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Stuff of legends: the frogmen of D-Day's Operation Neptune

Navy frogmen approach a barrier in the water during World War Two
Navy frogmen approach a barrier in the water during World War Two
Photo by: UnknownMedia

On June 6, 1944, Allied Forces had successfully pulled off one of the greatest hoaxes in military history: hiding the day of and methods for the invasion of Normandy. D-Day, which stood for Day-Day in reference to the date being unknown, has come to be known as one of the most famous moments in World War Two. Historically, it was our largest seaborne invasion ever, and it was planned with a precision and brutality which can perhaps never be rivaled.

"It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious." President George Washington, 15 November 1781

From a numbers standpoint, Allied losses were heavy on D-Day. In just one day, the Allies suffered an estimated 12,000 casualties, 4,414 of which were confirmed KIA (Killed In Action). In contrast, the Germans lost just 1,000 men, but despite the appearance of a numbers imbalance, the invasion was a staggering victory for the Allies. 5,000 landing and assault craft were utilized along with 289 escort vessels and 277 minesweepers; in all, there were more than 12,000 various crafts and vehicles utilized on June 6th. A common misconception is the belief the Allies simply refers to the Americans as the superpower of D-Day, which is not accurate. The Allies were made up of a significant group of countries opposed to Hitler’s Axis of Evil, including the United States, Britain, France, the then-USSR, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Greece, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, South Africa, and Yugoslavia. And although Americans did make up more than half the almost 160,000 troops storming the beaches that day, it was actually British Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay who held overall command of naval operations on D-Day. The most well-known and widely circulated images of that day seem to center around the men on the ground, and deservedly so. Their courage and stubborn persistence makes every one of them heroes, and yet, there is more to the story. The first invaders at Normandy, you see, came by sea as well, but they came from beneath, and within. It is the frogmen of the Normandy invasion many know little or nothing of, and today, it is high time to give those men credit where it is long since due.

Today the world knows them as the Navy SEALs, but in 1944, they were frogmen. Now, SEALs are trained as their name suggests for Sea, Air, and Land. During World War Two, the frogmen of the Navy were in their embryonic stage, and the focus was on water operations. It was at the Battle of Tarawa in November of 1943 the United States military was hit with the realization their amphibious capabilities were simply not up to the fights being faced, and although some preliminary work had already been done to establish superior amphibious forces, after Tarawa the efforts were significantly increased. There is nothing quite like suffering heavy losses in the space of seventy-six hours to drive home the need for frogmen.

In recent years I have had the immense honor and pleasure of meeting and speaking to a number of veterans, some of whom have since passed away. World War Two veterans are quite literally a dying breed, a gentlemanly-yet-rough-and-tumble group who are sorely missed as their numbers continue to dwindle. The Navy men present a particularly fascinating aspect thanks to the constant evolution of our naval forces, and yet, every World War Two Navy veteran I have spoken with has had one particular phrase in common. Their eyes light with remembered fire and their lips crook in half-smiles, and more than one has reached out to grip my hand or touch my shoulder as they utter a word spoken with a reverence typically reserved for royalty: frogmen. Young lady, they tell me, the frogmen were the true heroes, and in 1944, no one knew. Troops who were a part of Operation Overlord, which was the main invasion at Normandy, went down in history, but it was the frogmen of Operation Neptune, which cleared the way for the men of Overlord, who are all too frequently forgotten. And so, as we celebrate this seventieth anniversary of D-Day, let’s take a walk back and remember the frogmen at Normandy.

“Construimus, Batuimus.” (“We build, we fight.”) US Seabees Motto

Dennis Shryock was 21 years old on June 6, 1944. He had joined the Navy immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, signing on as a Seabee (Navy Construction Battalion). Before Pearl Harbor, he was a member of the Illinois Reserve Militia. But when the Navy began to focus its efforts on creating and strengthening its amphibious efforts in what was, at the time, considered an unconventional warfighting unit, they needed Seabees like Shryock. He was trained as part of NCDU (Naval Combat Demolition Unit) 136, UDT (Underwater Demolition Team). It was a different era, and the necessary training was still being understood. Shryock remembers large amounts of time devoted to honing hand-to-hand combat skills and the ache of mastering five-mile swims. And despite the training he underwent, specifically as an explosives specialist, he failed to realize at the time just how vital a role he would play in the war effort.

The invasion on June 6th was carefully planned with an eye on tide tables and the moon. Allied forces wanted a full moon to light their way in the early morning hours, and if the water was too far out, troops would have been forced to slog through soggy sand and muck trying to reach truly solid ground, all while under fire. But the frogmen were sent out in advance, meaning their own timing had not been planned quite the same way. Because, you see, it was the frogmen who were really the first to set foot – or flipper – at Normandy.

“Vis Per Mare.” (“Strength from the sea.”) USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70)

To hear the men speak of it who were present on June 6th, 1944, the frogmen took the greatest risks of anyone at Normandy. There were five focal points that day: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword, covering a stretch of French shore the Allies badly needed to immediately take. The Germans worked long and hard building defenses against amphibious landings, starting at the farthest reaches with rows of timber posts angled out to sea. At the top of each post was a Teller mine, a 20-pound mine packed with 11 pounds of explosives. It would take more than 330 pounds of pressure to detonate a Teller mine, meaning the incoming Allies would exert more than enough force to set off the wall of deadly explosions. Inside the row of Teller-topped posts was a row of “Czech hedgehogs,” metal devices made of girders and rail lines, welded together to form enormous six-pronged weapons capable of utterly destroying the hulls of incoming boats. Metal “Belgian gates,” log ramps, and tetrahedrals, which were metal pyramid-shaped objects, rounded out the underwater barriers. And then there was what was labeled as “Element C,” an underwater extension of the great Western Wall made of two-and-one-half tons of steel and formed similar to a picket fence. Element C was staggering in size for an underwater construct of that time at ten feet tall and ten feet wide with a ten-by-fourteen-foot base. And everything was laced with mines and shells. There was simply no way for incoming troops to bypass the dangerous traps. The frogmen would have to lead the way.

Imagine, Shryock says, swimming in an ocean of blood. Everything around you is the scarlet of slowly leaking death, and the equipment you are using to breath is nowhere near as advanced as today’s. Although 1944’s rebreather was basic, it did the job, and the frogmen were able to approach the beach largely unseen. However, many of them were forced to emerge from the water in order to tackle their objectives: mines and wood-and-metal barriers. He remembers working to remove the lethal barriers while floating and standing in “a sea of pure blood.”

The frogmen tackling Element C faced a specific problem because the structure could not simply be demolished. If they were to just blow it away, the resulting mass of steel would become yet another type of still-formidable obstacle, which meant they needed to consider its destruction carefully. In the end, the frogmen used thirty-six small charges strategically positioned to blow Element C into chunks no taller than eighteen inches from the ocean floor. Sound simple enough? Imagine trying to place charges with scientific precision on an enormous underwater barrier covered in explosives while swimming in the heavier suits and fins of the day and also while taking constant barrages of enemy fire. Still sound simple?

The Germans certainly saw the frogmen when they were forced to lift their heads from the already crimson ocean’s depths. Even when they were four hundred yards from shore, German snipers were taking careful aim and doing their best to pick the US Navy men off. Random bursts of heavy machine gun fire were also being focused on the frogmen, and being underwater was no protection whatsoever. When they were even underwater, that is, because far too often the men were forced to stand in the glue-like sand in their heavy flippers as they attempted to render explosives useless.

“Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” Winston Churchill

Shryock’s team entered the water a full hour prior to the main Allied invasion’s six am start. The French resistance had supplied detailed maps, and the men pored over them, trying to commit the most vital parts to memory. But despite their best efforts, his team managed to end up miles off course. “I don’t know why,” he said decades later, in awe of his own naivete, “but I didn’t think anyone would shoot me.” His team had come to Utah, which was, although not quite so rabidly defended as Omaha, still well-guarded. As 21-year-old Shryock worked to place sixty pounds of explosives on each of his objective obstacles, men died. He recalls the water growing thicker with blood as they fell “all around.” And yet, somehow, he completed his mission with only one incredibly minor injury: a tooth chipped by shrapnel.

Others remember different aspects of the frogmen’s work. A then-young ensign who requested to simply be called by his first name, Jim, recalls the way some frogmen disembarked from the ships, saying even though he was close in age to that of the frogs, he admired and was impressed by their bravery. They were heroes, he says, seventy years later. When pressed about his own service, he waves it off as insignificant and continues talking about the frogmen. His voice breaks as he recalls his worst memory of June 6th, and for more than a fleeting moment your heart squeezes with pain for this World War Two veteran living alone in a small house in Tacoma, Washington, all these decades later. You see, some frogmen were killed as one might expect: by snipers, machine guns, and explosives going off at the wrong moment. But some, he tells me, his voice gaining strength despite his obvious emotional anguish, some were crushed by the incoming ships. Technology was nowhere near as advanced as today, and it was not always possible to know where the frogmen were until it was too late. He shakes his head at the memory, and we spend the next hour discussing his grown son and daughter, who do not live locally. It doesn’t matter to him that he was there on D-Day; like so many great sailors, he fails to see or acknowledge his own courage under fire. Instead, seventy years later, he mourns the death of a frogman whose name he never knew.

“Ready to lead, Ready to follow, Never Quit.” US Navy SEALs

The frogmen of D-Day were the legends today’s SEALs are borne from. On that day seventy years ago, the Germans were prepared, and took out entire demolition units without batting an eye. Frogmen worked to set charges and clear paths with absolutely nothing to shield them from the firestorm of bullets, and by their audacity and daring, witnesses would later say, one would think they’d been shielded by the greatest of today’s bulletproof equipment. Without their hell-bent-for-leather approaches, the 160,000 Allied troops following in their wake would not have stood the slightest chance. The bloodletting of D-Day was horrific enough, and yet, consider the death toll if the frogmen had not been there, clearing the way.

Dennis Shryock passed away in September of 2011. His wife and one daughter had preceded him in death, and when he passed, he was 89 years old. His death signified the tolling of yet another bell for a true American hero. For the frogmen of World War Two, Normandy was a different world. It was a place of swimming in blood, yet moving forward, and seeing your teammates blown to bits short distances away by the very shells and mines you yourself were working to destroy. And you carried on. Some frogmen say they discovered bullets slow underwater, and they were able to catch the sluggish rounds with their outstretched hands. More than one frogman said he took a round home with him that way, outside his body rather than in. And those are the frogmen we remember, the stuff of legends. Men who caught speeding bullets with their bare hands and swam among explosives with the game spirits and agile grace of seals with armor-plated skin. “Frogmen,” Jim recounted, shaking his head. “Tough b*stards,” he muttered, before excusing his language in the presence of a young lady. And now, on the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, it is utterly impossible to disagree with Jim’s analysis. Tough bastards, indeed.

“Good night, then – sleep to gather strength for the morning. For the morning will come. Brightly will it shine on the brave and the true, kindly on all who suffer for the cause, glorious upon the tombs of the heroes. Thus will shine the dawn.” Winston Churchill, to the people of France, 21 October 1940

Author’s note: Thank you to all World War Two veterans and their families. Your sacrifices have not been, and will never be, forgotten. On June 6, 1944, according to the US Navy, six frogmen were KIA and eleven injured on Utah while thirty-one died and sixty were injured on Omaha. Finding specific statistics is difficult, to say the least. We will never forget what we owe our World War Two veterans. Hooyah!

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