Nevada County men were under fire on D-Day, 1944
Special to The Union
WHAT: D-Day anniversary observation
WHO: American Legion Post 130 and veterans organizations
WHEN: Noon, today
WHERE: Veterans Memorial Building, 255 S. Auburn St., Grass Valley
Long ago waves washed the blood from the sand, but no tide will erase the courage Americans showed on the beaches of Normandy, France 75 years ago today.
Owing to the time difference between France and California, Nevada County residents awoke on June 6 to The Union’s banner headline: “Allies Invade Say Nazis.” The earliest information came from German sources while the Allied command remained mum about the operation code-named “Overlord.”
Soon Nevada County residents heard over the radio that American, British and Canadian troops had breached the German defenses. Much time would pass before they learned of the roles Nevada County men played in the invasion.
Before dawn on that longest day, four local men sailed toward the French coast in a rubber boat with another sailor and a naval officer. The sailors from Nevada County were Charlie Martini and Clarence Nettleton, gold miners, and the brothers Louis and Carl Netz, sons of a family of stone cutters.
The four had volunteered for the newly organized Naval Combat Demolition Unit. They had completed extensive physical training and courses in sailing, blowing channels through sandbars and placing explosive charges around underwater obstacles.
On D-Day their six-man team reached the sand while the tide was low. They were to clear obstacles which otherwise, as the sea rose, would lurk below the water and impede the invasion. The full might of the Allied Forces would arrive behind them on the rising tide.
BEYOND THE BEACH
Once on the beach the Nevada County men were under fire, machine guns crackling above and shells bursting around them. They hurriedly loaded obstacles on the beach with explosives. Carl Netz had the task of threading the trunk lines of detonator cords between the obstacles with two reels, one on each arm. “I ran a zigzag pattern [to avoid enemy fire] and prayed to God to help me,” he said.
Two Allied destroyers approached to fire on enemy gun emplacements on the bluff above the beach. Further clearing of land mines and barbed wire opened a clear though dangerous path for the infantry. After the U.S. soldiers landed, and then moved over and beyond the bluff, the Nevada County four tended and evacuated the wounded left behind.
Though some Navy Demolition Units suffered over 50% casualties that day, Martini, Nettleton and the Netz brothers came through. Louis Netz later died in a training exercise. The unit was training to invade Japan when the war ended.
‘AMAZED AND IN AWE’
Acting Second Mate Paul Bates of Chicago Park was aboard the Liberty Ship SS Charles W. Eliot, one of the US Navy vessels positioned to deliver troops to the beaches. As the invasion began, he stood on deck in the Thames River. Bates recalled: “We stood amazed and in awe watching wave after wave of bombers, fighter plans and supply aircraft flying over us, appearing to cover the whole sky, heading on a southeasterly course” toward the European mainland.
Bates and his vessel delivered Scottish, Welsh and English regiments to the Normandy coast. After their third run of the day, their vessel struck two land mines cabled together. The crew was rescued. Bates later entered the Merchant Marine and rose to captain.
SWAM TO SHORE
Ed Bratton, who became a Nevada County contractor, was a 19-year-old lieutenant in the U.S. Army’s 18th Battalion of the 1st Division on D-Day. He ate an apple, his breakfast, as his landing craft sailed toward Omaha Beach shortly after 6 am.
Bratton’s landing craft never made the beach. When it was hit by a German shell, he was spilled into deep water 1,000 yards from the sand. He dumped his backpack and carbine and swam. Still in the surf, he took cover in a tank trap, pinned down by German machine gun fire. He had only his uniform, knit cap and revolver.
“No one thought they were going to make it,” Bratton remembered.
Bratton equipped himself with a rifle and gear scattered on the beach. He and what was left of his battalion fought their way to the cover of a low embankment. They knocked out a pillbox and by noon had moved beyond the beach. By nightfall they had fought a mile inland. His unit suffered over 80% casualties.
“You know, I don’t think a whole lot about that war,” Bratton told The Union 25 years ago. “You know the things I think about is the day I got a three-day pass to Paris or going to Piccadilly.”
‘IT WAS HAIRY’
One of the men landing on the beach was Grass Valley native and lifelong resident Lloyd Veale, a veteran of the local post office. He enlisted after hearing the U.S. Army needed postal officers. To his surprise, he was assigned to a frontline artillery unit, the 81st Chemical Mortar Battalion, designed to support fast-moving infantry and armored divisions.
Veale was on a transport ship which slipped out of Weymouth the afternoon before the invasion. When the men were awakened about 3 a.m. on June 6, the seas were rough.
“We had to climb down cargo nets on the side of the ships into those small (assault landing crafts) and they were rising and falling about 30 feet,” Veale explained. “It was hairy.” As Veale and his company sailed for the beach, another invading boat in front of them hit a land mine and then was hit by Germany artillery. “ … bodies were flying 50 feet into the air and landing all around us,” Veale remembered with tears filling his eyes.
Veale and his companions were in the fourth or fifth wave on Omaha Beach. A machine-gun nest was taking deadly aim on them as they landed and big guns fired from above the beach. “I didn’t expect to come back, I’ll tell you,” Veale said.
Today the nearby Normandy American Military Cemetery contains the graves of 9,386 servicemen and on a wall lists the names of 1,55 missing in action. But Veale survived. His unit was in action for the next 11 months, entered Germany and pushed into Austria, fighting their way across 2,000 miles. Veale was awarded a Purple Heart. After the war returned to the local post office.
TOO MUCH TO TALK
That day more than 156,000 Allied servicemen stormed the beaches, dropped from the sky and climbed the cliffs of Normandy’s coast in the largest amphibious operation ever. Not all wanted to talk about it.
Erton Smith was a volunteer with U.S. Army 5th Ranger Battalion who settled in Grass Valley after the war. He trained for commando-style combat in Scotland and England. He knew no details in advance of the invasion. “They didn’t tell us until the ship was about to leave,” he remembered 50 years later.
On D-Day Smith used a rope and hook to scale a 100-foot cliff above Omaha Beach. The Germans responded by slashing the climbing ropes and tossing grenades over the cliff but couldn’t turn back the Americans.
After D-Day, the Rangers operated behind German lines in combat so fierce that a battalion of fewer than 500 suffered more than 4,000 casualties — the original men were replaced nine times. Smith was wounded near Trier, Germany and spent four months in hospital undergoing surgeries to save his leg.
Smith wasn’t a man to talk about the war. “I don’t know what pride there is in slaughtering hundred of human beings,” he told The Union in 1994.
BACK HOME IN NEVADA COUNTY
D-Day seems like a more obvious turning-point today than it did 75 years ago. At the time, Americans knew there was plenty of hard fighting ahead and achieving the Allied goal of unconditional surrender was not assured.
In June 1944, people in Nevada County were more focused on the war in the Pacific than in Europe. Orlo Steele, a Grass Valley 12-year-old who would later become a U.S. Marine general, was tracking the war with pins on a map. “I was following the war in the Pacific,” he said. “Everyone had a job during the war,” Steele remembered. His grandmother was a plane spotter, watching out for enemy aircraft.
Max McCann, a resident of Eskaton today, remembers as a 14-year-old in Orange County he had studied to recognize the silhouettes of Japanese planes. “I was a junior air warden with a helmet and wings,” he said.
“We were collecting everything,” said Jerry Angove, a Hills Flat 10-year-old who later became president of Sierra College. He recalled gathering metal, tin cans and rubber for the war effort. People were also raising Victory Gardens and buying war bonds.
Californians who lived through the war remember D-Day but recall more vividly the death of President Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945; the end of the war in Europe in May; and especially the end of the war in the Pacific in August.
Those victories in 1945 could not have been realized without the sacrifices of D-Day.
To reach Gage McKinney or more information on his books, see http://www.gagemckinney.com.
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