The following is an interview I conducted with Smokey Holcomb, a Navy veteran who witnessed the D-Day invasion.
By Ken Rossignol
THE CHESAPEAKE TODAY
LEXINGTON PARK — Rastus “Smokey” Holcomb served on the USS Arkansas and participated in 13 convoys across the North Atlantic, several invasions in the European theater but the most significant military action of all time was the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944.
“I saw landing craft get hit when they got close to the beach, they took hits, you could see them when the dropped the front down, they were wading and swimming ashore, the backpacks were pretty heavy, if they didn’t get in shallow enough water, certainly they would drown. Some of them got hit when they got in close.”
The retired Navy veteran who joined the service in 1934 at the height of the depression also got married that year. But it was his service on the Arkansas on D-Day that will never leave his memory.
Asked if he ever thought that after the end of World War II that he would ever see American planes bombing Europe again, as has been underway for the past two months, Holcomb said the war was supposed to be the war that ended all wars.
“I never dreamed of it,” said Holcomb. “I hope they won’t send ground troops in there; we lost 9,000 in one day there at Normandy.”
When did the crew of the Arkansas first learn that they were going to mount the invasion that everyone was waiting to come? That was the day for which both sides in the war had been preparing, that the Germans had massed an “Atlantic Wall” to repel and that the Allies had been assembling tens of thousands of men, planes, and ships in England for the big day.
“About three days before the invasion,” said Holcomb. “Eisenhower came aboard the ship and gave us a little speech and told us there was going to be the biggest invasion in the history of the world. It was, the most ships and men, there were a lot of ships from England and two French cruisers in there.”
“We went in the night before, went across the English Channel and anchored 4,000 yards from the beach. No, we didn’t get any sleep, there were three battleships, the Texas, the Nevada and the Arkansas.”
“During the night the bombers were coming over from England bombing the beaches, you could see the antiaircraft fire, the bombers kept it up the whole night. One of our bombers was shot down, and we could see it falling, some of the crew bailed out. You could see some of the people who bailed out in yellow life rafts.”
“After daylight, they opened fire on us, and we opened fire back. We used our main battery; we had 12 twelve inch guns. This was one of the old battleships, we used armor-piercing shells because the guns were 20 feet deep of reinforced concrete, we knew where all the gun emplacements were before we went in there because the planes had taken pictures of them, we had certain guns assigned to us on Omaha Beach, which was the rough one. We were anchored, we had orders that if we got hit, we were going to slip the anchor, we kept the engines ready to go, and we were going to run her aground and act as a fort, but we didn’t have to, we didn’t get hit.”
“The landing craft went in alongside of us, all kinds of landing crafts, those guys would wave to us as they went by, the transports anchored back of us, and they didn’t want them to get hit. They unloaded the landing craft off of them; the water was rough. We were scheduled to go in on the 5th, but they changed it because of the rough seas.”
“I saw landing craft get hit when the got close to the beach, they took hits, you could see them when they dropped the front down, they were wading and swimming ashore, the backpacks were pretty heavy, if they didn’t get in shallow enough water, certainly they would drown. Some of them got hit when they got in close. We sent a whaleboat out for the bomber crew and picked them up, all three of them were wounded.”
“Smaller craft picked up the wounded from the beach,” said Holcomb.
“We watched all the paratroopers going in and bailing out. We stayed in there and bombarded as long as we could, we could only shoot so far after the Army advanced we couldn’t shoot anymore without hitting our own men. So went back to Plymouth, England, a lot of ships did get hit. We were called back to Cherbourg, Gen. Hodges was bogged down and he asked for fire support from the Navy, and I saw the Texas get hit, and a cruiser and a destroyer got a hit.”
“…but these battleships were all anchored, there were three British battleships too, old ones, all of ours were old ones, ours was commissioned in 1912, they were expendable, we were acting as a fort. Nobody had to run them aground.”
The shelling got real close for the men of the Arkansas.
“We had 11 straddles over the Arkansas, some short, some over, big splashes, our planes were spotting for us. We were just there one day, the hit on the Texas had some casualties, on the destroyer, they hit the bridge, the signal gang on the navigation bridge, didn’t sink them.”
“They said there were at least 1,100 planes that went over that day, and some of the planes had 2 gliders with them loaded with paratroopers. You could see them jumping out, the shoots blossoming, anti-aircraft was so fierce they went in further.
“I was on an antiaircraft gun, a 40 mm, I was gun captain a Junkers 88 came in while it was dark, it dropped a bomb right down next to us, we all aimed at him, no ship got credit for it, because too many ships were shooting at it but he did get shot down.
“The destroyers were running up and down the beach, they had small guns aiming at little machine gun nests, there were cruiser running up and down, but these battleships were all anchored, there were three British battleships too, old ones, all of ours were old ones, ours was commissioned in 1912, they were expendable, we were acting as a fort. Nobody had to run them aground.”
“They were going by us for hours, there was no end to it, they kept going in, but of course some of the barges got sunk.”
“I had a classmate who was killed that day, a kid from Tellico Plains who went to high school with me, he was in the army. Berry was his name. It’s been so long now, I forget his first name.”
“We then made another invasion in southern France, before D-Day we were at Casablanca, we come back to Boston and put new guns on the ship, we wore the guns out on the Normandy beachhead, the liners get hot inside the guns and they stretch. We went through the canal, they had worked 7 days and 7 nights in Boston, they always made two sets of guns for a ship.”
“Then we got to Long Beach, Pearl Harbor and out to rendezvous with a whole bunch of ships, with ten battleships and we went into Iwo Jima and we bombarded Iwo Jima, them people were in caves and everything over there, and they brought the landing craft the next day, the bombers came across, we laid off and let them bomb them, they would shake the old battleships out there in the harbor.
“We were 1200 yards from where they raised the flag, you could see the Marines going in there in waves, a bunch of them got killed, the next day or two, we stayed in there bombing things, when the Marines raised the flag on, the captain passed the word, we were close and watched them push the flag up, all rocks around it.
“One of the old Kingfishers got shot down and nobody survived, it was an observation plane, they spot for the guns, they get up above to guide us on how to knock out those gun emplacements, they got in too close.”
“After that, we went to Okinawa. We stayed down there for about 40 days and nights, that’s where Ernie Powell was killed, the reporter. Just about every day we had kamikazes coming at us. We shot antiaircraft at them, but the trouble is that when you hit them they were on automatic pilot and dive right into the ship.”
“One Sunday afternoon, there were 26 ships in the formation and the sky was full of kamikazes, all kinds of them, torpedo planes, they said that out of 26 ships, 13 were hit that day. Several came close to us, one of them came real close. We secured it out there and came back to Guam and had to go in dry-dock, and that is where I left the ship, came back and got transferred to duty, Mare Island, California for shore duty.”
Smokey Holcomb came to Maryland after the war where he and family made their home.
“I got married to Nellie Lee in 1934 in Chatsworth, Georgia, we grew up together in Tennessee, she taught school in the Smokey Mountains, she graduated from the University of Tennessee, and she taught school for thirty some years while I was in the Navy, have one son, Jack, lives in Wildewood, worked on the base for 38 years, been married 65 years, have two grandchildren, Steve, he is an assistant attorney general of Maryland and his wife is an attorney also, Diane, works in Washington for a Judge; my other grandson, Chris Holcomb, is in Texas A & M, teaches English out there, both of those boys went to Ryken. We are 85 years old.”
What does Smokey remember most about D-Day and watching out over the ocean as the battle got underway?
“I will always remember when daylight broke, the first German shell fell close to us, right off of our port bow, as soon as they fired, we opened fire.”
“I hope Americans appreciate the sacrifice that was made that day by those who died, there were a lot of deaths, the Army took the beating, a lot of sailors got killed that day. I had two brothers that went in the day after, the beach was pretty well secured, they went all the way to the Battle of the Bulge, they were in Patton’s Army, they like to froze to death. One of them is still alive, he is about 81 or 82.”
Smokey Holcomb was asked what he thought about the cutbacks for military funerals for America’s veterans, substituting an honor guard and bugler who plays taps to one soldier with a flag and a tape recording to put in a portable stereo for graveside services.
“I think it is a shame, you can’t say too much about it,” said Holcomb. “I hate to say too much, we should give them something. They finally took care of me in Bethesda last year, so I can’t bad mouth them too much, but they have taken away a lot of our privileges.”
Has Smokey ever been back to Normandy to look around since the war or is he interested in going back?
“I have never been back to Normandy and I have no desire to go back there, just a big cemetery there, I guess, some of my shipmates went back there when they had the 50th,” said Holcomb. “We have another reunion of our shipmates coming up this fall, in Myrtle Beach, at least a couple of hundred of us show up when we get together.”
When you see Smokey Holcomb around town, thank him and his fellow veterans for doing their part in beating the Japanese and Germans and providing a better life for Americans.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted in 1998. Smokey Holcomb is now deceased.)