Sixty-five years ago today, Middlebury’s Ron Hadley was strolling down the streets of Weymouth, an English Channel port southwest of London, in his U.S. Navy’s ensign uniform.
Sixty-five years ago yesterday he was skippering a 50-foot long landing craft through the rough waves at Omaha Beach on Normandy, the water around him churned high by the vast armada of boats and — as he approached the beach — the wind riddled with the rapid fire blasts of German 88-millimeter guns firing anti-personnel shells. He was a right flank commander of his wave of landing craft during the D-Day invasion and the eventual liberation of Europe from Hitler’s Germany.
He would pilot his LCM (landing craft medium) from the troop ship to the beach twice, the first time about 6:30 in the morning and the second time close to noon. Initially, he was a part of the fifth wave of boats, but the signalman at the picket boat about 2,000 yards from shore told him to ignore the planned pace and get to the beach as quickly as possible because the G.I.s were getting slaughtered and they needed men on the beach now. And so that first time Ron reached the shore he was actually in the midst of the second and third waves.
“I had 36 combat engineers on board and when we let down the ramp the Germans had set up a cross fire across our bow. Those 36 men never made it more than a few yards from the boat. They never made it on to the beach,” he recalls. When he was back at the shore five hours later with another three dozen men, the invasion had a foothold: This time his soldiers made it to the sand. On a ridge in the distance he even saw a column of German soldiers who had surrendered. Nevertheless, among the longest hours of his life were when he was ferrying that second group of soldiers to the landing site, because he couldn’t help but wonder if he was bringing them all to a certain death.
I had known Ron nearly two decades before I learned what he had endured and accomplished on June 6, 1944. Like so many veterans he doesn’t talk about it much. When he’d lived in Lincoln, we served together as board members on a senior citizen housing project in town. He had also been one of the leaders of the effort to raise the money to build a new library in the village. He was, as far as I knew, a retired executive who had had a successful career with AT&T, a guy from northern California who at some point had discovered Vermont and the small village we both called home. When I thought of him, I thought mostly of the hours he volunteered on behalf of the community and his gravelly, good-natured laugh.
As soon as he had graduated from San Jose State University in 1943, he would go east to the Columbia University Midshipman School. He would train there, then in Norfolk, Va., and finally at Loch Long in Scotland.
He still has the slender topographic map he used that morning 65 years ago: The elevation of the hills just beyond the beach, the church steeple that was one of his key landmarks. He has been back to the American cemetery on the bluff overlooking the beach. He’s 87 now, a part of that greatest generation, and he is more comfortable discussing those experiences today than he was 10 years ago:
“It took me a long, long time before I could talk about it. But people should know what took place — that people were giving up their lives for something that mattered. It’s important that people know about that moment in history.”
Indeed. And it’s important that we remember people like Ron.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on June 7, 2009.)