In all of the written history of World War II, few words or phrases carry as much emotional punch as the U.S. code name “Omaha Beach,” used to designate a key landing point for Allied troops during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France.
Cache Valley resident Thomas MacElwee was one of the officers on a lead boat approaching Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, and he lived to tell about it.
MacElwee is still alive and well, and this week he celebrated his 100th birthday with a small group of family and friends at Town Center Villas in North Logan. Afterward, he took some time to talk with The Herald Journal about his war experiences and reflect on the 20th century’s most defining conflict.
“I along with just about everybody else was anxious to go, to get into it, because our country had been attacked,” he said. “That was different from any of the other wars that came afterward, you know. It was a very patriotic thing.”
MacElwee is among a rapidly dwindling number of World War II veterans still living — just 240,329 of the 16 million Americans who served, according to the latest estimate by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. And to the best of his knowledge, he’s the only surviving member of his 29-member boat crew.
It wasn’t until about four decades after the war that the crew began gathering for reunions, and they met every two years after that until 2006, when their numbers had declined.
MacElwee himself remains quite active for a centenarian. He still drives and goes out almost daily for coffee with a group of friends. His voice is steady and clear, and he can readily put years and dates to many events in his life.
MacElwee recently recounted many of those events in a recording for the Family Library at the Logan Tabernacle.
It was just after the invasion of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, that the 20-year-old MacElwee, like so many other young Americans, decided to enlist in the armed services. He had just a year left in college at the time, and the U.S. Navy arranged to enroll him in Midshipman School at the University of Notre Dame after he finished his degree in New York.
Completing college and the special training gave him officer rank as an ensign, and he was then given a choice from among several different roles in the Navy. He decided to serve as an officer on a class of craft known as “submarine chasers,” the smallest commissioned ships in the Navy fleet at 110 feet long and 18 feet wide.
Equipped with depth charges and torpedoes, MacElwee’s boat spent the first part of the war patrolling and escorting other ships along the U.S. East Coast, but in 1944 it was sent to England as part of the massive mobilization of Allied forces to try to dislodge German troops from the cliffs of Normandy overlooking the English Channel.
Because of their ability to navigate shallow waters, a dozen or so submarine chasers, including MacElwee’s ship, were chosen to lead troop-carriers to their assigned beaches. Then their instructions were to stay put and monitor the fighting, acting as the eyes for U.S. warships stationed farther out to sea.
“Of course, it was terrible from about 6:30 in the morning when the first troops hit the beach until about 1 o’clock in the afternoon,” MacElwee recalled. “About 6,000 of our soldiers were killed that first morning at Omaha, and then the Army pushed their way up through ravines and got behind the German guns and shut them down and kept on moving.”
Despite the tragic losses, MacElwee’s main memory from that fateful day was elation at the mission accomplished.
“It was very exciting because we survived and our guys did it. I was 22 years old, and you know that’s a big deal,” he said.
MacElwee said his ship went on to serve along the coasts of Britain but never engaged with a submarine.
“No ships were ever sunk by a submarine until later, around December of ’44, six months after the invasion,” he said. “They’d said we weren’t necessary and sent us back to England, and then the subs sank a couple of troop ships so they said, ‘Well, we better send you back down there, so we stayed longer.”
After the war, MacElwee used the GI Bill to buy a house and entered the insurance business in Boston. After 12 years there he transferred to Colorado Springs, where he finished a long career. He moved to Cache Valley to be closer to family.
Summing up his war experiences, MacElwee said, “I was extremely fortunate to get the choices that I had about where to be assigned, and the men I worked with on that ship were just A-1. That made my experience in the war just very good.”
On the subject of reaching the 100-year milestone, he also credits good fortune.
“I’m very lucky that I’m still alive and able to do things,” he said.