha Beach. Attempts to destroy mined obstacles in the water were proving unsuccessful and landing craft were beginning to back up helplessly in the churning waters of the English Channel.
Only a few small holes were made in the fence of obstacles and Fahey’s landing craft was forced to wait its turn offshore. That’s when he first witnessed the bravery of American soldiers, a characteristic he would see countless times over the next 36 hours.
Landing craft were being struck by German shells all along the section of sea in front of Omaha Beach. Fahey’s craft rescued a group of American soldiers floating in the water after their craft had been sunk.
The soldiers had lost all their guns and equipment when their craft was hit and they were told they would be transported back to the main armada and probably back to England. Fahey couldn’t believe what transpired next.
“To a man they protested and insisted going in (to the beach),” said Fahey. “They had nothing. No guns, nothing. We each had a supply of six boxes of K-ration so we each shared two boxes with them and these men came into the beach with us.”
After sharing his rations, Fahey displayed his own act of courage.
With his landing craft still unable to penetrate the obstacles the doctor grew impatient. Knowing it was his responsibility to help the wounded soldiers on the beach, Fahey jumped out of the landing craft and started swimming for shore.
“It was illegal for me to do that but I didn’t give a damn,” said Fahey. “I wasn’t worried about technicalities in a situation like that.”
Once he reached land Fahey found an appalling scene.
“There were virtually no vehicles or jeeps on the beach and the ones that had arrived were disabled and blown up by the Germans at ease,” said Fahey. “There were many dead and wounded. I saw one man whose remains consisted only of a sheet of skin flattened on the sand. There was a circular place in the middle of the skin apparently where the explosion had occurred. The only part of his body that remained were his hands, (part of) of his skull and his feet.”
The simple plan of landing on the beach, heading for a valley along the plateau and moving inland wasn’t even a consideration. The Germans clearly ruled Omaha Beach.
“There was no way any of us would go up that valley,” said Fahey. “The machine gun fire from the Germans was withering. So we wandered up and down the sand pulling the wounded to safety, or what was relative safety, behind disabled vehicles or sometimes into little foxholes that were dug out. I do not know who dug them, maybe it was the Germans on watch duty.”
Without any medical supplies Fahey felt frustrated with his inability to help the wounded.
“I couldn’t do anything for them,” said Fahey. “All I could do was pull them under something so they would be safe. What can you do when you don’t have anything?”
In a just a short time on the beach, Fahey became convinced that the Germans purposely avoided shooting him or any other medical personnel. To this day he still speaks highly of those soldiers from the 352nd Division.
“I’ve got nothing against the Germans,” said Fahey. “I didn’t like Hitler but the Germans were an honorable people. They would not shoot you if you were wearing the red cross on your arms and helmet. The medics on the beach were in blank range of the Germans. There are, of course, exceptions. There is always a bad apple in every crowd.”
Fahey would soon put the Germans’ aversion to shooting medics to the ultimate test. It was the only time on Omaha Beach that the doctor’s clear thoughts became muddled by the atrocities of war and it’s a miracle he lived to tell about it.
(Part two will appear in next week’s edition.)