CLAVERACK–At 17, Ralph Peter Avery was getting ready to graduate from Hudson High School. He says he had not been a particularly good student, “I used to like to spend my time hunting and trout fishing.” Then the world changed with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Ralph and his best friend, Bobby, decided that rather than awaiting a draft notice sure to come, they would volunteer. The recruiters never asked how old he was. “They weren’t too particular,” he says. Within a few years he was participating in D-Day, the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France. That was 70 years ago this week. Here is his story.
“We knew that the Germans were doing some terrible, nasty things over there. Everybody was talking about it, but I didn’t really worry too much. I knew when the time came I’d be drafted.” He explained to his worried parents that at least as a volunteer he would be able to choose the branch of the service he’d join. He decided to join the Navy, because his sister’s boyfriend was a sailor. “I really liked the uniform,” he said, “and he told stories about being out at sea and it sounded pretty good.”
Following high school, he attended the U.S. Naval Training Center in Sampson, NY. Just before the end of boot camp and a scheduled trip home on leave, the company was stricken with an outbreak of scarlet fever; 144 men died. The base was quarantined for weeks. During the unforeseen delay, Ralph signed up for gunnery school on a destroyer, the USS Corry.
His training earned him the rank of petty officer, third class, and one of the skills he learned was offloading 32-ton tanks from an LCT (the initials stand for “Landing Craft-Tank,” amphibious assault vessels with doors that drop open from the front allowing tanks to exit onto the beachhead). He learned how to operate the guns, break them down and rebuild them. These skills were often tested during nighttime drills. LCTs carried four tanks each weighing 32 tons and rode low in the water. “The poor cook would sometimes be in water up to his knees.”
The former luxury liner the Queen Mary carried Ralph Avery and about 16,000 other American soldiers from New York to Great Britain. Loading took weeks. “At the time, we didn’t realize it was the luxury ship. It was just another big boat,” Mr. Avery says. The ship had been painted navy gray, and her new color and great speed led to the nickname Grey Ghost.
The route across the Atlantic took them north to Scotland, zigzagging at times through fiords to hide from the Luftwaffe. “On board, we were just waiting and wondering if the guns would work, if there would be enough ammunition…. Everybody was scared, you know, nervous. We knew it wasn’t going to be good.” Before the invasion a case of Johnny Walker Red Label was brought aboard. “I never had any of it, but we all knew it was there and no one would have been denied if they had asked for a drink. I think with the amount of tension and the adrenaline, I could have finished a bottle and not even felt it.”
THE D-DAY LANDING was initially scheduled for June 5, but due to strong winds, powerful waves, heavy surf and high tides, they were turned back. “On June 6, the weather was just as bad, but we couldn’t wait any more or the German Army would have figured it out and things would have been even worse.”
The sailors had been told that waiting for them were just old men and boys. “Instead we were met by two or three Panzer divisions. Battle ready, seasoned German soldiers. Worst of all the channel was full of mines.”
The Coast Guard employed anyone who could use a mine detector to clear the water and the beach before the infantry arrived. “They lost an awful lot of men that way. We could hear mines going off every time you turned around.”
“As soon as the LCT next to us hit a mine, the skipper, Lt. Sam Grundfast was blown off the top. At that moment it all became very real very fast.” Only three men survived that blast. Injured and in shock from the explosion Lt. Grundfast was taken aboard a hospital ship anchored nearby.
“The next bad thing happened when the control ship hit a mine and sunk immediately. So there we sat with 32 LCT’s each loaded with four tanks, pitch black, lousy weather and we didn’t know what to do. We didn’t know north from south or east from west.” The only thing they could do was creep forward toward the beach and hope the mine sweepers had been able to clear the way.
The original orders were to unload the amphibious tanks 1,000 meters north of the beach. Avery’s skipper gave the order to lower the ramps.
But the weight of the tanks, and the violent weather conditions, turned out to be a disaster. Two of the ship’s four tanks and their crews immediately sank into the ocean before the ramps were ordered closed again. That was when the reality set in. “Those tanks were the only fire support they had on that beach.” And the next two tanks didn’t get far. “They were bombed within 10 minutes.” With the tanks lost the soldiers running ashore relied on two U.S. destroyers, the Corry, his old training ship, and the Fitch, for cover. The destroyers were firing at the Germans on the bluffs above them so the infantry with the Naval support had to just keep advancing.
“We heard men screaming, we watched them drowning. We couldn’t help them because there were hundreds of ships behind us. We just had to keep moving. With the wind and the rain and the rough surf, they didn’t last long, thank God….There was just nothing we could do. I think about it once in a while.”
It was quite some time before Ralph and other members of the crew were able land. “We had to lower the ramp, but first we had to move bodies out of the way.” The craft he was aboard landed at an angle on the beach. “It was so rainy, cloudy and windy; you just couldn’t hold the boats where they belonged.” The weather, he said, was as much of a problem as the Germans.
And the Germans were a big problem. Their machine guns were placed to set up a crossfire making it nearly impossible to avoid being hit. “I guess [casualties] are expected, but no one expected to lose that many that quickly.”
More than 4,000 Allied troops lost their lives in the D-Day invasion, with thousands more wounded or missing.
In shock, but not injured, Mr. Avery set to work moving bodies out of the way. To him it seemed like a dream. “Like you’re there, but at the same time you’re far away. We were so well trained that even as I was looking at the dead bodies, it was like it wasn’t affecting me. You had to just keep going. You never think a person could be so mutilated. I knew what I had to do and just did it and moved on to what needed to be done next. I guess they thought that being so young it wouldn’t be so hard, but it didn’t work that way. I think after a few days I started to wonder if it would always be like that, just on and on. You don’t know what to expect, when you see something that bad, could it get worse?”
After clearing a path on the beach, the craft went ashore and crew spent the night on or near the ship. He doesn’t remember exactly what happened but he recalls some welding repairs to the vessel. He remained on the beach until the Allies gained control.
He made it back to England and later took supplies across the channel during the Battle of the Bulge, bringing the wounded back to hospitals in England.
Upon his return to the States he was sent to Lido Beach on Long Island, where he and others were observed for signs of trauma. “It was like a rehabilitation base. We were there for four or five months where all they did was observe everything we did. Someone was always watching. We didn’t know why at the time. It was kind of creepy.”
After a while they took us and interviewed us. They wanted us to talk about it, they wanted to see how you would react once you got back. You know they taught us to kill and then how not to kill. I don’t think that’s a very easy thing to do.”
Ralph Avery thinks he must have been one of the lucky ones. “I didn’t come out of that with hatred. I just wanted to get back home, go to work and live a normal life.
“They were good doctors. They knew what they were doing. They could spot somebody who was having trouble. Keeping us talking for two or three hours at a time asking questions about what happened and whether I saw anyone get shot. They’d ask graphic questions: ‘Did you see his arm come off, or did you see any body parts on the beach?’ They brought it all up to help get it all out rather than bottle it all up.”
AFTER HIS THREE YEARS of service he put the horrors of the war behind him. When he returned to his parents’ home in Hudson, he says he put that part of his life away and seldom thought about it. “But sometimes, at night or after reading something, it all comes back. You get the cold sweats, or wake up scared. You can’t take too much of it all at once,” he said. “I had night sweats for a long time after I got home. Remembering that I had been one step away from being killed with one wrong step. Physically you might be ok, but you don’t get rid of that fear all at once.”
He still isn’t quite sure how he made it out of there with no visible injuries. “The mental part always sticks with you,” but physically he was virtually unscathed. “Sometimes you’d see guys screaming and crying, not hurt but just scared. It’s just more than the mind is supposed to take. I don’t think I could ever do something like that again.”
He took a job as a stock clerk at the Grand Union.” As it turned out, his future father-in-law was the butcher.
“We used to go have a couple of glasses of beer on a Friday or Saturday night” at Willie Goldberg’s pub. That’s where he first met Dottie, his wife of 68 years.
After graduating from high school, Dottie worked at the General Aniline Works plant in Rensselaer, boarding there during the week. Every weekend she would buy a train ticket–$2 round trip–back to Hudson, where she would meet her father at the pub to catch a ride home to Claverack.
She knew about Ralph, but the two hadn’t met before then. “He was older than I was and we had different friends,” she says. But they got to know one another on weekends, sharing an occasional dance.
“After a while just seeing her on weekends was not enough.” So occasionally Ralph would buy his own $2 train ticket to visit Dottie during the week. “We enjoyed each others’ company. The whole thing was really pretty nonchalant. She was just so natural, easy to be around and satisfied with just being herself.”
They married about a year later. They remodeled her family’s home, worked and raised three children–Judy, Nancy and Keith. He joined the VFW and Dottie joined the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Their cozy home is filled with photos, books and binders full of family history. Dottie knew he had been in the war, but not the details.
“It was probably 30 years before Dot and I even talked about the war,” Ralph said. “She’s a Godsend this one here” he says. “I’d be lost without her.”
Not long ago, Dottie, an avid genealogist, searched for and found Sam Grundfast, the skipper who survived the mine blast that day on the beach. He was living in Florida. The two sailors spoke on the phone. “The first 20 minutes we just cried,” Ralph says.
He’s glad he had the chance to speak with Sam before he died.
“I’m nearly 90 years old and all of a sudden it just seems to come back. The mind is funny like that, and I’m glad in a way, because things that happened are kind of important.”