Historian remembers McKeesport men killed in D-Day invasion
World leaders and World War II veterans are among thousands in Normandy for today's 70th anniversary commemoration of D-Day.
So is an amateur historian whose work shone light on Amin Isbir and William D. Barnett, two McKeesport men killed in action on June 6, 1944.
President Obama joined France's President Francois Hollande and other leaders to recall Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. One ceremony is at Colleville Sur Mer, the largest American World War II cemetery in Europe and final resting place for 9,387 troops.
It is near Omaha Beach, where 34,250 United States personnel landed. At least 2,500 of them did not return.
Jack Read, 91, a Coast Guard veteran from Erie, is among those who did. He will receive France's Legion d'Honneur, that country's highest honor to foreign servicemen.
“Jack was part of a group called Rescue Flotilla One,” amateur historian Eric Montgomery recalled. “They were assigned to rescue soldiers, sailors, anyone who was in the water on D-Day.”
It wasn't easy.
“There were mines, boats exploding, hospital ships being torpedoed, a German aircraft bombing them. More than 500 souls were pulled from the frigid waters of the English Channel.”
“Rescue Flotilla One,” called the “Matchbox Fleet” because of their wooden construction and gasoline engines, rescued 1,438 before it was decommissioned at the end of 1944.
Montgomery accompanied Read back to Normandy. He got to know the Coast Guard veteran after a four-year quest to straighten out the record of his great-uncle Amin Isbir.
Isbir, 36, of McKeesport was a sailor of the Sixth Naval Beach Battalion, Platoon C-8, who died on D-Day, but for 64 years his death date was recorded as June 8, 1944.
Read was a chief motor machinist mate from Brooklyn, N.Y. He met Montgomery on June 6, 2011, at the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va.
Another member of Isbir's battalion was Signalman Richard “Red” Onines of Chicago.
“He was one of the guys who attested to the fact (Isbir) was killed on June 6 and not on June 8,” Montgomery said. “Red and seven other members of the Sixth Naval Beach Battalion were already in water already over their heads with only one place to go: Forward into hell.”
Onines had with him signal flags, needed to establish shore-to-ship communication, particularly after he lost his radio equipment – and had been deafened by one of those 88-millimeter shells.
“Red performed this duty while under constant fire from German machine gunners and infantrymen,” Montgomery said. “He stood tall at the water's edge waving his red and yellow naval signal flags in an effort to capture the attention of arriving coxswains.”
Montgomery was to return to Normandy with Onines, too, but it didn't happen.
“Red was given a clean bill of health to travel (but) was to pass away the following day,” Montgomery said. “His final words: ‘The LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) are coming.'”
Red's widow Virginia Onines was persuaded to send Montgomery the signal flags, which will be deployed during a re-enactment by Montgomery, as he wears a uniform similar to what Onines and the rest of his battalion wore 70 years ago.
Montgomery's research led him to the grave of another McKeesport man killed on Omaha Beach, William D. Barnett, 28, a private in the Army's Company B, 116th Regiment, 29th Division.
“His flat grave marker is about 30 feet to the right and three or four rows back from the old cannon, as you look at the muzzle of the gun as I remember it,” Montgomery said. “It's right in the middle of that area if I recall. Easy to find, says ‘Killed in Action, June 6th, 1944.' The ‘Killed in Action' markers stand out.”
Read and Montgomery left Erie a week ago, first for Poole, England, where a plaque recalls Rescue Flotilla One.
“After arriving at Poole the cutter crews lived on their assigned boats,” Montgomery said. “The hardships endured by the civilian population were quite evident to the men. After five years of rationing and under the threat of an air attack, the British citizens earned the great respect of the men. Despite the rationing, townsfolk welcomed the returning ‘colonials' into their homes for an occasional home-cooked meal.”
In all, 156,000 American, British, Canadian, Australian and other Allied forces were involved on five Normandy beaches. According to the D-Day Museum & Overlord Embroidery in Portsmouth, England, 326,547 troops, 54,186 vehicles and 104,428 tons of supplies were landed on the beaches by June 11, 1944.
Montgomery maintains the www.soldiersandsailors.us website with recollections of his great-uncle and other memories of World War II.
Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or firstname.lastname@example.org.