NORFOLK NAVAL SHIPYARD, Portsmouth, Va. —
A 50-mile stretch of beaches determined the fate of the western world.
Many know the fundamental facts about D-Day, marking its 75th anniversary June 6, 1944. It was the day more than 155,000 American, British and Canadian forces stormed five beaches along 50 miles of heavily fortified coast in France’s Normandy region. D-Day spurred the critical domino effect of liberating Europe from the control of Germany beginning that summer.
Ensuring this pivotal day was a success took thorough preparation, far-ranging support and committed execution, with the ships of Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) helping in all of those phases of battle. From the NNSY-built minesweepers USS Raven (AM-55), USS Osprey (AM-56) and USS Auk (AM-57) clearing the way for invading ships, to its constructed destroyers USS Shubrick (DD-639) and USS Herndon (DD-638) providing fire support, to 10 tank landing ships and several mechanized landing craft each delivering up to 30 tons of cargo ashore, the nation’s oldest continuously operating shipyard supported the invasion with a remarkable variety of vessels. Moreover, while NNSY did not construct the battleships USS Arkansas (BB-33), USS Texas (BB-35) or USS Nevada (BB-36), they were either modernized or extensively repaired by the shipyard in advance of supporting Normandy.
Prior to NNSY ceasing ship construction in the early 1950s, the shipyard built more than 100 vessels for World War II, from 230-ton barges to 34,800-ton aircraft carriers. The first of its completed ships to participate in D-Day were Raven and Osprey, which had a simultaneous launching in August 1940. As the only two ships of the Raven-class minesweeper, they faced the treacherous task of neutralizing underwater minefields. This formidable duo was launched at a highly opportune time on the eve of war, as the Allies of World War II (as well as the Axis Powers) would rely heavily on minesweepers. While Raven survived that deadly June to support other invasions, its twin ship was not so fortunate. Osprey was sunk June 5, 1944 on the way to Normandy after striking a mine in the English Channel, with six men perishing. According to NNSY Historian Marcus W. Robbins, “These were the first casualties of the D-Day invasion. This obscure fact has never been widely reported, that a Norfolk ship was the first to pay the ultimate sacrifice supporting Normandy including some of its crewmembers.” Launched a year after Raven and Osprey, USS Auk was one of 95 minesweepers built for the Auk-class that served both the U.S. and Royal Navies. Not only supporting the invasion of Normandy, Auk spent much of that summer minesweeping off the coast of France.
The year 1942 proved particularly crucial to NNSY’s construction of ships supporting D-Day. The shipyard built 50 50-foot landing craft, mechanized (LCM) that summer. Among the largest landing craft carried by transports and cargo ships, LCMs could transport 30 tons of cargo ashore. LCM construction was a high priority to support amphibious invasions carried out not only at Normandy, but also North Africa, southern France, Italy and the Pacific islands. NNSY also built its 20 tank landing ships (LSTs), numbered LST-333 though LST-352, beginning that summer and launched its final LSTs the following February. With each weighing in around 1,625 tons, these ships could traverse the ocean’s depths and also navigate shallow draft for moving troops, tanks and other equipment ashore. While LSTs and LCMs were similar to one another in form and function, they were in many ways peerless—as well as pierless. Their unique design featured a large door at the bow of the ship for the convenient unloading of vehicles, with no dock or pier required to engage in full assaults. Another distinguishing characteristic was their flat keels so they wouldn’t capsize on land. LSTs took part in the full range of World War II’s amphibious operations in Europe and the Pacific.
Among its two D-Day destroyers, USS Herndon became NNSY’s first completed ship following the Pearl Harbor attack. Launched in February 1942 and commissioned that December, Herndon’s early service included supporting General George Patton’s 7th Army and escorting troopships across the Atlantic in preparation for D-Day. On June 6, Herndon was ahead of the first wave of troops raining a volley of shells upon enemy targets on Omaha Beach. Despite drawing heavy fire, Herndon not only remained intact but stayed another two weeks shoring up the Allied grip on the region. The 1,630-ton destroyer Shubrick was also constructed at NNSY in 1942. The first thing it destroyed was the shipyard’s former record of 163 days from Herndon’s keel laying to ship launching—Shubrick was constructed in just 60 days. Named for an earlier shipyard commandant, this warship didn’t trade sturdiness for its speedy construction. Hit by a 500-pound bomb at Palermo, Italy in August 1943, killing nine and wounding 20 of its crewmembers, the ship underwent emergency repairs at Malta and returned to the U.S. using one screw. Mere months after completing its repairs, Shubrick was supporting Normandy clearing the beach at Belfast so troops could hit the sand running. Shubrick stayed in the region well into July, serving as escort, providing fire support, and conducting anti-submarine patrols.
For the battleships modernized at NNSY, USS Nevada—which first underwent extensive refurbishment from 1926 to 1927—returned to the shipyard in 1942 to have three 14-inch guns from the USS Arizona (BB-39) and two 14-inch guns from the USS Oklahoma (BB-37), both sunk at Pearl Harbor, installed. It went on to be praised for its precise targeting in battering German concentrations at Normandy while successfully straddling counterattacks. Nevada was not only at the forefront of the war in Pearl Harbor enduring torpedo attack, it ended World War II in Okinawa bombarding Japan. As for USS Texas, this ship marked the start of a battleship modernization program at NNSY in 1925 that would last nearly a decade. Its two-year conversion from a coal-burning to oil-powered battleship required nearly 1,000 employees to install new boilers and propellers, add deck armor and munitions, and overhaul the interior. On D-Day, Texas was a crucial contributor in the first bombardment beginning before 6 a.m. at Pointe du Hoc, a particularly strategic location at Normandy due to it being on high land with a clear view of the English Channel. Over the next half hour, Texas fired an average of one shell every eight seconds—the battleship’s most rapid rate of fire during the entire war. Ten days after D-Day, with Allied troops having advanced to the edge of Texas’ range of fire, the battleship returned to England. Finally, USS Arkansas underwent a four-month overhaul at NNSY in 1942 adding antiaircraft guns to its arsenal as a corrective action from the Pearl Harbor attack. The first time Arkansas engaged in battle was at Normandy off Omaha Beach, where it remained for the next week hammering away at the German stronghold.
If the appreciation for the enormity and effect of such a campaign usually comes only from hindsight, D-Day certainly proved to be an exception. Even as the invasion was occurring, Norfolk Naval Shipyarders were well aware they were poised on a most pivotal moment in our nation’s legacy. Then Shipyard Commander, Admiral Felix Gygax, summed up the challenge upon the nation when he said, “today our thoughts—our hopes and fears—turn across the Atlantic to the men in our own armed forces and those of our allies who have commenced the invasion of the continent of Europe. This is not an invasion of aggression—rather it is one of liberation. It is to free millions of conquered peoples from the Nazi yoke of tyranny and terror. It is to wrest the fortress of Europe from the Huns and to knock Germany out of the war.”
NNSY’s then publication, Speed Victory, summed up the shipyard’s contributions by reflecting “there are millions of Americans who would give much to be able to say they worked to build that ship. We must consider too, that ship is doing a small part in the big job assigned to a whole fleet of ships. Her part will probably never be mentioned in the news dispatches but she was there and did her part to make the invasion a success.”
So too, did the many thousands of employees at Norfolk Naval Shipyard proudly working around the clock to turn the tide, to defend democracy, and to win the war.