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 Leo Melancon Recalls the Day He Earned the Bronze Star
By Steve Bandy, from the Rayne Acadian-Tribune, Thursday, June 29, 1995


 
 


    When the USS Rich was damaged and sinking off the coast of France two days after D-Day, electrician mate 1st Class Leo Melancon was aboard the USS Threat, a mine sweeper, nearby.

    With nearly half of the crew of the Rich dead and virtually all survivors aboard the sinking ship suffering from broken legs from the impact of the two mines, Melancon volunteered to board the sinking ship in an attempt to rescue any survivors. Melancon recalls the day vividly, but says that he really didn't do anything that he would want someone to do for him.

    "These men were in trouble," says Melancon. "A lot of them were dead and almost all the survivors had broken legs and couldn't move themselves. We just did what we could to help whoever needed the help."

    Of the 213 men aboard the Rich that day, 91 were lost, according to reports. The mines which destroyed the Rich had probably been dropped the night before by German planes.

    "We had G.Q. (General Quarters) at about 0745 (7:45 AM)," reads the journal Melancon kept during his six year tour with the Navy. It continues, "DD-620 hit a mine (that) blew its fantail off. We went to help them but the staff took charge. Then another big explosion. DE635, the Rich, was cut in two by a mine, but the forward part of the ship kept on going on an even keel."

    Melancon recalls that when the ship encountered another mine, the Threat put a whaleboat into the water to give assistance.

    The diary continues: "Lt. Ross asked if I was a pharmacist. I said no, but would do anything to help. He gave me a couple of tourniquets, but that wasn't enough. (I) went on the poop deck and broke open a first aid box and filled my pockets and the pockets on my life jacket."

    Aboard the Rich, Melancon recalls that he and others worked feverishly to rescue survivors.

    "A P. T. boat came alongside with one stretcher." says Melancon. "Three of us were working it but it was going too slow, so two P.T. men took the stretcher and two other sailors and myself started taking (the injured) in our arms.

    "Two men would hand the wounded man to me: I would hold him until the others could get around to the ladder. Then they would hold him until I could go on the main deck; I'd grab hold of him and pass him over to the men on the P. T."

    Melancon said the men followed this procedure until the conditions prohibited.

    "We got as many men off as possible while the ship was going down." Melancon recalls. "There were two whaleboats tied to her (Rich), one was ours. I was standing by to take a wounded man from the flying bridge when a wave caught us and turned the boat at a 45 degree angle. Water was coming in and our boat was secured to it (the Rich)."

    Melancon's diary recounts the events: "I untied the stern line and Smitty, in the boat, cut the forward line. Stan put her in reverse, full speed, and operated the tiller. I was left on the sinking boat with our boat leaving, so I took a 40-foot jump and caught the forward fender. But the sinking ship's suction almost pulled me off.

    "The men in the boat had her foll speed ahead but wouldn't stop, the Law of Self-Preservation accounted for that, or 'better save five than one.' But I was that 'one' so I held on. I thought of the screw (propeller) chopping me all up so I held on longer. Chief MM had me by the collar of my life preserver.

    "Then I gave up and let go, just as the boat stopped, so I jumped in. Was I happy! We had five wounded men in the boat. That was the hardest work I ever did in my life."

    For his efforts, Melancon was awarded the Bronze Star by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The accompanying citation from James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, read:

    "The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Bronze Star Medal to Leo Melancon, Electrician's Mate First Class, United States Navy, for service as set forth in the following citation:

    "For heroic achievement in rescuing survivors of the USS Rich, when that vessel was sunk off the coast of France during the Allied assault on June 8, 1944. Displaying outstanding courage and fortitude. Melancon boarded the sinking Rich and took the last wounded man off just as the ship sank, staying on board so long in effecting this heroic rescue that he was forced to jump into the water and just managed to catch the fender of his whaleboat as it pulled away. By his courageous action, Melancon contributed materially to saving two lives and upheld the highest tradition of the United States Naval Service.

    "Melancon is authorized to wear the Combat 'V'."

    What does a sailor do after such an act of heroism?

    According to the journal entry: "Got back aboard (Threat), cleaned up and reported for duty."

    Although his actions that day earned for him the Bronze Star for heroism, when Leo reminisces of his tour of duty, that is not what stands out in his memory.

    "It was when we took Cherbourg," says Leo. "That was really something."

    According to Melancon, the enemy gun placements along the coast at Cherburg were so strategically placed and adeptly camouflaged so as to prevent approach.

    "They had the guns on rails," explains Leo. "When ships or planes would approach, the guns would roll up the incline and fire. When the allies had been repelled, the guns would roll back down and under camouflage. We knew about where they were, but not exactly."

    Leo says that, to get the guns out into the open, his task force sailed into range.

    "They all came out shooting," Leo recalls. "But, while they were shooting, we had reconnaissance planes high overhead taking pictures.

    "Every ship in our group was hit at least once, but we got the exact locations of the guns. Later that evening, our bombers flew over and took out the enemy guns. The next morning, with the guns on the ships keeping the German tanks at bay, our troops literally walked onto the beachhead."

    Leo's journal recounts many memorable experiences during his six-year tour (Dec.16, 1939 through Dec.16, 1945) and he says that, although some were not as happy as others, he wouldn't trade any of them now.

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