“I was just an ordinary guy,” remembers Morley Piper.
On June 6, 1944, the Essex resident stood among the American, British, Canadian and Polish troops landing in Normandy, part of what Gen. Dwight Eisenhower termed “a great crusade.” If that made him extraordinary, he’s all the more remarkable at 89 for belonging to a dwindling core of survivors, healthy and mentally sharp.
Piper will join veterans returning to Normandy this coming week to observe the 70th anniversary of the invasion. He plans to be in regular contact with The Salem News, giving first-hand accounts of the ceremonies and a perspective very few can bring to such an event.
He seems to steel himself slightly before he tells his story. It was decades before he was willing to talk about it at all. He was finally convinced by family of the value in educating the rest of us. He answers all questions in a calm, even voice, touching on the moment freedom was balanced on the willingness of many ordinary guys to tempt death.
Born into the small farming town of Canton, Illinois, Piper is the son of a school principal and a worker at International Harvester. At little Illinois College in Jacksonville he dreamed of becoming a great reporter. But at age 18, in 1941, he was unwilling to await the draft and he dropped out, enlisting in the Army. From basic training he served stateside before attending a school for officers.
In 1944, 2nd Lt. Piper was sent to England and the 29th Infantry. In the early hours of D-Day his 115th regiment scrambled down nets to the landing boats off Omaha Beach. Three miles from the beach, “all you could see was ships. On the shore were big explosions. Great flashes of fire and clouds of smoke and dust.”
His regiment was meant to follow the first wave. “As we got closer, we could see the 116th regiment being blasted to bits. Bullets slammed into the side of our boats.” Shells found surrounding landing craft, splitting them in two. Tanks, trucks, artillery and men began sinking to the bottom.