Wet, terrified and waiting for the H-hour, Paul Burke of LaAnna sat in a D-Day landing craft not knowing whether he would live or die. The story begins, not on the H-hour, but eight minutes before, as waves hit the landing craft, explosions rang through the air and the men were silent.
STORY NEVER TOLD
“We moved in about eight minutes earlier than planned, due to the fact that the fire from the German 88s were starting to hit us. Lt. A.E. Vetter said, ‘We’re not going to die here; we’re going in.’ We were the first wave and we needed to get the job done,” Burke said from his home in Dreher Township.
Burke fought on the Atlantic Beaches of France on D-Day—the June 6 invasion of Europe that turned the tide of World War II in favor of the Allies. He was one of only two men from Boat 13 to survive the landing, and he has never before spoken about that day and the six that followed — not to family or friends.
“I remember when I was heading for the training I thought ‘Wow, what a story I will have for my grandchildren,’ but I never have spoken about it before now,” Burke said. He doesn’t think of himself as a hero or anything. “I was just a scared kid,” Burke said, but he wanted people to know what he and the other men did. Burke grew emotional as he recalled scenes from his past that he had blocked out all these years. He said those days are hard to relive, but in June 2005 he decided to open up to tell his story to The News Eagle.
June 6, 1944, is a day many won’t forget. The day started when the soldiers were awakened at 12:30 midnight for a breakfast served at 1 am. Men and equipment were prepared for the operation at 2 am, they boarded the landing craft at 2:30 am, which reached the coast of France around 6:10 am. The weather wasn’t much better on June 6 than it had been the night before when the invasion was originally supposed to take place. “But if we didn’t go in that day, we would have had to wait another month,” Burke explained.
There were 21 boats in the Naval Combat Demolition Unit (NCDU), part of the first wave of Allied invaders, and each carried 14 or 15 men who were a mixture of personnel from the Army and Navy. The boats left the men off in 20-foot-deep water where they were needed to blow up obstacles on shore and in the water to open up paths for the second wave. Burke said, “The obstacles were made of metal or wood and had trees and a mine on top of them. They had the same shape as toy jacks. We were in full combat attire when we left the landing craft—steel helmet, ammunition, rifle, specialized clothing, gas mask, primer cord, and 40 pounds of explosives.”
BLOCK IT ALL OUT
“I was heading towards the obstacles with a rubber boat carrying a buoy, extra ammunition and explosives when E.F. Corvosi popped out of the water right next to me. He was just 17 and was unable to stay afloat. I grabbed him and cut his gear off and told him to swim to the dune line and I would pick him up there. The weight of the gear sank many of the men. Each boat crew had to clear 50 yards of obstacles, and there were maybe five rows of obstacles. We needed to make the openings for the Army and Navy to land,” he said.
The NCDU commanders had the idea to land earlier to beat the tide. By doing this, they hoped the obstacles would be on land instead of water; however, due to the weather and choppy waters, the obstacles were already in the water when demolition crews arrived. Burke said they had to tie the primer cord to the obstacles to destroy them, explaining that primer cord looks like a clothesline but explodes instantly once ignited. After opening up his path through the obstacles, Burke finally landed on Omaha Beach and met up with Corvosi. “When you looked into the eyes of the soldiers you either saw no emotion or you saw how scared they were. You had to try your best to block it all out,” Burke said.
Omaha Beach was the second beach from the right of the five landing areas of the Normandy Invasion and was the largest of the assault areas, stretching over six miles. Some say that the NCDUs and the Under Water Demolition Teams were the precursor to today’s Navy Seals.
Burke said many men died and were injured on the beach that day. “The next five nights, I spent on the beach were very difficult. Men were yelling, explosions went off right beside you, and the bodies of the dead were drifting in and out with the tide. On the third day, Lt. Vetter’s body came onshore and more of the crew of Boat 13. Corvosi and I knew the crew was gone,” Burke said, adding that the men from Boat 13 had died as they were tying the primer cord to the obstacles in the water.
Burke had several close calls while he was on the beach. “The good Lord was looking out for me. Out in the water, many men got sea sick from the choppy waters, but I managed. On the beach, when I came on shore, I laid my rifle by the dune line and went over to Corvosi to blow up the beach obstacles. When I returned to my rifle it was blown apart.” Burke spent six days and five nights on the beach before the Second Division arrived and he and Corvosi walked up to Hill 192. Burke eventually wound up at the Army Hospital in Wales.
WANTED TO ENLIST
The men attended a special training in England’s South Wales for about two months before they left for the invasion. “I was temporarily transferred to the 299 Engineers and then to the NCDU. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but I had a job to do.”
Burke wasn’t drafted into his service in World War II, he volunteered to go into the Army. At the time of the draft, he was working for Finch Manufacturing Company making 90 mm and 105 mm ammunition rounds. Since he was already contributing to the war effort, he had received two deferments. When asked why he wanted to enlist he said, “All my buddies were gone, they were in the Army. I didn’t want any more deferments.” After informing the Army, he was called the following month for service. Burke served with the Second Engineer Combat Battalion, Second Infantry Division. He was one of 69 men who “volunteered” for D-Day. “One morning our commanding officer came out and asked who knew how to swim. My buddy and I use to go swimming all the time, so I stepped forward,” Burke said. He added that anyone in demolition was also called.
Burke was discharged Feb. 26, 1946, with several medals including: the Bronze Arrowhead, Victory Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Bronze Star, Distinguished Unit Badge, Meritorious Unit Award, Service Medal with Bronze Star, and the Presidential Unit Citation.
TO STRAWBERRY HILL
Paul Burke was born November 30, 1922, and is a native of Scranton. He married Kathryn King in November 1943 and was sent overseas right after they were married. While he was serving, Kathrine enlisted as an Air Force nurse. Upon Paul’s discharge in February 1946, he went to Texas where Kate was serving. After they completed their respective services, the couple moved to Pennsylvania where Kate became a Northeast Pennsylvania Hospital Inspector, and Paul continued his work at Finch, where he was certified as a Machinist. He left Finch in 1950 and worked at the Tobyhanna Army Depot as an industrial engineer, retiring In 1982. He also taught adult machinist classes at Pocono Mountain Joint High School in 1965. He is a 50-year resident of the village of LaAnna, has two children Molly Burke of Newfoundland and Paul Burke, Jr. of Colorado Springs. The couple has two granddaughters, Maggie and Penny Burke in Colorado Springs. Paul runs Strawberry Hill Farm with his daughter Molly. They board 11 horses and have four cows and some chickens. “I was born during the Great Depression, then served in the U.S. Army. I am thankful for everything I have.” Burke said.
Note: This article by staff writer Lori Devoe first appeared in The News Eagle in June 2005 and is reprinted here by permission. Paul Burke died in 2018 at the age of 95.