Veteran taking part in D-Day events in Normandy

Collicott served aboard Navy destroyer bombed during historic invasion
Kevin Passon

A Keshena man will be among the American troops who will participate in the D-Day invasion in Normandy, France.

Navy veteran Vaughn Collicott, 100, will join about 70 veterans from across the United States on a trip honoring the 80th anniversary of D-Day, which will culminate in a visit to Normandy on June 6. The trip was organized by the Greatest Generation Foundation.

Collicott was a fire control technician working in the electrical center aboard the USS Meredith.

In the early morning hours of June 7, 1944, the USS Meredith got hit. The history books say the ship stumbled upon an underwater mine. Collicott believes differently, saying it was actually a German plane that hit the ship with a bomb.

Collicott said he was sitting on a stool at the time, and the explosion blew him off the stool and against the wall.

Additionally, on the History Channel Deep Sea Detectives documentary titled “D-Day Destroyer,” shortly before the explosion, Collicott, manning the phones in internal control, heard personnel stating, “Here comes a plane.”

The plane had no IFF signal, so it was an enemy plane. Next they heard a whistle, caused by the tail fins of an incoming bomb. The Meredith was then hit with devastating destruction which created a 65-foot wide hole.

Collicott told WBAY-TV the ship didn’t sink right away; rather, it listed to the starboard side.

“When I came out, it was dark. There were four or five guys burnt black and were bleeding. One of the sailors had a Bible and a red flashlight; he was reading,” he said. “And I could hear people screaming for help in the water, but it was dark. I couldn’t see where they were. Now that alone is a different grieving. You want to help somebody, you don’t know where they’re at, but you can hear them.”

Gidget Peerenboom, Collicott’s granddaughter, will travel with him to Normandy, serving as his guardian as is customary on honor flights.

“We will be flying from Appleton to Dallas May 30,” Peerenboom said. “The evening will be spent at a WWII-themed kickoff dinner at American Airlines headquarters campus. Celebrity chef (and Royal Navy Veteran) Robert Irvine will provide dinner, and there will be special entertainment. On Friday morning there will be a sendoff ceremony at the American Airlines headquarters followed by lunch, then it’s off to Paris for three days.”

While in Paris, the veterans will tour the city, visit the Eiffel Tower and take a cruise down the Seine River.

On June 3, veterans and their guardians will board a bus to the Normandy region for several more days of tours and special events, Peerenboom said.

“Then of course on June 6, we will attend the 80th Anniversary Ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery,” she said.

She said the veterans will be VIPs for the special occasion.

All will return home June 8, where Collicott and the other veterans will be surprised with a mail call of cards and letters of appreciation.

“I don’t know whether I’m a hero or not,” Collicott told WBAY. “I just did what had to be done.”

Nearly 160,000 Allied troops landed in Normandy on June 6, 1944. Of those, 73,000 were from the United States, 83,000 from Britain and Canada. Forces from several other countries were also involved, including French troops fighting with Gen. Charles de Gaulle against the Nazi occupation.

They faced around 50,000 German forces.

More than 2 million Allied soldiers, sailors, pilots, medics and other people from a dozen countries were involved in the overall Operation Overlord, the battle to wrest western France from Nazi control that started on D-Day.

The sea landings started at 6:30 a.m. local time, just after dawn, targeting five code-named beaches, one after the other: Omaha, Utah, Gold, Sword, Juno.

The operation also included actions inland, including overnight parachute landings on strategic German sites and U.S. Army Rangers scaling cliffs to take out German gun positions.

Around 11,000 Allied aircraft, 7,000 ships and boats, and thousands of other vehicles were involved in the invasion.

A total of 4,414 Allied troops were killed on D-Day itself, including 2,501 Americans. More than 5,000 were wounded.

In the ensuing Battle of Normandy, 73,000 Allied forces were killed and 153,000 wounded. The battle — and especially Allied bombings of French villages and cities — killed around 20,000 French civilians.

The exact German casualties aren’t known, but historians estimate between 4,000 and 9,000 men were killed, wounded or missing during the D-Day invasion alone. About 22,000 German soldiers are among the many buried around Normandy.