D-Day memories haunt veteran

Published 10:34 pm Friday, June 5, 2009

For Richard Banta Sr., thinking about D-Day is never easy.

Yet, June 6 comes around every year, and every year he has to remember.

“I try not to think of a lot of things (on June 6),” says Banta, who was 20 years old on that fateful day. Petty Officer 1st Class Banta was among the second wave of troops that stormed the beaches of Normandy from across the English Channel on what’s become known as “The Longest Day” — June 6, 1944.

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Now 85 and living in Virginia Beach, Banta told his story yesterday on “The J.P. Godsey Show” on WPMH 670 AM. One of the first things he recalled during an interview just prior to the show was the fact that June 5 was almost D-Day.

“June 5, we started to go over,” he said. However, the landing craft infantry boats were unable to get across because of choppy seas and horrendous weather, and the boats had to return to England.

Seated in the WPMH studios waiting for Godsey’s radio show to begin, Banta flipped through a four-year-old calendar illustrated by photos of the boats that shipped the troops to Normandy. Almost every square on the calendar was notated with important events from World War II that happened on that date.

Banta turned the calendar to the month of June. The block for June 6 was filled with the names of ships lost in the invasion. He pointed a rugged finger at the fifth one on the list — LCI 416, the ship that carried Banta across the English Channel.

Banta was part of the second wave of men to storm the beach that day. The first wave had come ashore around 7 a.m., and very few survived the barrage of fire from Nazi weapons. The second wave left from England around the same time and arrived about 11 a.m.

LCI 416 was about 100 yards from shore when it hit a mine. With the boat unable to continue, about 230 men had to abandon ship and swim to shore. They weren’t alone in their attack — Banta looked up to find that the strike was coming from the air, as well.

“You could have walked across the sky for the airplanes that were there,” he quipped.

It didn’t take long for Banta to be able to touch the bottom and begin wading inland. The closer he got to shore, the more evident the horrifying results of the first wave became. Banta and his comrades had to push aside the floating bodies that covered the water near the beach — even using some of them as human shields against the weapon fire.

“It’s a terrible sound,” said Banta of the rounds hitting the dead bodies. “It thuds.”

Banta finally made it to the beach, and immediately used his weapon to dig a foxhole. He lay in the hole, firing at Nazi troops, until 8 p.m. that night, when a British destroyer rounded up the men who were still living and took them to a hospital in England.

Banta was one of the extremely lucky ones – not only did he make it out alive, he also escaped serious injury. His only wound from the invasion, he admits, was due to his “own stupidity.”

“I had a knife on my waist, that I carried everywhere,” he said. “When I jumped over (off the boat), it went right into my leg. Went through the sheath and everything.”

Banta remained in the Navy for the duration of the war and six months afterward, though he never had another day as eventful as June 6, 1944. After the war, he worked for the telephone company through his retirement in 1982.

Recently, Banta had the chance to visit the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. He went with a group of veterans from several past wars and spent a whirlwind day visiting each of the war memorials.

“Everything we did, they treated us like we were heroes,” Banta said of the people he passed in the nation’s capital city.

As he waited to go on the air on Godsey’s show, Banta flipped the calendar closed and examined its cover. About a dozen young men with rigid expressions had posed for the photographer, their hands resting on different pieces of equipment on the boat.

“These faces haunt me,” said Banta, with a faraway look in his eyes. “I doubt any of them made it to shore.”