D-Day recalled by man who was there

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Raymond Harold Lilly had only one appointment on Monday, June 6th, 67 years after D-Day when hundreds of thousands of troops, seamen, pilots and airborne assault teams invaded Normandy, France.

Lilly, now 85, went for a haircut at Dalton's Barbershop on 3rd Avenue North where Bill "Blossom" Ezell clipped the old sailor's white hair, dabbed warm soapy foam around his ears for the razor cut and then brushed him off.

Lilly spoke so softly from the barber chair about the world's largest amphibious invasion that a stool was needed to sit close enough and listen. When Blossom finished, Lilly suggested that the cushioned pews be used to complete the interview.

The Lewisburg resident was asked what he thought about that day 67 years ago when he was two months away from being 19 years old.

"You didn't have much time to think of anything," Lilly said. "You just did what you were supposed to do... I was just on one craft doing what I was supposed to do."

He was on an LCM, a Landing Craft Mechanized boat. The first task he had was to help deal with an LCT, a Landing Craft Tank boat that "was hit in the port bow. It was filled with tanks and we had to get it to shallow water to keep it from sinking."

June 6, 1944, was selected as D-Day because of weather, the full moon, and the high tide. Invasion planners anticipated the loss of many boats, so naval amphibious teams were ready for salvage jobs.

"All the floatable damaged boats were towed out to deep water," Lilly said. "Our job was to keep a lane open for access to shore."

His boat went back and forth into an out of the line of fire laid down by German guns.

"There was no way to avoid it," Lilly recalled. And while keeping a channel open to Omaha Beach, "There were so many dead bodies in the water...

"These boats had big, mean propellers and we were afraid to go over the dead because we'd cut them to pieces...

"On the first day at about 1 p.m., the Germans cut loose with mortars and destroyed everything. There was nothing left but twisted steel. We lost a lot of men."

But he suffered "not a scratch."

Asked why, Lilly points his index finger up and says, "My Lord."

He paused and said, "But we were well trained... What I think made it possible [for the invasion to succeed] was our destroyers."

Those fighting ships "almost came onto the beach... There was a big gun at the top of the hill... and the destroyers finally hit it and logs came rolling down."

After World War II, Lilly was in the active reserves and was recalled for an 18-month tour of duty in Korea.

He subsequently rejoined his father's construction business in Virginia. As a teenager, Lilly had worked for his father, until he persuaded him to sign papers allowing him to join the Navy.

Later he lived in Sissonville, W.Va. with the woman he's been married to for 31 years. She had children from a previous marriage. Her son lives here. A daughter lives in Murfreesboro.

Lilly and his wife, Mary B., moved to Lewisburg in 1998.

After talking for nearly an hour, Lilly said he had to leave. Before he walked from the barbershop, a young man relayed good wishes from a mutual friend.

"Good people," he said of Lewisburg. "Good place."