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 A Sailor's Nightmare
A Franklin County sailor died during invasion: His shipmate recalls the fiery horror of battle as they faced hidden mines, lurking Nazi subs.

 
James H. Joyner


    "We loaded ammunition just out of Londonderry, so much that we could hardly walk in the passageways. Going down through the Irish Sea was a seasick sailor's nightmare, terrible weather and rough water."

    Fifty years later, a seaman aboard the ship USS Rich recalled the final days before D-Day as the ship, a Destroyer Escort, prepared for the invasion of Europe. Ed Black, now living in Mount Gilead, served along side a Louisburg native son, J. H. Joyner, who exactly 50 years today and exactly one year after he enlisted in the Navy in Raleigh, lost his life in the naval assault on the shores of northern France.

    At first, Joyner and Black thought they'd miss out on the allied invasion of Europe. On June 2, 1944, the Rich was sailing into the Irish port Londonderry and was several hundred miles from the crowded British ports in which the invasion fleet was assembling. Something big was about to happen, and they weren't going to be a part of it.

    That afternoon Black left the Rich to pickup radio messages, just as he had done on many visits to the port. But this time the messages were marked URGENT. Black returned to the ship and handed the mail to a lieutenant on duty who took it to the decoding room.

    "Upon coming out, I will never forget the look on his face," Black said. "I knew and he knew, though no exchange of conversation occurred."

    Some of the crew who were granted liberty were recalled to the ship immediately. Commander E. A. Michels, Jr., announced to the crew they would be part of the invasion force. The seaman loaded ammunition and set out for the English port of Plymouth.

    Black continues the story:

    While docked at Plymouth, extra guns were placed on the Rich. We were not allowed to talk with the Navy men who came on board to install the guns. All the Rich personnel were moved to the starboard side to avoid any conversation.

    We had been selected by Admiral Deyo to act as protective ship for the USS Nevada, repaired from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and now headed for the liberation of France. As a Destroyer Escort we went ahead of convoys and scouted for submarines, continuously zig-zagging across the sea.

    We neared the invasion beaches at approximately 2 AM and the skies were ablaze with anti-aircraft fire. It looked like hell on earth.

    Gasoline dumps were going up, and there was terrific bombing by the Allies. I wondered if any living thing could be left and what's the use in invading. Hardly any of the German aircraft made it over the channel.

    I was on my battle station. Shortly after we reached our bombardment position, off to our port side 37 C-47 transports were going in, each towing three gliders. German antiaircraft immediately hit five of the C-47s and they just disintegrated completely.

    Soon the French daylight came and what a mass of ships! The USS Quincy, a new American cruiser, was patrolling near us. The USS Nevada was just ahead of us and the troop transport USS Bayfield was almost touching our starboard side.

    At 6:40 AM all hell broke loose. The Quincyfire(1 the first volley onto the beach, then the other ships begin laying salvos.

    The Bayfield was loaded with troops, its nets lowered to the water and the weary soldiers began climbing down to the Higgins boats for the trip onto the beaches. Each Higgins boat carried 27 men in full battle gear for the four miles to the beach. The ride was rough through stormy waters.

    Suddenly German aircraft appeared overhead and tried to drop a bomb on the Nevada. The bombs fell short of the ship and hit a Higgins boat which had just departed from the Bayfield.

    Twenty-seven men died before they saw the sandy soil of Omaha Beach. Guns, helmets, pieces of the Higgins boat and men blew upward into the air. D-Day had ended for them.

    One casualty floated along side the Rich and we picked him from the water. He had a terrible head wound - half was gone - and his left leg was broken and sticking through his trousers.

    We removed his belongings from his pockets: several English coins, a stick of gum, a few cigarettes and a wallet with photos of a woman and two small children, apparently his wife and children. A Catholic rosary hung around his neck. He had participated in the invasion of North Africa and had died at Normandy before the day ended.

    We placed him in a canvas bag along with his personal effects and transferred him to the Quincy to the cooler.

    Very soon the waters were filled with the dead. The heat of battle made any further attempts to recover casualties impossible.

    Life became expendable.

    On through morning the battle raged. At 9 AM, off to our port side, the USS Corry was in near the beach laying salvos onto the shore, when suddenly an explosion rocked her. She was sinking rapidly. Under the command of Comdr. Hoffman, who survived, the Corry lost 62 men in addition to many wounded.

    Later in the afternoon around dark, the Rich was ordered to lay a smoke screen along the beaches. The Germans had held the Allies down until around 4 PM, but the Allies had managed to get a small foothold at last.

    Ten thousand casualties on D-Day for a few feet of advancement on French soil.

    The Rich completed the smoke screen and returned to its bombardment position. At 9 PM, we saw a torpedo wake coming within a few feet of our ship on the port side. Just behind us was the new American 2,200 ton destroyer the USS Meredith on her maiden voyage. We knew the torpedo was going to hit the ship, and in seconds we heard a muffled roar and hiss of steam. She sank below the surface.

    Throughout the night we were ever watchful for torpedoes, enemy aircraft and mines.

    On June 7 the battle continued, and we were more afraid the second day than the first. We had no sleep, no food and just a few drops of coffee.

    On the morning of June 8, the destroyer USS Glennon was patrolling in the morning sunshine off Utah Beach near the San Marcouff Islands. The Germans had moved into a small fishing village five miles inland and were using mounted railway guns.

    A shore battery found its mark on the Glennon and the ship hit an underwater mine at the same time. Admiral Deyo ordered the Rich to proceed with extreme caution and aid the Glennon.

    As we approached the Glennon, the ship was about half submerged in the water with a tow boat hooked onto her bow.

    As we tossed lines over to the Glennon a violent explosion occurred under the Rich. We gunners were thrown onto the deck and as we got to our feet we saw that the entire back of the ship was completely gone and going on its own course some 50 yards away.

    We tried to make our way back to midships when suddenly another explosion rocked the Rich and this one got us. Carlie Black and A. C. Boyd were up on the 20 millimeter gun with Porto. They left the gun to find me and when they returned Porto was dead, still hooked in his gun buckles. Of the 12 men on guns, nine lay dead. Carlie Black and myself were both badly wounded.

    Word to abandon ship was passed by work of mouth. We could offer no help to the dead gunners and were barely able to move ourselves. We locked arm-in-arm and jumped from the boat deck into the 54 degree water. The cold water briefly brought us back and we made it to a six man life raft.

    A third mine went off under the Rich's bow and ripped the ship again. Carlie Black and A. C. Boyd were wounded with this explosion.

    Inside the life raft, I lost consciousness and remained so for 31 days.

    Later I would be hospitalized at Chelsea Naval Hospital in Boston after months in England. Carl Boedecker was there also. He lost both legs.

    What a group we were prior to the sinking: singing, joking, pulling pranks, going on liberty, drinking a few suds, exchanging mail from girlfriends. We shared our home sickness, money, cookies from home, pictures of family.

    Twenty-seven died from the Rich's crew; 62 were listed missing and presumed dead; 72 were wounded.

    When the last Rich man has cashed in his chips and we muster in the beyond, we will need a few hours to rehash our adventures and war stories and greet each other before we are assigned our final duties.

    J. H. Joyner died that day, June 8, exactly one year after he enlisted in the Navy. He had joined right after graduating from Mills High School in Louisburg in 1943.

    On Friday, Jan. 7, 1949, at the request of Joyner's parents, George and Martha Overton Joyner, his body was moved from France to Oakwood Cemetery in Louisburg. Black and another shipmate, M. H. Green of Raleigh, were honorary escorts at the funeral service.

    Joyner's older brother Doug also joined the Navy in World War II. He remained in the Navy as a pilot after the war and retired a commander. He and his wife Edna live in Goldsboro.

        

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