PDT Staff Writer
Harry R. Mitchell saw plenty of World War II action with the U.S. Navy on two oceans. He was in on the D-Day invasion at Normandy, where he was wounded.
Three months later, in the Southwest Pacific, his gunship was racing to rescue George H.W. Bush, whose Avenger torpedo bomber was shot down in shark-infested waters off Chichi Jima.
But before they could get there, an American submarine surfaced and grabbed Bush — who 44 years later would become the 41st president of the United States — even as a Japanese ship was steaming for his life raft.
Early on the morning of June 6, 1944, Mitchell — far from the halls of McKell High School — was on board a LCT (landing craft tank) headed across the English Channel for Normandy, on the northern coast of France.
The warrant officer machinist was responsible for seeing that the ramp was lowered at the proper time and the three large tanks on board made it safely off and onto the beach.
U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the top Allied commander, had told his troops the day before, “You are about to embark on a great crusade.”
And now it was under way. D-Day. Taking part would be 5,000 large ships, 4,000 smaller ones, 11,000 aircraft, thousands of infantrymen and armored troops — British, Canadians, Poles and Americans.
They were going against the “Atlantic Wall.” Adolph Hitler had occupied France and turned the French coast into a fortress. The cliffs overlooking the beaches of Normandy were lined with German machine gun nests and artillery guns protected by thick concrete pill boxes.
Invading Allied forces would go into the face of withering fire. Foul weather (the invasion had been delayed by a day because of it) caused most planes sent out on bombing raids to soften German defenses to miss their targets by miles.
It would be weeks and many deaths before America and her Allies gained a foothold. They finally broke out of the hedgerow country and sent the Germans reeling toward Belgium. In just more than two months they would liberate Paris as crowds lined the streets and cheered.
The channel was still rough on crossing and Mitchell and his shipmates suffered from seasickness.
Then, too, a big part of the upheaval they felt in their stomachs was caused by pure and unadulterated fear.
“All of our lives we think and wonder what hell would be like,” Mitchell said in a recent interview at his Wheelersburg home. “As we hit the beach at daybreak, I saw what it’s like. Ships now and then striking a mine. Shells exploding, our own planes roaring overhead and strafing the cliffs, the ‘rat tat tat’ of the machine guns, corpses floating in the water, men falling before they ever had a chance to fire their weapons. There were 2,700 dead on the beaches that morning.
Mitchell was manning the hoist chair preparing to bring the ramp back into position after the LCT had safely discharged its tanks. A shell hit the armor plate that protected him. The concussion blew him out of the hoist seat but his feet remained strapped in the stirrups.
It messed his knees and back up and he required a shot of morphine.
They had come in a low tide and the LCT became hung up on railroad rails the Germans had driven into the beach.
“We had to wait on the high tide to get free. The bottom of our unit was damaged and leaking. Ships around us were sinking. It was mass confusion.”
While awaiting word to return to the English coast and weather decent enough for a landing craft to make it safely across, they pulled back and waited.
All of their clothes stored below deck were soaked with sea water.
“No one on our ship had had any sleep for more than 24 hours. We assigned a watch, but gave each man just one-half hour on watch because it was so hard to stay awake,”
The first man on watch promptly went to sleep and the boat drifted back onto the beach and into more machine gun fire.
“We had drifted through a mined area and were lucky not to have been blown up,” Mitchell said. “I began having visions of being buried in a little cemetery back on the white cliffs of Dover.”
Back in England, where they were issued English military clothing temporarily, Mitchell was hospitalized with his injuries for a short period. Then he was shipped back to the states for a short leave and reassignment.
“I rested up a bit, then went cross country to San Diego. There I boarded a LCI gunboat and crossed all the way to the Southwest Pacific.”
Bush’s plane was hit by Japanese antiaircraft fire. He told his two crew members to bail out, then he jumped out. He hit his head on the plane’s stabilizer, lost three panels out of his chute, but made it to the surface and was able to climb into his life raft. He was drifting toward shore and the Japanese, who had beheaded several American pilots they had captured.
Mitchell’s gunboat got the distress signal from the Avenger and headed toward it. Before they got within sight of the scene, though, the American sub, U.S.S. Finback, surfaced and fished him out of the drink.
Mitchell spent nearly eight months in the Pacific. The main job of the LCI was to follow the minesweepers in, help clean out the mines, and strafe the beaches prior to a landing by the Marines.
“One day I got the sweetest news you could ever want,” he said. “I had been promoted to Chief Warrant Officer machinist and was to report back to the continental limits of the United States for reassignment.” He finished the war on a tugboat on the East Coast.
Mitchell, born April 29, 1920, grew up in South Portsmouth, Ky., a son of Tibbles Mitchell and Julia Wingo Mitchell. His father was chief engineer of Lock & Dam 31 and later lockmaster at Lock & Dam 30 just below Greenup.
Kentucky writer Jesse Stuart was principal at McKell when Mitchell dropped out a year before he would have graduated in order to go to work. He studied engineering and went to work as an engineer and mechanic on a riverboat.
He had married Geneva Newberry, now deceased, but they were divorced before he enlisted in the Navy in 1943. They had one child, a son, Harry Robert Mitchell Jr., who lives in Texas.
“I blame nobody but myself. A river boat is no place for a married man,” he said.
He returned to the boats after his discharge from the Navy. He went to work for the steel mill in New Boston in 1950 and was supervisor of the locomotive diesel shop when the mill closed in 1980.
Mitchell said the military has been good to him. The Veterans Administration furnishes his medication and sends Brenda Hudnell seven days a week to work in his home as a caregiver.
“We have a great country, one worth defending,” he said. “But I think we are entering a new era. It’s hard to believe our most educated people can get business in such a mess.
“I like our new President-elect. He tries to be an optimist. Let’s just hope he has reason to be so.”
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.