How This Army Soldier Became Part of a Secret Unit Preparing for the D-Day Invasion

Two soldiers with their disabled DUKW take cover on the beach with the invasion fleet in the background. (Photo: National Archives)
Two soldiers with their disabled DUKW take cover on the beach at Normandy with the invasion fleet in the background. (National Archives photo)

I.J. "Irish" Degnan was involved with the Army Headquarters V Corps, the unit created specifically to prepare for the invasion of Normandy. Degnan, who died in 2015 at age 96, was a security control officer and carried classified documents regarding the D-Day invasion, according to his obituary. He landed at Omaha Beach.

This is his story: 

In December 1943, I was transferred from the 28th Infantry Division to Headquarters V Corps for duty as a security control officer. In the spring of 1944, I became part of the V Corps Information Detachment that moved with the Headquarters to Taunton, England; our detachment moved again to Plymouth, England.

Our workplace was right on the shore of the English Channel near Lands End. We set up our office in a quonset hut building made of corrugated steel, which gave a very low profile to the top-secret planning going on in such an unpretentious building and location. It was very secure and not easily accessible.

Our unit was created specifically for planning of the V Corps part in the invasion of Omaha and Utah beaches on the coast of France near St. Mere Eglise and Vierville. The commanding officer of the unit was Col. B.B. Talley; he also was the CO of the Hq V Corps planning group for Operation Overlord, the code name for the invasion of Europe.

Our mission was to establish radio communications with the Ancon [the Flagship] for the invasion. Two regimental combat teams from the 1st Infantry Division and two teams from the 29th Infantry Division were designated for the assault wave on the coast at Omaha Beach. We were to follow them at IT, plus 60 minutes.

We set up a radio communications network; our duty was to obtain information regarding operations ashore, then sending this information to the CO V Corps, Maj. Gen. Leonard T. Gerow, who was aboard the Ancon. We were to keep him advised of the tactical and supply situation in the V Corps zone of action. On the Ancon were other high-ranking officers such as Omar Bradley, 12th Group commander, and many Navy and British officers.

Our means of transportation from our LST [landing ship, tank] to the beach was a 2 1/2-ton amphibious DUKW. A duplicate DUKW [or military-wheeled amphibious landing craft] of ours was on another LST in the convoy, along with two quarter-ton Jeeps on DSMs. The units were all outfitted with the latest equipment, which included two SCR-399s mounted in both DUKWs and two SRC-193s mounted in the two Jeeps. The men were all highly trained radio operators and cryptographers.

We embarked on June 4 from a staging area near or part of Lands End, England expecting to disembark 12 miles offshore from the LST at 0130 hours June 5. During the night of the fourth, a very heavy storm with strong winds developed, making the sea extremely rough, which caused a delay of the invasion until June 6, 1944.

On the morning of the sixth, we left the LST at 0400 hours. The sea was still very rough, making us about three hours later than planned. The groundswell was estimated to be about 14 feet, which lifted the ramp of the LST high above the water and making it very difficult to launch our DUKW. The driver, Jim Mildenberger from Minnesota, waited until the ramp was taking on water enough to float us; he then gunned the motor and headed off the ramp onto the sea.

An LCVP [landing craft, vehicle, personnel], which was to lead us to shore, came alongside and hailed us to follow him. That was the last we ever saw of them. Another LCVP at our rear was to follow us, but he become lost to our view behind the high waves. From then on, we were on our own.

The skipper of the LCVP never forgot us, though. A year later when we were on Okinawa, a Navy lieutenant asked Col. Talley if he was the same person who was on the DUKW at Omaha Beach. Col. Talley answered in the affirmative, and the lieutenant replied, "I've always wondered what might have happened to you guys."

Our ride to the shore was very risky due to the weather and not knowing for sure if we were really going in the right direction, which really overburdened our already frustration. We were being passed by LCIs [landing craft infantry] and LCTs loaded with men of the 1st and 29th Infantry Division, who were to make the assault as the first wave of the invasion, so we knew we were headed in the right direction.

At 0620 hours, the colonel said to break radio silence with a message to the Ancon, "At line of departure, everything is go." More and more, we were being passed by small boats carrying men to the beach; among them were LSMs, which were carrying DD-4 tanks. We heard later, even though the tanks were waterproofed with the floatation gear deployed, they were unable to operate in such deep water.

Only five of them made it to the beach. We learned later only our DUKW was the sole survivor off LST #176. Our twin DUKW on the other ship also made it, but later that day, it received a direct hit and burned, killing one man and wounding two others. The two Jeeps carrying our radios were also victims of the sea and were drowned out.

We attempted several landings on the beach. Finally at high tide, we tried again. The water being high was to our advantage; it helped us miss the underwater obstacles. These underwater barriers had mines and other explosives attached to them and, if hit or bumped by a DUKW or other boats, the damage would be devastating and final. There were many soldiers in the water bogged down by their water-soaked two blanket roll packs, their rifle and ammunition. Most were trying to stay afloat by swimming, but there were many others in the water who could swim no more.

To give directions to the driver of our DUKW, I lay on the nose of the vehicle and gave hand signals to help guide us around the obstacles. I could see the mines and explosives attached to the obstacles; we were truly blessed that we made it through this maze. What with the mines, heavy machine gunning, artillery and rifle fire, our route was very precarious. Our DUKW had five-gallon cans of gasoline strapped to the sides of our boat cabin. Because of the incoming fire, we decided to dump the cans overboard into the water.

This proved to be one of our better decisions, because our DUKW did receive machine-gun fire through the walls of the cabin. We finally made it to the shore but for a short time only. Our antennae stuck up in the air about 15 feet making our presence a prime target. The infantry men on the beach let us know in no uncertain terms that we were not welcome in their area. They waved us off, and I can still hear very clearly, "Get that %#*&@¢$ radio out of here."

Their request or demand certainly was justified, because our presence was drawing enemy fire, particularly when we were running the radio. We withdrew from the beach and ran parallel to the shore for a distance of approximately 300 feet. From that distance, we could observe more accurately the activity on the beach. We sent many radio messages to the Ancon, advising Gen. Leonard Gerow of the situation concerning both men and supplies.

We also made a run to Pont-du-Hoc a little south of us where the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions were scaling the cliffs. On our way, we heard a message from them, "We need ammunition and reinforcements, many casualties." One of our destroyers also intercepted this message and sent a small boat loaded with small arms ammunition racing for the base of the cliffs.

On our way, Col. Talley called attention to two small boats drifting aimlessly near shore. We checked them; they were loaded with ammunition and supplies. We found both drivers dead. The destroyer sent two seamen to take over and complete the mission. We returned to Omaha Beach. The number of LCIs and LCTs were increasing to about 50 and more arriving all the time.

The situation on Omaha previously was very much in doubt. We landed again, Col. Talley's journal notes: "It was impossible to distinguish the living from the dead and in moving up and down the beach it was necessary to step over men without knowing or expressing concern over their condition." We finally found a spot on the beach where we were tolerated. During this time, there was continual machine-gun fire and incoming shells from German-rifled 88 cannons. They could shoot on line for a distance of 600 yards very accurate.

The three of us, Col. Talley, Jim Mildenberger and myself, were on shore, trying to burrow in a low ground depression to keep us from being hit. Jim caught some shrapnel in his back and right shoulder. I found a medic who came and evacuated him to England. I later learned that Jim refused discharge to the states and returned to France for duty.

Equipment and soldiers were arriving in large numbers, crowding the beach. Casualties were mounting because of the crossfire from one end of the beach to the other. I remember seeing a bulldozer coming off the ramp of an LST with its blade up. As he cleared the ramp heading for shore, you could see shells ricocheting off the blade. The operator kept right on moving, oblivious to all action, and started up the slope from the beach with the blade held high. He was followed by infantrymen who fanned out behind him. We were on our way to victory.

While on the nose of our DUKW looking for underwater obstacles, I had lost my helmet. While on the beach, I noticed a helmet lying next to a lieutenant from the 1st division. He didn't need it anymore, I took his helmet and wore it for the rest of my stay in Europe.

I wonder who he was.

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