On D-Day, John Edmunds was 19 years old, a seaman in the Royal Canadian Navy from Burlington, Ontario. His mission: A helmsman on an escort ship leading cargo ships to the Normandy shore of Juno Beach. Today, 89, a retiree in West Palm Beach, Edmunds recalled his D-Day mission to writer Carlos Frias.
Seaman John Edmunds of the Royal Canadian Navy finds only a cloudless day and clear sea as he stands at the helm of the armored escort ship HMCS Drumheller, his captain barking down orders from the bridge: “Port, two degrees!”
Edmunds sails the Drumheller, a Canadian-built, corvette-class ship, in circles around a convoy of 15 cargo ships for the length of their three hour voyage across the English Channel into France.
And now, as he looks toward an approaching shore, the reality of what lies ahead for the Allies comes into view. “We looked out across the English Channel and the whole horizon was ships, thousands of ships,” he recalled.
Men line the deck with binoculars, searching the seas for German submarines, which Edmunds had already witnessed sinking 12 of the 60 ships the Drumheller helped escort across the Atlantic in the first days of the war, men screaming for help in the open water. (“You heard the yelling and the screaming, but we couldn’t stop,” Edmunds recalled.)
Swiftly now, there is a sound, unforgettable, advancing like a wave: a heartbeat of cannon fire, like two tractor trailers continually colliding head-on in the distance.
Allied destroyers, their warring sides turned toward the French shore, strafe the hills beyond the beaches for concrete German bunkers. The Germans answer in a roaring rhythm as Allied troops land on the shores, codenamed Juno Beach, in bloody waves.
Edmunds, just 18, has never heard or seen anything like it.
“When the tide came out, there were bodies floating everywhere. Unbelievable,” he remembers.
Cannon fire bursts overhead in gray smoke as the Drumheller makes way for the 15 cargo ships to sail near shore, perilously close to scraping bottom.
He watches these Liberty ships line up bow-to-stern, parallel to the shore to form a breakwater, an artificial harbor where Allied ships carrying troops, tanks and supplies can land throughout the assault in calmer seas.
Then, these ships scuttle themselves into permanent place. Some remain there, rusting off the shores of Normandy to this day.
The Drumheller is ordered to escort supply ships throughout the invasion, the crew sleeping in four-hour shifts, ready to drop depth charges off the back to blast German subs. They will not set foot on land for 42 days.
“You sort of went stir crazy,” Edmunds says.
Born: Burlington, Ontario. Canada
Resides: West Palm Beach, FL
Served: 1943-1945, Royal Canadian Navy
D-Day assignment: Juno Beach, helmsman on the armed escort ship HMCS Drumheller