Henry Ferri – Storming the Beaches

Henry J. Ferri was born in 1923 in Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania, and was in his senior year in high school when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  Like millions of other young men in the high school class of 1942, he enlisted in the U.S. Army not long after graduation.

Henry Ferri on the Army Heritage Trail at the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center. He is standing next to a German Pak 43, the same model of 88mm gun that fired on his ship as he was approaching Omaha Beach. Photo Courtesy of the Army Heritage Center Foundation.

“I trained as an amphibious combat engineer at Camp Swift in the State of Texas.  My training included:  clearing mines, building pontoon bridges, traffic control, familiarization with explosives, and, of course, getting in physical shape to withstand the rigors of combat.”

After his training, Henry was briefly assigned to Officer Candidate School, but the program was shut down after one semester, and Henry was sent overseas to England.

“I was sent home for 10 days, and then I eventually ended up in Swinden, England.  There, I was assigned to a special brigade whose sole purpose was to prepare for the invasion of Europe.”

“Training for the invasion consisted of several training exercises of departing from England on a LCI, or Landing Craft, Infantry, going to about 4 miles from France, then returning to land on the English coast.  We did this several times. One very important circumstance to note: during these training runs we were always placed in the front of the LCI. But on June 5th, for the actual invasion, we were late getting to the boat.  So we were placed in the rear of the LCI.  This is very significant as you will discern later.”

“On June 5th, at about 5:30 p.m., we started to get on the LCI. This boarding was also a little different because besides being placed in the rear, we were served coffee and donuts –this is the first time that this happened and should have been a sign that this was the real thing“

“We left from Weymouth England, and at about 6:30 p.m., we all received a written note from General Ike that this was going to be the real invasion that we all had trained for.”

“I had always anticipated that since we had air superiority and extensive naval power that the invasion would be rather easy, however, on this morning, planes could not fly because of the weather, and naval destroyers could not use their cannons because of they’d be too close to our troops. To this day, the choice of Omaha Beach does not make much sense to me because of the elevation of the bluff and the defenses.”

“Omaha Beach had a bluff, and on that bluff the Germans had around ten machine guns and these guns could kill and or injure at about 500 yards. The boats that we were in had two ramps on either side, I happened to be the last soldier on the right ramp, and as we drew closer to the shore, the machine guns on the bluff went into action.  Two soldiers in front of me were killed, and I had just moved lower to try to avoid the firing from the hill when an 88 cannon shell went through the galley.  If I were a little higher, it would have decapitated me.  The shell hit the bridge and killed all the sailors except for one.”

The Landing Craft, Infantry, was a troop ship designed to be driven up on the beach to deliver men via loading ramps on either side of the bow. The boat would drop anchor offshore, then use a winch to pull itself back off the beach. Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

“As our LCI approached the beach, it hit a sea mine and all of the soldiers in the front of the LCI were killed. Remember, as I related before, during training we were always placed in the front of the LCI.  IF NOT BY LUCK OR THE GRACE OF A HIGHER BEING, I WOULD NOT BE HERE TODAY.”

“The LCI was sinking, but luckily that one sailor was alive, and he was able to start the winch that is in the rear of an LCI.  He got it started, and we eventually moved out of machine gun range.  The 88 cannons had already moved on because we were sinking.”

“D-DAY provided no options. I say this because it comes down to how you want to die. I am on a sinking boat –we are about 700 yards from shore–we are carrying about 8o pounds of equipment –the water is cold and hypothermia is for real–what does one do?  I made the decision to shed the equipment and take my chances with attempting to swim to shore. And just as I am starting to shed my equipment a Higgins boat appears to save us and take the few of us left to the beach.”

“Upon arriving on the beach, we joined in the efforts to take the bluff, and with a lot of luck and endurance, we knocked out the machine guns and that made it much safer for troops to come to shore.”

Composite aerial photograph showing the exits from Omaha Beach. By the evening of the first day, Henry and others from his unit had made their way up the Colleville Draw. Photo Courtesy of the Center of Military History.

Eventually, fighting as an Infantryman, Henry and his fellow Soldiers broke out of the beach and made their way up the Coleville Draw.  For the remainder of the war, Henry moved about wherever his engineering skills were needed, taking many risks and suffering many hardships, but nothing came close in his mind to his experience on Omaha Beach.

“There were many other times in that war that I confronted danger, but in those events I could pursue options in order to defend myself. On the D-Day invasion, there were zero viable options outside of luck or the interference of a higher authority to help me to remain alive.”

Henry Ferri passed away in 2018 at the age of 95.

This story was compiled from a written memoir and oral history interviews with Henry Ferri.  We present his story here as he told it, with minor editing for clarity.

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