On Dec. 7, 1941, as word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor spread across the nation, young men like 16-year-old Frank Devita were ready to take up arms and defend their country.
To his disappointment, Devita was too young to join. When he turned 17 the war was still raging and he could go, if he had his mother's blessing and signature -- he had neither.
His father had been in The Great War and she remembered all the people who died. She knew the horrors of war and didn't want him to witness them. But she did agree that when he graduated high school, she would sign.
When he left school, America was still heavily entrenched in the European and Pacific theaters. He was itching to get into the action and headed to the recruiter's office.
"First, I tried the Air Force," he said. "They wanted to wait six weeks to put me in the action. So, I went next door to the Coast Guard. And they put me in right away -- two weeks I was overseas."
Before shipping out he went to Norfolk, Virginia, where he was trained on the operations of the Higgins boat. It was on one of these landing craft, vehicle personnel or LCVPs that he would later understand his mother's fears.
He was assigned to the USS Samuel Chase, nicknamed the Lucky Chase. The first indication its name was well deserved happened soon after their convoy started across the Atlantic Ocean.
"We were attacked by German submarines," he said. "They sank one tank very close to us. It was like two or three o'clock, pitch dark and the torpedoes hit the tank and it exploded. It was so light you could read a newspaper. And nobody in the tanker survived."
Tanks were naval vessels created during World War II to support amphibious operations. They could carry a large number of vehicles and cargo.
His ship made it to Glasgow, Scotland, which became its home base. Devita explained that although he was Coast Guard, he was on a Navy ship.
"The Coast Guard does not have big ships," he said. "The biggest ship that they have is the Coast Guard cutter. So, we had to borrow ships from the Navy."
Aboard the ship were the Higgins boats, the one he was assigned to was a crew member was Number 28.
June 6, 1944
Devita remembers in vivid detail June 6, 1944. He remembers how young the Soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division were who were aboard the USS Samuel Chase that morning.
"The 1st Division had already been bloodied in the invasion of North Africa and Sicily," he said. "So, during the invasion of Normandy most of the people were … replacements. We had a bunch of kids aboard the ship, maybe 20 years old, 21, 22 years old. The word running around was to not get too friendly with the 1st Division guys because tomorrow they may be dead."
By 4 a.m. that morning all of the Soldiers had breakfast and the Higgins boats were being readied as the Lucky Chase sat anchored 11 miles off the beach.
His job that day was supposed to have been to man one of the 30-caliber machine guns aboard the boat. But about two or three weeks before the invasion the guns were removed.
"They took the machine guns from us, because they were afraid we were going to have friendly fire," he said. "There was not friendly fire. The only fire was from the Germans and it wasn't very friendly."
His job shifted to being responsible for operating the ramp from which the Soldiers would exit the boat and make their way to the beach.
"I didn't want to drop the ramp," he said, his voice cracking with emotion. "I knew once I dropped the ramp the machine gun bullets that was hitting it will come into my boat."
The Coxswain, which is the person in charge of a boat, told him to lower the ramp. He said he didn't hear the order because of the noise of the engines and the bullets hitting the boat. He heard the Coxswain tell him a second time.
"I froze," he said. "And then for the third time he said 'G** d*** Devita, drop the effing ramp.' So I dropped the ramp and the machine gun bullets came into the boat and took probably eight or nine -- 10 guys. Like cutting down wheat, they just fell down … some of them were wounded. They were crying 'mama, mama, mama.' We couldn't do anything about it -- you can't stop a machine gun bullet."
That was the first time he lowered the ramp that day. Three Soldiers were able to get off the boat. Devita said they all made it to the beach -- but were killed as soon as they got there.
"The first wave was a bloody disaster," he said. "We had 90 percent casualties in the first wave. Nobody lived through that first wave, it was a bloody mess."
The boat was to return to the ship, he pulled the handle to raise the ramp and nothing happened. He tried again -- nothing. He tried putting it on autopilot -- still nothing.
"I was responsible for that ramp and if I don't get that ramp up everybody in that boat is going to die, we're not going to have any survivors," he said.
From his vantage point, he couldn't see the ramp because of all the dead bodies. He crawled over them to get to the ramp. When he got there, he learned why it would not close -- the weight of two 1st Infantry Division Soldiers fully loaded with 90 pounds of equipment was weighing it down.
With the ramp closed boat 28 headed back to the ship, but first made a stop at a hospital ship where a few wounded Soldiers were taken aboard.
"God, please," Devita said. "They're going to be on a hospital ship where they are going to get care, where they are going to get morphine -- maybe some of them will survive."
After the first wave, one person from each boat boarded the ship for a quick discussion on how to mitigate the casualties.
Devita remembered how it felt to be back on the ship and off of the boat where in a matter of minutes he saw so many young men fall.
"I'm back aboard the ship -- I'm alive," he said. "I had to make a big decision -- to stay aboard the ship or do I go back into the belly of the beast and face machine guns again. I made a decision, this is what I was trained to do. I'm gonna go back and I went back 14 more times."
When he was on board, he said a sergeant, a large sergeant, put his hand on his shoulder. That human touch was welcome at that moment. It felt like a hug, he said.
The words the sergeant told him, gave him encouragement.
"He says those machines can only fire so long before they overheat and when they overheat, they have to change the barrel," he said. "And when they change the barrel that's when you drop the ramp."
Armed with this new information Devita returned to the boat. When positioned, he waited until he heard the bullets stop for a moment. At that point he lowered the ramp -- Soldiers would have seven to 10 seconds to get off before the next barrage of bullets.
In his second time lowering the ramp, seven or eight Soldiers were able to make it off the boat and to the beach, where they met the same fate at the previous three.
"To me that was progress, from three to eight," he said. "I figured if I could keep this up maybe I could get somebody on that beach."
His boat wasn't just dropping Soldiers off. Each time the boat would head back to the ship, they were trying to bring as many of the dead back with them.
"You never leave a man behind," he said. "We had grappling hooks and we fish these guys, the dead and the wounded out of the water and take them back to the ship. At the end of the day, there were 2,000 mothers whose sons were not going to come home."
Six of the Higgins boats were lost that day, but all of the crews survived. Each boat had three men. Of the 18 men, 16 were pulled from the water. Two made it to shore where they grabbed weapons and joined the fight.
"That's why my ship was called the Lucky Chase," he said.
Although he did not know any of the 1st Division Soldiers who stormed Omaha Beach, he has respect and admiration for them and the Division.
"I love the 1st Division -- the best division in the whole G** d*** Army," he said. #dday