Ralph Nichols ’40 recounts his D-Day experience with focused detail and the conviction that it’s important for people to hear about World War II. The 100-year-old believes his country isn’t immune to a potential dictatorship. “They say, ‘Oh, it can’t happen here,’” Nichols said, “but I saw it happen in Europe in the 1930s, so things do happen. You just have to be very aware of it, just be sure to protect what you have, what is right.”
He grew up in Clinton, N.Y., just down the Hill from Hamilton, and had finished two years at Yale Law when he entered the U.S. Navy and became engulfed in the war. On June 6, 1944, Nichols was serving as a lieutenant and communications officer on the U.S.S. Corry, which is said to have been the lead destroyer in the invasion of Utah Beach in Germany-occupied Normandy, France. He recalls with undiminished wonder the massive number of ships and planes that converged for the invasion. “On the radar, it looked like one solid light stream going up from different ports in England,” he recalled.
Minesweepers had been sent in to clear the channel to the beach, and on June 6, the Corry advanced down the swept channel, anchoring off the beach to fire at the Germans and clear the way for the invasion forces.
Although the Germans had been severely bombed, Nichols said, they were able to target the destroyers, cruisers, and battleships. An aircraft that was supposed to lay down a smoke screen to conceal the Corry was shot down, leaving the ship exposed, according to a June 2004 story in Naval History Magazine. The headline — “The Gallant Destroyers of D-Day.”
From the bridge, Nichols could see the shells getting closer and closer. Then he headed down to the radio shack to check on its operations. “As I was standing in the doorway to the radio shack there was a sudden, huge explosion, and we were thrown up against the overhead, and all the lights went out,” Nichols said. He heard tubes shatter in the radios and felt the ship breaking up beneath his feet.
He remembers running below to dig out the secret communications devices and code books, and with help from another officer, tossed them overboard. They were weighted to sink so the Germans would not discover them.
With the deck underwater, Nichols made his way to the stern, which seemed to be the focus of the shelling. There he helped an engineering officer who could not swim find a flotation device. At one point, a shell hit the ship’s smokescreen generator, creating choking smoke they couldn’t see through until the winds picked up.
The Corry was going under, and Nichols said he stepped into the frigid water, where, for at least an hour, he and his shipmates swam and clung to anything they could. Nichols had a flotation device, but it was ineffective, so he was in trouble.
“What happened was one of the crew saw me struggling with it, and he had, what the crew had done, was to take powder cans that were used in connection with firing the 5” gun. If they screwed the tops back on them, they became watertight. He had two of them, and he gave me one so I could put that under my chin,” Nichols recalled. “That kept my head up, so I was able to paddle around all right. It was a little scary because they continued to shell us while we were in the water.”
After boats rescued Nichols and the other survivors, he received a one-month survivor’s leave, then was assigned to amphibious duty in the Pacific, including a year in Guam. All told, he gave four years to the Navy.
Traveling back to the U.S. on the Queen Elizabeth, Nichols encountered Navy Lt. Halsey Barrett ’35, whose ship also went down during the Normandy invasion.
Nichols went on to finish law school, make a career, raise a family. Now he lives in Connecticut in a senior residential community, where he’s been asked to say a few words in honor of the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Two of his children will attend. A week or so before the anniversary, Nichols hadn’t yet given a lot of thought to the occasion, but wished he could tell the nation more about the millions of young men and women who served in World War II. If you asked them why they fought, they’d probably tell you they fought for freedom, said Nichols, with unique authority.
And doing that changed their lives. “I think that [for] the people who participated in World War II, it was a defining incident for them. In other words, your life was sort of what happened before the war and what happened after the war,” he said.