Memories of D-Day: U.S. Navy veteran James Mazzaferro

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson September 15, 2013 12:13
Normandy Invasion

Troops in LCVP approach Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944; photo courtesy of Naval Historical Foundation

 

General Eisenhower’s voice came through the ship’s PA system: “Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade… the eyes of the world are upon you.”

Ike’s sendoff was heard by most of the nearly 160,000 Allied troops about to cross the English Channel and hit the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Jim Mazzaferro, just 19 at the time, was one of them.

“I was a little scared, and I’m not ashamed to say it either,” the Sonora resident, now 89, says today. “I couldn’t help wondering what a farm boy from Ohio was doing there when I had never even heard of the place growing up.”

Seaman First Class Mazzaferro had been through the Navy’s small-boat training and was aboard a Higgins boat carrying 35 soldiers through the early morning light.

As coxswain, it was his job to drive the boat to shore at Omaha Beach. To navigate, Mazzaferro sat higher than the other soldiers – high enough to be a good target for the German defenses raking the beach and shallow water with machine gun fire.

Football star

Long before he was born, Jim Mazzaferro’s parents left Italy hoping to trade abject poverty for opportunity. Giuseppe came first, passing through Ellis Island in 1910. Within a year he sent for his wife, Santa, and firstborn, Tom.

Once settled in Ohio, Giuseppe became Joseph and went to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad as a section foreman. His oldest daughter, Lena, taught him English, and he worked hard to support a family that grew to 10 children. Jim, the fifth of six sons, was born in 1924.

Though he grew up during the Depression, “we always had enough to eat,” Mazzaferro recalls.

He speaks of his parents with reverence. “My mom was the best,” he says. “She never really did learn to speak English, but she sure took care of her kids.”

Jim was a football star at Minerva High, and won a scholarship to Ohio State. No sooner had he arrived on the Columbus campus than Lena called to tell him a letter from Uncle Sam had arrived, and he was about to be drafted. If he acted quickly, he could choose his branch of the service.

The Navy

After being turned down by the Marines for flat feet and bad teeth, Jim returned home to have his teeth fixed and spent a year working at Republic Steel. Disillusioned with the Marines, Mazzaferro joined the Navy in the fall of 1943. After boot camp at Great Lakes, Illinois, he was sent to the Naval Amphibious Base at Little Creek, Virginia, for small-boat training.

“We were rushed through pretty fast,” Jim says. “They knew any assault on Europe would require Higgins boats.”

Andrew Higgins had designed the half-steel, half-wood “small boat” to move troops and supplies from ship to shore. With a length of 36’3” and a beam of 10’10”, the flat-bottomed, ramp-bowed Higgins boat could carry 8,000 pounds of troops and equipment through shallow water onto beachheads.

During the war 23,398 Higgins boats, also known as LCVPs (Landing Craft, Vehicles, Personnel), were produced, and they were instrumental in landings both in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. Dwight D. Eisenhower said in a 1964 interview, “Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us.”

After small-boat training, Mazzaferro was sent to New York and assigned to LST (Landing Ship, Tank) 294, a ship that could carry troops, tanks and Higgins boats. Mazzaferro and LST 294 made the winter crossing of the North Atlantic in a flotilla of about 15 ships.

“Roughest water I was ever in,” he recalls. “We couldn’t break formation. When one of the ships was torpedoed and sunk, we couldn’t even stop to look for survivors.”

England

When he arrived in England in March of 1944, Jim was part of the colossal gathering of men, women and materiel in preparation for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe intended to push Hitler back to Germany and to eventual defeat.

“We arrived in Falmouth and then went to Southampton,” Mazzaferro remembers. “I saw more ships there than you could imagine. LSTs, LSDs, cruisers, everything. If you put them end to end, I bet you could have walked back to New York.”

Liberty for Jim meant trips into Southampton, and if he had an overnight pass, London. Like other Yanks in England, he found the British friendly and appreciative of the American presence and especially their equipment.

Because the beaches at Milford Haven, Wales were similar to those in Normandy, Mazzaferro and other coxswains practiced amphibious landings there during the spring of 1944. “Wales was such a beautiful country,” he says. “Much prettier than Normandy turned out to be.”

Only about 10 days a month afforded enough moonlight and acceptable tides for an assault, and by late spring, the Allied commanders had decided on June 5 as the best opportunity for the invasion.

Bad weather the first week of June threatened to postpone Operation Overlord indefinitely, but meteorologists told Eisenhower there might be a window of opportunity on June 6. After consulting with Allied commanders, he made the decision to go.

Jim (at right) with buddies

Jim (at right) with buddies

Assault

Leaving from Falmouth, LST 294 was one of roughly 5,000 ships in the invasion force that left from various ports in southern England late on June 5. Some 13,000 paratroopers flew above them, preparing to jump behind enemy lines. The 156,000-strong Allied invasion force included 73,000 Americans, and of those, more than 34,000 were sent to Omaha Beach.

Aboard Jim’s ship were more than 200 troops and several tanks. Two Higgins boats hung on each side.

“Nobody slept at all,” Mazzaferro recalls. “Most of us tried to play cards. Some wrote letters. And the seas were still choppy from the storm, so lots of guys were seasick.”

“Very early in the morning on June 6, things got hairy scary,” he says. “It was cold, windy, and guys were running around, getting their gear in order. We knew it was a big operation, but that morning I didn’t have any idea how fierce it would actually be.”

While it was still dark, Mazzaferro, another Navy crewman and about 35 troops climbed down the cargo nets and into a Higgins boat. It was then lowered to the choppy water about a mile off Omaha Beach. The same scene was repeated with the ship’s other three boats.

“We were less than an hour behind the first wave that went in,” Jim says. “We could hear the rat-a-tat-tat of the German machine gun fire and see explosions along the beach. I was told to head straight in, so I fired up the engine and turned the bow toward shore.”

Mazzaferro doesn’t remember the sea as being particularly rough, but the day was windy and the water cold. As he sat high with the horizontal steering wheel in his hands, some of the soldiers in his boat became sick, perhaps from the waves and perhaps too from fear of what they were about to encounter.

“My hands weren’t shaking,” he recalls. “My whole body was shaking.”

As he approached the beach, Mazzaferro saw a channel that had been cleared between hedgehogs, the German defense emplacements made of welded lengths of angled iron. He guided the Higgins boat through the channel and began to offload the troops in ankle-deep water.

“There were casualties everywhere, guys floating in the waves and lots of dead up on the beach,” Jim says softly. “The Germans controlled the high ground. They were firing down from the cliffs. Machine guns and big 88s.”

Told to leave the dead but to return to the LST with any wounded they could help, Mazzaferro, his crewman, and a few soldiers worked quickly in the shallow water and on the beach to load about a half dozen men onto the Higgins boat. “Guys with an arm or a leg gone,” he says. “Some were guys we played cards with the night before, some were guys I had just hauled in.”

“There’s one I’ll never forget,” he continues soberly. “We’re quickly trying to pick up wounded, looking to get them aboard any way we can. We see this soldier just floating in the water by the boat. The guy with me reaches out, grabs him by the hair, and his whole head comes off … I won’t forget that one.”

They didn’t stay on the beach very long. “We were targets, too,” Jim says. “We could hear bullets whistling by our heads, and we’d see them kicking up water and slamming the sand on the beach around us. But I must have had a lucky horseshoe with me or something. I was one of those who never got hit.”

Back at the ship the wounded were hoisted up on gurneys, and a second load of troops climbed down the nets into Mazzaferro’s boat. Again he navigated the distance to Omaha Beach, unloaded soldiers, picked up wounded and returned to LST 294.

After two trips to the beach, all the troops on the ship had been offloaded. Later in the day when the beach was more secure, the ship moved in and unloaded tanks. For the next week, the LST ferried ammunition to the shore, once going up the Seine to Rouen, the historic capital city of Normandy.

At night the ship flew a barrage balloon, a small inflated blimp filled with hydrogen and suspended from a cable to discourage German fighters from strafing the ships anchored off the Normandy coast.

A few days after the initial landing, Mazzaferro and a buddy went ashore on Omaha Beach to look around.

“I guess we were lucky we didn’t get blown sky-high. There were still mines on the beach,” he recalls, “and though most of the dead had been removed, we’d still see a body here and there.”

After D-Day

By June 11, more than 326,000 troops, 54,000 vehicles and 100,000-plus tons of equipment and supplies had landed on the beaches of Normandy. A week later, more than 550,000 soldiers had been put ashore. The push to Berlin was well on its way.

About that time Mazzaferro was transferred back to Southampton, where he spent about four months as a brig guard. “You’re a big guy,” an officer told him. “We’ll put you there.”

Late in the fall of 1944, Mazzaferro transferred back onto LST 294 and served aboard his old ship until he was rotated back to the states in early spring, 1945. He recalls walking through a train station just after returning in April and seeing a headline that read, “FDR Dead!”

A 30-day leave in July allowed him go home to see his family for a very emotional reunion. “The day I arrived was one of the nicest of my life.”

‘Front row seat’

Mazzaferro next was sent to Camp Shoemaker in Pleasanton, then to Treasure Island in San Francisco before leaving for Pearl Harbor to join the crew of the USS Flint. A light cruiser, the Flint had participated in the bombardment of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and was preparing for the invasion of Japan when Mazzaferro went aboard.

The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki removed that necessity, and Jim Mazzaferro today echoes many World War II veterans who were in the Pacific late in the war when he says, “God Bless Harry Truman.” He adds, “If Truman hadn’t made that decision, I might not be sitting here today.”

The Flint was in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2 as Japanese leaders signed surrender documents aboard the USS Missouri. “I caught duty that day,” Jim says. “One of the officers turned to me and said, ‘We’re seeing things happening, Jim. We’ve got a front row seat.’ ”

Mazzaferro and the rest of the Flint crew spent the next three months as part of Operation Magic Carpet, collecting servicemen from various bases in the Pacific and giving them a long-awaited lift home. The Flint was at a Bremerton, Washington base in April 1946 when Mazzaferro was discharged.

Job and family

Jim had seen the West Coast while in the service and after a visit home, returned to San Francisco to look for work.

A bartender friend found him a job with Bay City Ice Company delivering 25- to 50-pound chunks of ice he chipped off a 300-pound block. When the company was sold, Jim walked up the street to FJ Burns Draying and volunteered to clean toilets, sweep floors – anything. The company offered him a half-day’s work, and a half day turned into 32 years. He retired in 1984 after first driving the company’s trucks and then running its warehouse.

While working in the warehouse, he would find a reason to meander up to the office each day to talk with a pretty young secretary named Marilyn Langhorst. Around her, he was always clumsy, bumping into walls and tripping over the furniture. “You’d better go out with him,” her boss suggested one day, “before he kills himself.” Jim was so shy it took him three years before he found the nerve to ask her out.

They were married in February 1955, and today when Jim looks at Marilyn, now 82, he points and says, “There’s the best thing that ever happened to me, that and being born to my mother. The next best things are my three kids.”

Twins James and Anthony were born in 1956, and a third son, Mark, was born in 1959. The twins are both music educators, and Mark is the public information officer for the City of Vacaville. Jim and Marilyn have seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, with one more on the way.

After the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, Jim and Marilyn began looking for a place to move that might shake a bit less than San Francisco. The home they found in Sonora in 1990 is where they live today.

At 89, Jim still gets around, albeit at times with the help of a walker. Quadruple bypass surgery in 2004 postponed for a year a trip back to Minerva High School to be inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame.

Looking back   

Marilyn and Jim, July 2013

Marilyn and Jim, July 2013

June 6, 1944, is one of the truly iconic dates in modern American history. Few who participated in that monumental undertaking to free the world from tyranny are still alive. As the 70th anniversary of D-Day nears, these survivors are in their late 80s and 90s. How many remain is an unknown.

Of the 156,000 Allied soldiers who deployed, more than 4,400 died, including 2,499 U.S. troops, according to the U.S. National D-Day Memorial Foundation. Thousands more were injured or listed as missing.

Time has taken a toll, as did that June day in 1944.

Though not wounded, much of what Jim Mazzaferro saw remains with him. As is the case with many World War II veterans, it returns in the form of nightmares. “But not very often anymore,” he says.

He won’t watch TV shows or movies about the war; a copy of “Saving Private Ryan” that his wife gave him is still in its cellophane wrapper.

“It wasn’t like any movie where it’s all over in a couple hours,” Jim says. “D-Day and the war went on and on.”

Yet he understands the broader role military service played in his life.

“If I’ve been a good father, a good husband – if I’ve had success in life, it’s due to my upbringing, my parents. But it’s also due to my time in the service. The war made us all stronger and taught us to work as a group. We were fighting for a common goal – freedom.”

“Yeah, I was scared,” he continues, “but I never gave up hope. I had a lot of things to come home to. I wouldn’t want to go through the invasion again, but I wouldn’t trade my time in the Navy for anything.”

He knows that if he hadn’t been in the Navy, he might never have seen San Francisco, and would never have returned there after the war.

“I never would have met Marilyn,” he adds, “and I’ve been happy ever since.”

 In Memoriam:

Mr. Mazzaferro died on August 24, 2013, a few weeks after completing the interviews on which this story is based.

We have published his story as planned at his family’s request. It is a record of his service and sacrifice that has become part of a broader national story: the passing of this generation of U.S. veterans.

Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, just over one million are alive today – about six percent of those who served. While no firm figures are available, given a similar survival rate, perhaps fewer than 4,500 U.S. veterans of D-Day are still alive.

The 70th anniversary of D-Day will be commemorated worldwide on June 6, 2014.

Copyright © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chace Anderson
By Chace Anderson September 15, 2013 12:13
Write a comment

1 Comment

  1. Jclark July 13, 18:35

    Beautiful story! Many of the same comments my dad said. Both had similar stories. My dad said he would never do it again but wouldn’t take for the experience!

View comments

Write a comment

Your e-mail address will not be published.
Required fields are marked*