63 years ago today, Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, in the largest amphibious operation in history. It would be the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler.
Amherst man was on USS Harding
AMHERST — Don Krebs, 83, who can still recall in great detail the moment he describes as the highlight of his six-year Navy career.
“That was my first battle and I was only 20 years old — in the middle of everything going on at the time,” he said from his kitchen table Tuesday afternoon dressed in his decades-old dress blues, talking about June 6, 1944.
“I joined the Navy because I wanted to fly planes and ended up being a part of something much bigger.”
On that fateful day, it was raining when the USS Harding left for England and sailed into an area just off the beach with Krebs onboard. The break of day illuminated the smoke that was rising from the beach as ammunition rained down.
Krebs was standing watch as helmsman while the Harding pounded German targets.
It was a very chaotic time, he said, but also one where quick thinking kept you alive.
“We didn’t know how the day was going to end, but we knew we had a job today,” he said.
One may ask why a third-class sonarman was standing watch as helmsman, a person charged with helping steer the ship.
But as it turned out, Krebs was actually in the right place at the right time.
As a sonarman, it was typically Krebs’ job to accurately measure water depth as his battleship traveled. However, on D-Day, the Harding and the other gunfire support destroyers were in so close that the sonars were useless.
As the ship inched closer and closer to shore, Krebs said, he soon realized that he had to retract the ship’s pit sword if they were to keep from running aground. The sensor used to measure the ship’s speed through water was no good in less than about 4 feet of water.
Fearing impending doom, Krebs said he calmly called out the water depths to the ship’s captain. And he listened and watched as the man acknowledged his words by raising his hand and shouting, “Aye, Aye.’’
“But he took no action,” Krebs said. “The water was getting shallower, and he was too engrossed observing the action on the beach, and we didn’t change course.”
As a result, the Harding did run aground on the rock bottom. But Krebs — on his own —had raised the sonar head and the fathometer sword, saving the ship from destruction.
“The sonar pod was smashed up pretty good, but we got out of there in one piece,” he said.
The Harding went on to fire 457 rounds of ammo, securing its place among the who’s who of that day.
However, to this day, the U.S. Navy’s critical role and sacrifices have yet to be memorialized at Normandy. It likely will be another year before a monument honoring the 1,068 sailors killed in the invasion will be dedicated, as only about 55 percent of the $500,000 goal has been raised.
Krebs doesn’t know if he will still be around when the monument is erected.
Until that time comes, he said he will continue telling his story and reminding people of why D-Day can never be forgotten — monument or no monument.
“It was a turning point in that war and a significant day in our country’s history,” he said. “But it was also the day I lost my best friend. Edward T. Rybarcyk died that day. He and all the others like him should never be forgotten. The freedoms we have today were earned with the blood, sweat and tears of men like him.”
Despite knowing there is no marker commemorating the role of the Navy on Normandy Beach, Krebs said he returned to the seaside location in 1994 with his wife and children. He wanted to see what he and so many others like him were fighting for that day.
“Still what I remember most about going back was not the beach but all the graves markers,” he said. “It was so overwhelming to know that much life was lost.”
Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or email@example.com.
CHUCK HUMEL, CARL SULLENBERGER / CHRONICLE PHOTOS
Sonar Petty Officer Don Krebs, sporting the uniform he wore during his Navy days, and photos of his ship, the USS Harding.