June 6, 1944, D-Day, a.k.a. Operation Overlord, was the largest military undertaking in recorded history, and the beginning of the end for Germany during World War II.
The entire war effort in Europe hinged on the success of the Allied landing on the beaches of Normandy, France, but after years of planning, a last-minute storm over the English Channel threatened to undo the entire operation and almost cost longtime Island Park resident Maurice Mayes his life.
Serving as an electrician’s mate aboard a Navy landing craft tank, a boat designed to land armored vehicles on the shores of beaches, he, along with nearly 160,000 men, made the early-morning voyage across the Channel to Omaha Beach, one of the five landing sites chosen by the operation’s planners and also the most heavily fortified.
He and his fellow crew of 11 had one job: to drop a pair of modified amphibious M4 Sherman tanks onto the beach and retreat. But like much of the invasion that day, little went as planned. After the tanks rolled down the craft’s ramp, Mayes’s boat began taking fire from German Flak 88 artillery guns stationed on cliffs overlooking the beach. Then, “all hell broke loose,” he said.
The previous night’s storm had dredged up sandbars along the coast, and his craft became stuck as it tried to back away. Standing next to one of the boat’s two rear-mounted 50 caliber machine gun turrets, the 18-year-old watched as shells from the heavy cannons landed closer and closer until one struck the exit ramp of the craft and blew it clean off.
“We were sweatin’ it,” he recalled, his native Tennessee accent coming through briefly.
Mayes, now 91, started off as a Depression-era tobacco farmer in Springfield, Tenn. He never knew his father. “He was a mamma’s boy,” Norma, Mayes’s wife of 65 years, said of the father-in-law she never met, adding that his mother bought him a convertible on the condition that he leave his wife.
Mayes lived with his brother and mother in a one-room shack. Picking tobacco leaves in his youth was arduous, he said, and messy. “When we finished, we had to take a bar of soap and go to the creek,” he recounted. He was often covered in plant fibers by the end of a harvest day.
Fond of the Navy, he enlisted in 1943 at age 17, and after basic training, studied electrical engineering in Ames, Iowa, as part of the Navy College Training Program. He spent eight months there before he was sent to Little Creek, Va., and finally to a naval barracks formerlly located in Lido Beach, before shipping out to Scotland in preparation for the invasion.
After Normandy, Mayes headed back to the states, where he was transferred to a landing ship tank — a larger equipment transport vessel — and toured the Pacific, dropping off supplies at the various islands that American forces were attempting to liberate from the Japanese.
He remained in the Navy until 1948. While he served, his mother remarried to a retired Air Force sergeant and West Hempstead native she had met in Nashville, and the two moved to Long Island. Unsure of what to do after his discharge, Mayes followed her. His stepfather — who he called “pops” — landed him a job as an electrician in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 25 union, where he worked for more than 50 years.
It was through that job that he met his future wife in 1950. “He had the million dollar baby from the five-and-ten-cent store,” Norma chimed in, refering to the Long Beach variety shop she worked in as a teenager and where he had been hired to do electrical work.
“That’s where I met her,” Mayes replied.
“And that’s what kept you here,” she shot back. The lifelong Island Park resident called Mayes her “Tennessee boy.” He admitted that meeting her was likely the only reason he stayed on Long Island.
“I was going with a fellow, but he was married and had two kids,” Norma said of her complicated relationship status at the time. She was 17. But when she met Mayes, “I knew him three months and I had an engagement ring on my hand.” The couple married exactly a year and a day later.
The two share a tidy home on Radcliffe Road near the elementary school with a 5-month-old Yorkie named Bailey. Mayes, who on an early June day was recovering from heart valve surgery, appeared healthy despite the setback. Clean-shaven with his fine white hair slicked back, he has lost much of his southern accent, but still recalls many details from his storied life.
Standing on the quarterdeck of his landing craft, Mayes watched in horror as the immobilized boat sustained a direct hit. Bracing for the next shell to finish them off, the coastal Flak 88s instead trained their sights on other targets as successive waves of men and tanks crashed ashore, overwhelming the German defenses.
It took the American forces a week to dislodge Mayes’s craft from the sandbar on which it was stuck, and after a replacement ramp was welded on, the crew returned to England and then to San Diego, Calif., before shipping out to the Pacific.
The Mayeses had three children together, who in turn had six grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren. As Bailey sat on her lap Norma, now 85, mused on the couple’s opportunity to witness so many generations, “We’re lucky to have lived this long.”