LEWISTOWN - On June 6, 1944 - 70 years ago today - the largest amphibious invasion in history was launched.
George Piper, of McVeytown, and John E. Groninger, of Mifflin, witnessed the events of that historic day firsthand. Each saw the invasion unfold from the respective ships to which he was assigned, and each had taken a very different path to be there on that day.
Piper took the more traditional route and enlisted in the Navy in September 1942. He went through basic training in Great Lakes, Illinois, before being shipped to Norfolk, Virginia.
Sentinel photos by SARAH DAVIS
George Piper, left, and John Groninger
George Piper was assigned as a seaman on the USS Corey during the D-Day invasion.
John Groninger, center, was one of three brothers who joined the service during World War II.
"I got shipped from there and then I went on just as a regular seaman and we made a trip to Africa and back. Luckily, it was just taking on supplies," he said.
After returning to the states, Piper went to Key West, Fla. for sonar school and came out as a Second Class Petty Officer. He was assigned to the USS Corey, a destroyer, and spent the next several months in the Atlantic Ocean.
"We were in the North Atlantic most of the time. (The) Germans were sinking all of our cargo ships, so we were hunting (submarines)," he said.
The USS Corey was then sent to Scotland, and from there to Plymouth, England, where Piper and his crew mates waited for the launch of the invasion.
Groninger joined the Merchant Marines after he graduated high school in 1943. He went to maritime school at Sheaps Head Bay in Brooklyn, New York. In early 1944 he was assigned to a liberty ship, the Frances Asberry.
"We went with this convoy from New York and we landed in Belfast, Ireland, and the convoy broke up. Our ship went from Belfast over to Scotland," he said.
After being based in Scotland for several weeks, the ship was sent to southern England.
"After we were in Glasgow, Scotland, we went down the southern route to England. From there the merchant ships would start to get worked on to get them ready for the invasion in France," he said.
Once the ships were prepared, they were sent to Southampton, England, where Groninger helped load the ship with supplies.
"There were hundreds of ships in and out. They would load (the ship) with trucks and all kinds of ammunition and everything would go down in the holds of the ship. The men weren't allowed down there so all of us had to sleep on the deck," he said.
On D-Day the Corey, where Piper was stationed, was the lead destroyer in the invasion.
"Our job was to go in and take position, drop anchor and fire on pillboxes (fortified bunkers). (The Germans) let us take position and then they started firing on us. You could see the projectiles being fired at us," he said.
At one point, something caused the Corey to sink. Despite naval archival records that claim the ship was sunk by an underwater mine, Piper thinks the cause lies elsewhere.
"I always thought it was the shore batteries that got us," he said.
Eventually, the captain ordered his men to abandon ship, and Piper was left to float in the waters of the English Channel for several hours until he was picked up by another boat.
Groninger watched as men like Piper were fighting the rough waters of the English Channel from his location aboard the Frances Asberry.
"Everywhere you looked there were ships. There were 1,000 of us. ... I was on a liberty ship. We landed at Omaha. From there we would be a quarter of a mile out," he said.
Trucks, guns and other war materials were unloaded from the ship and placed onto landing ship tanks, but Gronigner said a lot of them never made it to shore.
"I can't tell you how many, but there were hundreds of men that never made it to the beach. They drowned. A lot of them didn't drown until after they got going on these LSTs. But they had a lot of young kids on these LSTs and they would panic," he said.
Both men said they were able to block out their emotions during the hours they spent offshore.
"I wasn't emotional. I went through too much. You don't know it until you see it," Groninger said.
"It's not like you're brave or anything. It's just a condition," he said.
By the next morning, Piper was back in England, and then shipped off to Scotland. He was then sent back to the U.S. for 30 days survivor leave.
When the war ended, Piper was in the Pacific.
"We were off of Japan at the time they surrendered. I was on a destroyer and we were escorting aircraft carriers with planes to the fleet off of Japan," he said.
After D-Day, Groninger's ship made several more trips across the English Channel. In August 1944, Groninger was granted a couple of weeks leave before he signed up to be part of a convoy that was headed to Russia.
"Then I got on the Cecil M. Bean. We got $300 for signing our name to go to Russia," he said.
Groninger spent six weeks in Russia before his convoy left to return to the U.S. However, two or three days into the return journey, the ship experienced some technical difficulties.
"We had salt in the condensers in the engine. They left a destroyer behind with us," he said.
However, that destroyer was only able to stay for 24 hours before it left Groninger's ship alone in the North Sea for six weeks.
"We survived that, but the big fear was that we could receive but couldn't send messages to identify ourselves. So we had to listen to find out when the convoy was close enough to go out and identify ourselves, because they had a whole fleet," he said.
In early 1945, Groninger finally returned to the U.S., but only for a short time before he set sail again. This time Groninger was part of a convoy to Africa, and it was on the return trip home that the war with Germany ended.
With the war with Japan still going on, Groninger left to sail to the Pacific, and landed in Manila Bay. During his time there, Japan surrendered and the Second World War was finally over.
It's been 70 years since D-Day, a day that changed history. The men who served on that day will forever be a part of that history.