Military leaders and historians alike have hailed the D-Day invasion 70 years ago today as the largest seaborne invasion in history and one that turned the tide in World War II.
Early on the morning of June 6 under cloudy skies and gusty winds whipping France’s Normandy coast, allies began the invasion of German-occupied Western Europe and eventually pushed through enemy lines to Paris, thus liberating France. Prior to the invasion, bombers and naval bombardments pelted German fortifications, while more than 24,000 U.S., British and Canadian troops parachuted into the wooded countryside shortly after midnight. At 6: 30 a.m., allied infantry and armored divisions began landing at one of five sectors that stretched 50-miles along the coast with U.S. forces concentrating primary on Utah and Omaha beaches.
World leaders and survivors from the D-Day invasion are commemorating the 70th anniversary of the invasion and subsequent fight that eventually pushed the Germans from the area. For many servicemen who are now in their late 80s and 90s, today’s ceremony on Normandy could be the final one for those soldiers and sailors who were referred to as “the greatest generation.” One man who witnessed the D-Day invasion and survived the thick of the fight is Fallon resident Kenneth Shockley, who, as an 18-year-old Merchant Marine, ferried troops on a small landing craft from the larger Navy LSTs (landing ship, tanks) to Omaha Beach.
Shockley would maneuver the landing craft — which he described as a pickup bed with a gate — toward the beach and then drop the front ramp in the water to allow soldiers to run under fire.
“I lost a couple of buddies on Omaha Beach,” Shockley said, reflecting on a monumental day that left the young Ames, Iowa, native in awe of all the firepower but sad with the human carnage. “They were brothers… and one was killed outright.”
Shockley though, thought he could save the other brother and pull him back to safety. When Shockley tried to rescue the young man, who also came from Ames, his lieutenant “kicked him down.” He ordered Shockley to leave the young soldier behind and return to the landing boat.
Even after 70 years, discussing the invasion’s details does not come easy for the 88-year-old Shockley. As the pilot of a small landing boat, Shockley ferried soldiers to the beaches not once, but three times under enemy fire. German snipers halted scores of allied soldiers wading in the shallow water after they left the landing boats or as soon as they hit the beaches.
“They went to shore under a hail of bullets,” Shockley said. “The Germans knew we were coming, and they would just shoot everyone who tried to land.”
Shockley said everyone involved with the invasion prayed for the best, yet — to this day — he doesn’t consider himself a hero or a Merchant Marine having courage.
“You get there safely or you die. That was the choice,” he added.
Although military planners deceived the Germans of a supposed invasion near Calais, Shockley said the enemy was still entrenched in concrete bunkers that overlooked the Normandy coast.
“The top of the cliffs were supposed to be barren, but they were full of soldiers,” he recounted. “The Germans were on top, opening up with machine gun fire. We lost half our men before they went to shore. I could’ve driven on the beach, but I would draw fire from the top of the cliffs.”
As the fighting waged between the allies and Germans, the invasion troops received a break. Shockley said B-26 bombers and smaller fighter bombers from England flew over the English Channel and over the remaining German strongholds, dropping bombs on their heavily fortified positions.
“That ran the Germans out of there,” Shockley said.
Once the U.S. soldiers secured the beachhead, Shockley and his comrades stayed one night on the beach. Each soldier or sailor staying on the beach carried weapons … for Shockley, he had to carry a machine gun.
Prior to his arrival to England, Shockley and thousands of other Americans arrived on Liberty ships, which were designated as noncombat vessels. They remained docked in England for three weeks.
“We didn’t know why were waiting,” Shockley said, puzzled about the rapidly changing events.
Shockley remembers when paratroopers jumped behind enemy lines and heard of one place where the Germans were overrun. They retreated into a tunnel system that connected the bunkers.
Although thousands of lives from both sides were lost on June 6, Shockley said the invasion had to be executed.
“D-Day put the Germans on the run … they had to retreat,” he said.
Shockley knew it was his duty to serve his country during World War II. His father served during World War I as a runner from camp to camp. Near the end of the war, Shockley’s father was gassed and later transported back to the United States. Because Kenneth Shockley was too young at the time, he lied about his age to enlist in WWII and then completed six weeks of basic training at Sheep’s Head Bay, N.Y.
“You couldn’t even blink unless you were told that you could do it,” Shockley remembers. “If you saw a single scrap of paper or a cigarette butt on the ground, you’d better pick it up or you’d be in trouble for that too.”
After basic training ended, the command kept Shockley back for three more weeks because his commander suspected he was younger than the other recruits. During that time the Merchant Marines and Shockley’s parents sent correspondence back and forth to determine if the young Iowa resident had reached the age to serve. Time ticked by slowly for the young 18-year-old who was confined to barracks until his command resolved his situation. Time in the barracks frustrated Shockley.
“One day I sneaked out of the barracks and went down to the docks where the boats were tied up,” Shockley wrote. “I slipped into one of the boats and pulled the oars over me so that no one would see me there. After awhile, I fell asleep.”
Shockley said an officer walked by the boat and must have heard him snoring. He ordered Shockley out of the boat and to his office. For the entire day, Shockley sat in a chair despite the officer knowing the young seaman was waiting for him. Near the end of the day, Shockley said the officer told him to return to the barracks.
A small library existed below the floor, and before Shockley was dismissed, the officer showed the teenager a trap door.
“The officer asked me if I like to read, I said that I did, and he showed me a trap door in the floor and told be to go down in it,” Shockley said.
Shockley found the light switch and turned it on. The officer told Shockley he could “hide” in the library and read until his “go” orders came in.
“I loved to read, and so I spent a lot of time down there,” Shockley said.
Eventually, his orders arrived, certifying him old enough for duty.
Besides the D-Day invasion, Shockley also saw other action. He was part of a crew that transited the Panama Canal to the Pacific, and near the end of the war in 1945, his ship sailed through the Suez Canal on its way to fight the Japanese. They never arrived in the Far East.
Shockley said they received word the Japanese had surrendered, so the ship stopped in India and unloaded most of the ship’s supplies and equipment.
Shockley returned home after the war, but he moved the family to Nevada in 1959 where they relocated to Fallon. For a short time, the Shockleys lived in Reno but returned to Fallon. His daughter, Anna (Clark) Wright, taught school in Fallon. As a stonemason and bricklayer, Shockley served as a project foreman at West End and Northside elementary schools and E.C. Best Junior High School. He laid the cornerstone at Northside.
While Shockley’s legacy included being part of the D-Day invasion force, one of the most important honors came in 1997 when all young men who left Ames High School before receiving a diploma received an honorary graduation. Also in the 1990s, Merchant Marines, many of whom died while serving their country, finally received veterans’ status.
Although the Normandy countryside and beach are peaceful today compared to the bullets flying over soldiers’ heads or bombs exploding on German locations, more than 2,000 men lost their lives either in the murky water or on the blood-drenched Omaha Beach.
Yet, etched in Shockley’s mind was a horrifying experience for an 18-year-old Iowa boy who quickly grew up to be a man fighting in defense of his country, and despite good odds he avoided the hail of German bullets that came from the cliffs, easily targeting the intrepid landing ship pilot.
“I lost a couple of buddies on Omaha Beach,” Shockley said, reflecting on a monumental day that left the young Ames, Iowa, resident in awe of all the firepower but sad with the human carnage. “ They were brothers… and one was killed outright. Shockley though, thought he could save the other brother and pull him back to safety. When Shockley tried to rescue the young man, who also came from Ames, his lieutenant ‘kicked him down.’ He ordered Shockley to leave the young soldier behind and return to the landing boat.”