‘I thought it would be the last war.’ SC World War II veterans remember D-Day

Seventy-five years ago this month, two Midlands men joined thousands of other young Americans in landing on the coast of France to begin liberating Europe and defeat the Nazi government of Germany.

Marion David of Camden landed at Utah Beach days after D-Day — June 6, 1944 — and David O’Neil Derrick of Columbia landed at Omaha Beach 10 days after D-Day on June 16 at 9 a.m.

They will be two of 10 World War II veterans to speak on Thursday, the 75th anniversary of D-Day, at Patriots Point in Charleston. The invasion anniversary will be observed across the state, nation and world. The Patriots Point event begins at 10:30 a.m. and is free and open to the public.

David, now 95, was unassigned when he first arrived in England to join the forces preparing for the invasion. He eventually was sent to the Sixth Traffic Regulating Group and landed at Utah Beach. He later became a messenger and runner for information to and from the front lines.

“I didn’t get a chance to know who was around me because I was sent to a different regulating group,” David said. “A captain of the sixth regulating group gave me the job of assigning landing craft numbers.”

Derrick, now 98, was part of the U.S. Army’s 612th Tank Destroyer Battalion and drove 75 mm and 90 mm tanks.

“There were five people on the crew at all times,” Derrick said. “I was the driver. Then there was the tank commander, the gunner and two people handling ammunition.”

The World War II allied invasion these veterans were a part of was code named Operation Overlord. It required two years of planning, supplying and training by the U.S., Great Britain and other allies and was one of the most heavily guarded secrets of the war.

David says he remembers the secrecy very well, particularly when his colonel gave him an important envelope to deliver.

“My commanding officer told me to avoid the enemy at all costs,” David said. “If you do encounter them, this message has got to be destroyed before you die.”

On the morning of June 5, 1944, a fleet of 2,500 ships, 3,000 landing craft and 500 naval vessels departed English ports to cross the narrow strip of sea to German-controlled Normandy, France. That night, 822 aircraft carrying gliders and parachutists deployed troops over landing zones in Normandy.

Seaborne units then began to land on the beaches of Normandy at 6:30 the next morning, June 6.

“When we got to Utah Beach, there were still a lot of landing crafts in the water that never made it to shore,” David said. “I still wonder what happened to them.”

After suffering many casualties, the troops successfully landed and advanced inland. About 2,500 Americans were killed on D-Day.

The Nazis surrendered 11 months later in May 1945. The D-Day invasion gave the Allies the spark they needed to start the fight.

“I thought it would be the last war for the country, but it clearly did not turn out that way,” David said. “When I got back home, the celebrating of the victory was over because I had been gone for 28 months.”

Derrick also recalled when he returned to the U.S.

“I was glad to be welcomed back,” Derrick said. “I was very well received. My mother and daddy were waiting for me on the porch when I got back home.”

On Thursday at Patriots Point, in addition to the veterans speaking, the audience will learn about the Navy destroyer USS Laffey’s role in supporting the invasion of Utah Beach on June 6, 1944. The warship is one of only three D-Day Allied warships still in existence and is on display at the museum in Mount Pleasant.

The U.S. flag that flew on the ship during the invasion has been restored by museum staff, and the restored flag will be revealed for the first time during the program.

Following the program, the veterans will participate in a meet and greet. The USS Laffey’s D-Day flag will also be available for museum visitors to take photographs.