June 6, 2019, is the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy. This is the time of year that I miss my father, James Robert Whitson (1921-2015).
For most of the 70-plus years we shared together, he never stopped talking about the amazing week that initiated the end of World War II in western Europe. More than once, he said he survived D-Day because of the leadership of the captain of the USS Herndon (DD-638) and the teamwork of the men with whom he served as a torpedo man (TM1).
On the wall of the corner that served as my father's home office was a framed front page of The New York Times that announced the success of the invasion. Yellow with age, the news story included a sidebar acknowledging the role of one special ship.
Naval historians confirm the Herndon, on the front row of destroyers assigned to bombard the German guns mounted on the cliffs above Omaha Beach, was the first to open fire. Those who wagered on the odds were surprised the ship emerged unscathed.
Subsequently, war correspondents described the ship as the "Lucky Herndon."
Like many veterans, my father rarely mentioned his own individual role in serving during World War II.
Instead, he preferred to talk about his shipmates who served with him aboard the destroyer commissioned on Dec. 20,1942. When asked to describe what he did, he just said he had a job to do and kept busy for most of a week, not even remembering his birthday, which took place on D-Day plus two.
At a ship reunion in Baltimore, Md., that I attended with my parents, I learned about a special task that had fallen to my father during the first hours of the invasion. My father's shipmate told me he was supposed to be the ship's lookout but was so scared he lost his voice. "Your dad just grabbed the headphones and crawled right up to the crow's nest. He kept me from being disciplined for failing to do my duty."
I finally realized when my father talked about Rangers scaling the cliffs of Pointe Du Hoc, he actually saw those people through the binoculars he was using to report the degrees and distance of enemy fire. Apparently, the anonymous person quoted in the newspaper account who warned the officers on the Herndon's bridge of incoming German fire was my father.
On the way home from the reunion, I asked my dad why he had never mentioned his front-row seat.
"Well, that fellow joined the Navy using an altered birth certificate, so he was barely 18 the day of the invasion. I had worked the battle phones aboard my previous assignment on the USS Milwaukee, so I knew what to do and took charge. Anyone would have done that."
My father's admiration for Lt. Commander Granville Moore, who served as the Herndon's captain, never ceased. Other ships hit mines that had escaped the midnight minesweepers, but the Herndon's captain knew that moving slow and steady was less likely to stir the water and set off an orphan blast.
One of the last conversations I had with my father before he passed was a query as to the whereabouts of some of his former shipmates from the Herndon. The internet was able to help me pull up obituaries of the men he recalled despite his age-related dementia.
He slowly nodded his head as I read each name and the dates of their death. He seemed relieved by the thought that he might be soon reunited with them. He didn't want to be left behind.
Age has taken its toll on most of the ship's crew, but at least one is alive and traveling with the Herndon (Virginia) High School Marching Band to the 75th anniversary observance in France.
The town is named after noted USN Commander William Herndon, who also served as the namesake of the USS Herndon. On more than one occasion, members of the Herndon's crew visited the school and were always honored with a military salute by its Navy JROTC cadets.
Photos of individual crew members who served on D-Day, including my father, will be carried by the members of the band as they perform for dignitaries. Once again, the sailors of the "Lucky Herndon" will have a front-row seat on the beaches of Normandy.
Roxanne Frey is a University of Illinois retiree who occasionally publishes in newspapers and magazines. She was born 12 months after the invasion of D-Day. Her father wound up his nine years in the U.S. Navy as an instructor at the San Diego Naval Base School with Roxanne and her mother living in Navy dependents housing. Currently, Roxanne lives and writes in Oakland, Ill.