To have participated in Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II, now that’s something.
To have waded ashore through a deathly brew of bullets, blood and floating bodies, well, that’s a feat of a totally different stripe.
But to have been a Navy frogman, the first to touch beach the morning of June 6, 1944, that’s the stuff legends are made of.
A forerunner to the Navy special operations force known as the SEALs, Naval Combat Demolition Units cleared the way for the initial invasion force on that historic day.
"There was stuff blowing up all over the place," Dennis Shryock recalled.
This week, the 85-year-old veteran is returning to northern France for the first time since he stepped ashore at Utah Beach as a 21-year-old explosives specialist. His daughter, Donna Barlow, a DODDS teacher, and her family arranged the trip to Normandy from their home near Heidelberg, Germany.
"We’re all very aware of what these guys went through, without inflating or overdramatizing anything," said Kelly Hampton, of Carterville, Ill., another of Shryock’s daughters.
Hampton, who accompanied her father to Europe, her brother-in-law, Randy Barlow, and nephew Jesse traveled with Shryock to Normandy this week. Friday marks the 64th anniversary of the Allied landings, one of the iconic events of World War II.
Shryock’s trip would have coincided with the dedication of the U.S. Navy D-Day Monument at Utah Beach, but its unveiling has been pushed back to Sept. 27. Instead, U.S. commemorative events for this year’s anniversary will feature a midmorning wreath-laying ceremony at Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer. Sword Beach in the British sector will host the main remembrances this year.
As always, any D-Day veteran should draw crowds of well-wishers, no matter the nationality. The landings allowed the Allies to get a foothold in northern France, from which men and materiel poured in to overwhelm and defeat Nazi Germany. The war in Europe ended 11 months later.
For Shryock — who after the war worked as a law clerk and raised five children with his wife, Blanche — there’s a stark difference between this foray and the last expedition.
"The Germans were cutting into us, too," Shryock said of the landings on Utah. The ocean water around him "looked like pure blood. That was sickening." But he added, "we couldn’t stop doing our job."
Despite the bloodletting, Utah Beach fared far better than Omaha, the other beach in the U.S. sector. Demolition teams suffered six dead and 11 injured on Utah, according to Navy statistics. Thirty-one died and 60 were injured on Omaha.
Shryock is proud of the role he played in the battle. While his memory may fail him from one sentence to the next, the Springfield, Ill., native remains upbeat and engaging, a proud and consummate gentleman from a bygone era.
"He’s a survivor and he does it with a wonderful attitude," Hampton said.
Before the war, Shryock was a member of the Illinois Reserve Militia. He joined the Navy days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and signed on to become a Seabee, or a member of a Navy construction unit. Shortly thereafter, the Navy, with an eye toward the pending invasion, created an unconventional warfighting unit at Fort Pierce, Fla. One of the specialties needed was demolition, which Shryock took on.
He recalled 5-mile swims and training in hand-to-hand combat. But Shryock said he didn’t fully realize how valuable underwater demolition teams were until he was ready to ship out for Europe.
His team had done some additional training on Long Island, N.Y., and was waiting to go to Europe by sea when it was told the military would be flying them, instead. He laughed heartily as he recalled how a group of officers protested vehemently when they had to give up their seats to enlisted personnel.
In all, 34 demolition units were deployed to England for the invasion. Shryock and others who served at Utah Beach participated in the landings in southern France two months later.
When the Normandy landing was delayed by a day because of the weather, Shryock said his boat circled around in the English Channel on June 5 waiting for the word.
The seas "were bad, but I never did get seasick," Shryock said.
Working off of maps of the coastline supplied by the French Resistance, Shryock’s unit arrived off shore at least an hour before the 6 a.m. invasion. Despite the maps, his team landed a few miles off target, but adjusted and worked to clear the way for the incoming landing force.
"I don’t know why," Shryock said, "but I didn’t think anybody would shoot me."
Utah Beach was not as heavily defended as Omaha Beach, but there still were pockets of resistance and men were falling all around Shryock as he moved from obstacle to obstacle, lacing each with 60 pounds of explosives. At times he was so close he could hear German soldiers talking and even saw one of their remote-controlled mini-tanks packed with explosives roving across the sand. The only injury he sustained was a chipped tooth from a piece of shrapnel.
Shryock remembers the channel being packed with boats and the blood and chaos, but also remembers things like a woman waving hello from a seafront house. He’s hoping on this trip to visit the house, assuming it’s still there, and to see what else he can remember from that historic day.
"I want to see if my footprint is still there," Shryock said.