Morley Piper was 20 years old and had been in the Army for two years when he found himself lurching in a small boat in the English Channel about 3 miles off the coast of Normandy.
It was June 6, 1944 — D-Day — and Piper was one of more than 160,000 Allied forces preparing to surge their way into Nazi-occupied Europe.
“At about 3:30 in the morning we clamored down big rope ladders into rough seas,” said Piper, 89, of Essex. “There were lots of wind and waves. We loaded into landing craft infantry boats which held 30 soldiers, packed, standing shoulder-to-shoulder.”
Just as dawn was breaking, Piper's boat began moving toward the shore.
“We were supposed to be the second wave, but the first wave was decimated so we were sent in early,” he recalled. “As we headed for shore we could see the fire (from the Germans) coming from the bluffs. Alongside us as far as the eye could see there were big battle ships shelling the shore.”
Piper said he was anxious and fearful during the approach to the beach, but most of all determined.
“I was thinking about how to make it and how to survive. Survival became a top priority,” he said. “We could see boats like ours being shelled. It was a very dicey situation.”
When they reached the beach, the troops realized that they would be even more exposed.
“The tide was coming in as we were landing, so there was a lot of empty beach to cross before we had anything resembling protection,” Piper said. “Fire was coming at us for quite a long time. We never really knew we were safe. We could get behind a little protection, but the mortar shells could still reach us. We were always in danger. The prevalent attitude was that we didn't think we would make it off the beach.”
Finally, a reprieve came at about 1 p.m. when the Navy blasted through a concrete barrier that the Germans had erected to keep Allied vehicles from traveling inland.
“We poured through the hole and found ourselves in a little town,” Piper said. “We finally got off the beach at about one o'clock and we held the little town. One hundred of us were hanging on for dear life.”
Piper will share the rest of this story, along with other recollections from his time as a soldier and journalist reporting on war, as keynote speaker for the launch events for “North of Boston: Salute to Veterans.” The coffee-table book is filled with hundreds of photos of and stories about local veterans who served from early warfare to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This book is very important to the area,” said Piper, who has worked in journalism since leaving the Army. “I think it's important to preserve these personal histories that tell the story about the war. This book pulls it all together.”
The events are planned from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. this Thursday and Friday, Dec. 12 and 13. The Thursday event is at The Salem News office, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly; the Friday event is at The Eagle-Tribune office, 100 Turnpike St., North Andover. The public is encouraged to attend both events to exchange stories, network and sign books.
IF YOU GO What: "Salute to Veterans" launch parties. When: Thursday, Dec. 12 and Friday, Dec. 13, 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Where: Thursday at The Salem News, 32 Dunham Road, Beverly; Friday at The Eagle-Tribune, 100 Turnpike St., North Andover. How: Events are free and open to the public. For more information call 978-946-2241. * Please note the changed date of the North Andover event.