(Editor’s note: The nation celebrated the 75th anniversary of D-Day on June 6. Because very few of the men who survived the invasion of Normandy that day are still alive, the Observer thought it would be appropriate to re-run a story from June 6, 2004, with then-resident Mike McKinney, who recalled the horrors of D-Day. He passed away on May 6, 2006, at the age of 86. We thank him for his service — and memory.)
Decades have passed since “Operation Overlord,” the Normandy Invasion, took place on the coast of France.
It seems like it was just yesterday, says Rio Rancho resident Vincent “Mike” McKinney, who waded ashore at Omaha Beach that bloody Tuesday morning.
The Allied forces had an armada of 4,000 ships, over flown by 13,000 aircraft, and landed 180,000 troops on the Normandy beaches, a Herculean effort by all accounts, then or now. There were thousands of casualties, Allied and German.
McKinney, 84, is one of the lucky ones. A member of the 1st Division, known as the “The Big Red One,” he survived the D-Day Invasion, albeit with a wounded knee.
It’s one of three World War II battle wounds that earned him as many Purple Hearts. McKinney also has two Silver Stars and two Bronze Stars from his five years of service in the U.S. Army.
“I had some bad dreams for a year or so,” he said. “My wife would tell me I’d be shaking or yelling (in my sleep).
“I think I was different when I came back than when I left — I saw some horrible stuff,” he said. “I am proud; I did some good stuff.”
Now, he says, “I’ve got the normal old-age complaints — doctors keep me going.”
McKinney and his wife of 59 years, Harriet, have resided in North Hills since 1988.
Not only did McKinney survive D-Day — two-thirds of his platoon were killed that day — and other battles in France and North Africa, but he also survived 24 years in Brooklyn and East Harlem with the New York Police Department. Born and raised in Brooklyn, McKinney recounted his experiences D-Day.
He remembered being told the invasion wouldn’t take place on June 5, as planned, because of choppy seas. He found it hard to fall asleep that night on a troop ship.
“We were all keyed up,” he said. “We were playing cards, shooting craps, checking equipment, waterproofing cigarettes and cleaning our rifles so they wouldn’t clog on you.”
Early on June 6, the troops were loaded into landing craft, about 36 per boat.
“We circled around a little ways off the ship, then turned and headed for shore. My boat was in the lead,” he said.
His craft, he thought, had been the first to hit the beach. He was at the rear of the boat, wearing 80 pounds worth of equipment — “I was in good shape,” he said — and by the time he ran out, found himself up to his chin in the water.
“All I could think about was getting out of the water and on that beach,” he recalled. “The whole company was assigned to take out a pillbox. It was on a shelf area.”
Then a platoon sergeant, McKinney doesn’t remember hearing the machine gun’s fire or artillery explosions on the beach. But he said the first 25 minutes of the movie “Saving Private Ryan” are as realistic as anything he’s seen.
“To me, it was quiet; I could see explosions from the shells coming in,” he said.
What he first thought were scurrying sand crabs were actually machine-gun bullets tearing up the sand.
“He was leading me too much,” McKinney said of the German gunner. “In time, there were more guns on the beach. The pillbox was right in front of us; we were where we were supposed to be.
“Riflemen started firing and a few more guys showed up. There was barbed wire on the beach; our group was supposed to blow a hole to get through.”
Satchel charges placed against the pillbox helped weaken the German resistance, and a flamethrower directed through the pillbox’s slits, plus “three or four grenades,” completed the mission.
“It all went according to plan, like clockwork,” McKinney said. “To me, it was textbook. I didn’t assume we were going to lose anybody.”
Of course, that wasn’t about to happen in light of the Germans’ defense awaiting the Allies.
“Another sergeant, a platoon assistant, was kneeling, talking, and I couldn’t hear him. He kneeled over — he’d been shot in the head,” McKinney said.
McKinney and his comrades helped themselves to some food found in the pillbox, and then, “I had to lead a patrol with about 15, 20 guys, what was left, to contact the British.
“We took out a pillbox and allowed a lot of equipment to get through and spread out,” he said. “What I did was vital; I’m not boasting. What we did was worthwhile. A lot of my friends were killed. Imagine what would have happened if we lost D-Day.”
McKinney was wounded in the knee and “a first-aid guy put a bandage on it,” he said. “I could walk, so I didn’t go back to the aid station.”
Later, as the Allies moved through France, McKinney was involved in a lot of the hedgerow fighting.
“There were Germans everywhere,” he said. “We moved across France with Patton’s Army atop a tank.”
On Thanksgiving Day 1944, he suffered his third wound of the war and was relieved to find himself atop “white sheets,” emblematic of having a wound severe enough to end his battle time.
“It was to my left leg, inside — a couple inches higher and I would have been a eunuch,” he said, chuckling at the memory.
How did McKinney celebrate the 60th anniversary of the invasion? Peacefully, with a visit from his son Tom, whom he termed a “D-Day fanatic.”
(Vincent M. “Mike” McKinney was an Army platoon sergeant in the 1st Infantry and noted in his obituary as the first man on Omaha Beach. Later, he was a member of the NYPD Legion of Honor.
In 2002, then-U.S. Rep. Tom Udall presented McKinney with the medal of Jubilee of Justice.)