SOUTHINGTON — Manning an anti-aircraft gun at the front of a landing craft on the Normandy coast, Raymond LaBouliere watched the largest amphibious operation in history on June 6, 1944.
Despite invitations, he doesn’t want to return to the site of the battle he experienced as an 18-year-old seaman. But LaBouliere, 88, said he thinks about the events of 70 years ago daily.
“Every day I do,” the Meriden native said. “But time heals all wounds.”
LaBouliere’s ship, the LST-73, held 28 Sherman tanks of the Canadian Tank Corps along with an operating room. He was assigned to Juno Beach, near Omaha Beach where some of the fiercest, and costliest, fighting took place on D-Day.
He departed from the Isle of Wight off the coast of England at 5 p.m. the day before. Until their departure, the sailors had no idea that they were headed for France. LaBouliere knew they were headed into danger, though, when a Catholic priest came aboard to hear confessions.
“Then we knew something was coming,” he said.
Arriving on the French coast shortly after 1 p.m. on June 6, LaBouliere could see that the first waves had run into difficulty. Bodies were lying on the beach and floating in the water.
“There was a lot of action going on. A lot,” he said. “You could see there was a lot of trouble there.”
In his gun station, LaBouliere was about 200 yards from the beach.
Shells began dropping into the water closer and closer to LaBouliere’s ship as German spotters called in coordinates from seaside buildings. An older sailor in his gun station began to cry, LaBouliere remembered, as they realized it was only a matter of time before shells would hit their ship.
A nearby destroyer came to the LST-73’s rescue, bombarding a hotel and a church where the German spotters likely were. The shelling shopped.
“I wish I could thank that guy,” LaBouliere said of the destroyer’s captain.
On June 7, 1944, the Meriden Record’s headline read “Reinforcements pour into France” and three full pages were dedicated to coverage of the Normandy landings.
Associated Press reports claimed Allied losses were “very light” and that German defenses were wrecked before the landing force hit the beaches. Reports the day after the invasion didn’t include casualty figures.
LaBouliere’s ship was between the two American battleships which bombarded the coast continuously with 16-inch shells, each weighing more than 2,000 pounds. The noise was terrible, LaBouliere said, but the shells didn’t reach into the well-protected German bunkers.
“They weren’t wrecked at all. We were sitting ducks out there,” he said.
According to the D-Day Museum in Britain, American forces suffered 2,499 fatalities in the landing. Other Allied armies suffered 1,914 fatalities storming the beaches.
Twenty-four warships and 35 merchant ships were sunk in June 1944, according to the museum. Another 120 were damaged.
After taking on several hundred German prisoners, the LST-73 headed back to England to pick up supplies to ferry to the beachhead. LaBouliere said the Germans were worried at first.
“They thought we were going to throw them into the ocean,” he said.
The prisoners smiled and waved at the sailors as they disembarked in England.
“The war was over for them,” LaBouliere said.
For another 10 days, the LST-73 made continuous supply runs between England and Normandy. There were few German planes, LaBouliere recalled, although one which passed closed by dropped mines into the water. He later realized how dangerous those mines could be when a ship ahead of the LST-73 was blown up by one.
“It blew it in two. It sunk within seconds,” LaBouliere said.
He doesn’t want to go back to Normandy. Too many young men lost their lives, he said, for it to be a place that he wants to visit.
LaBouliere has watched some of the many D-Day movies and said the most realistic was “Saving Private Ryan.”
“That’s the way it was,” he said. “That’s the best one.”
The June 7, 1944, Meriden Record also included advertisements that referred to the invasion.
“This is it! American soldiers, many a Meriden boy among them, are pouring onto the beaches of Europe, in the long awaited invasion of Hitler’s fortress!” read an ad for the Meriden National Bank on East Main Street. The ad urged readers to buy war bonds and described the invasion as the “final punch to victory.”
A letter from the Inspector of Naval Material in Hartford, Capt. A. K. Atkins, congratulating Meriden workers, was also included in the edition.
“The employees of the Charles Parker Company were yesterday praised for their stellar part in providing the landing barges used in storming Hitler’s Europe at dawn,” the article said.