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A local WWII veteran recalled D-Day

By Alan Hodge

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On May 25, Memorial Day, we paused to honor the men and women of our nation’s military service. This coming Saturday, June 6, we mark the 76th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, D-Day during WWII. This story about Belmont resident the late James Biggerstaff who passed away on July 28th, 2019 blends those two dates into one reflective memory.

On June 6, 1944 Biggerstaff was a U.S. Navy sailor manning a 14-inch gun turret on board the USS Nevada battleship pouring 1,500-pound shells into German positions on Omaha Beach during the invasion of Normandy.

Not only that, but according to a Chicago Tribune article that appeared later, the Nevada’s Capt. H.A. Yeager had given the order to fire the first shots of the bombardment that preceded the launching of landing craft to the beach, making it possible that Biggerstaff’s turret could have let go the first salvo of D-Day.

Here’s what Biggerstaff had to say in an interview shortly before he passed about his Normandy adventure.

“I was 17 years old when I joined the Navy in 1943,” Biggerstaff said. “I was a native of Rutherford County. My ship, the USS Nevada had ten 14-inch guns. My job in the turret was to load the bags of gunpowder and primer into the breech after the shell was put in. It took 420 pounds of powder to fire each gun. The shells could travel 20 miles and were so big you could see them in the air. The steel on the turrets was a foot thick.

We left England in the middle of the night and crossed the English Channel. We were told we would be invading France but not exactly where. Security was tight. A few days before that, General Eisenhower came to see us and told us ‘God speed’. 

We stopped the ship 20 miles off the coast of France and at 6am all hell broke loose when we opened fire. The blast from the guns pushed the ship back in the water. Later, as the troops moved inland, we moved to about 10 miles off shore and kept shooting.

We shot until we just had 25 shells left and then went back to England for more. We returned to Normandy the next day. 

I was in the turret most of the time but looked out now and then. I could see planes going over and people jumping out of them. There was a tremendous amount of noise. The beach looked like hell on earth. I’ve never seen anything like it.

We were there for 90 hours and ate C-rations like the soldiers did. Later, our cook made up creamed chipped beef on toast. It’s also known as...well, you know. But it tasted beautiful.”

D-Day wasn’t all the action Biggerstaff and the USS Nevada saw in WWII. 

“After D-Day we went to New York for rest. Then we went to Norfolk to have the ship’s guns replaced. Then we went through the Panama Canal and eventually to Pearl Harbor and the South Pacific where we took part in invasions of Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Guam, Saipan and other islands. We got hit by suicide planes and lost some men. We had 90 air raids in 30 days and two typhoons. The ship was between Okinawa and Japan when the war ended.”

Talking to Biggerstaff, it was obvious he loved his country.

“It was beautiful to go places and see and do the things I did back then,” he said. “But America is still the best place on earth.”