“We didn’t have no idea that anything like D-Day was coming up,” said Gilreath. “We were just kids doing what we was told to do.” Gilreath, a Floyd County resident, recalled that weathermen reported a break in the storms that day. The weather whipped up waves in the English Channel to 15 feet high the previous day.
The World War II invasion which heralded the Battle of Normandy and was aimed at freeing Nazi-occupied Europe had been delayed a day, but on June 6 the call went out, “Away all boats,” and Gilreath was in.
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As a coxswain, Gilreath operated a Higgins boat and was tasked with the duty of transporting troops to and from Omaha Beach. On that day, he was in the first wave of boats. The German force rained down artillery as other boats got caught by debris and mines all around him.
“You could see that ball of fire coming, and if you were lucky enough like I was, you could see it going,” said Gilreath.
Of approximately 156,000 troops landed by the Allies on five beaches along the coast of France, an estimated 10,000 were killed, injured, missing or captured. Records indicate that casualties were highest at the Omaha Beach. From the amphibious assault on the beaches, the Allies fought inland and eventually liberated Paris in August. The war in Europe ended with Germany’s surrender in May 1945.
In the first hour Gilreath was operating his boat on D-Day, almost 2,000 soldiers were lost. Upon returning to the beach with a second wave of troops, he wasn’t able to land because of the amount of casualties, so he had to maneuver to a clearer location.
In addition to carrying troops to the beach, Gilreath had the job of focusing on transportation for the wounded back to a hospital ship. Utilizing a boathook made for securing a boat against the ship, he circled the waters and scanned the waves for both survivors and bodies.
“You’d run across a body you know, maybe an arm, leg, head, you’d hook onto it, you know, and pull them aboard ship and hope,” said Gilreath.
At the time of the D-Day invasion, Gilreath already had experienced four campaigns at war, including North Africa, Sicily, Salerno and Casablanca, as a coxswain.
On the anniversary of that day, Gilreath said he feels fortunate that he made it back home along with his two brothers who also served in the war. Less than six months after returning to Rome, he married his wife Virginia and they will celebrate their 67th anniversary later this month.
“I don’t know how in the world we ever made it but the good Lord saw fit for us to go in and we made it to the cost of … Lord, I don’t know,” said Gilreath.
The couple’s son, Roy Gilreath Jr., retired as a U.S. Navy lieutenant commander after serving 21 years, including a tour in Desert Storm. Their grandson, Joshua Burkhalter, is currently serving in the Navy as a third class petty officer in the nuclear program aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier.