“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.” —President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Forest resident Dr. Jack Hughes was a 24-year-old medical officer on June 6, 1944. It was that fateful Tuesday when Allied forces stormed the beaches at Normandy, France, in the World War II operation now universally known as “D-Day.” Jack recalls his experiences in the waters at Omaha Beach in great detail, from the curiosity he felt for watching the events of the day unfold, to the LSTs (Landing Ships, Tanks) heaving with men – some eager to join the fight, others afraid of the ferocious battle unfolding before their eyes. Though it was a life-changing experience for Jack, D-Day does not define his life.
Jack was born on November 24, 1919, in the small town of Tabor City, North Carolina. The Hughes family lived about 30 miles from the beach and regularly enjoyed visiting their coastal “shack.” In the late 1930s, Jack, along with his brother and cousin, made a side business of selling ice to beach goers. They even took apart a couple of Model A Ford touring cars, transforming them into pickup trucks that they used to distribute ice up and down the strand.
At just 15 years old, Jack began his undergraduate education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1935. “There was no kindergarten in those days,” Jack explains. He adds that he was one of two students in his class who also later skipped a grade. Upon completion of his bachelor’s degree at UNC in 1939, Jack entered medical school at Carolina, transferring to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia after two years. Beginning on January 12, 1944, he went into active duty with the U.S. Navy. He began his military journey in Bainbridge, Maryland; after only two weeks there, he received his overseas orders. Moving forward, momentous events of Jack’s World War II experience transpired in rapid-fire succession.
Preparing for the war
Jack’s company soon transferred from the United States Naval Training Center in Bainbridge to Lido Beach, Long Island, New York, where the men remained for the next six to eight weeks for staging. “Your task will not be an easy one,” President Eisenhower warned the troops. “Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.” In early May, a convoy of American LSTs – Jack’s among them – crossed the North Atlantic to England. They spent the next month training up and down the English Channel, in preparation for the looming battle in France.
Then came June 6th. Operation Neptune. D-Day.
Into the storm
As their LST approached Omaha Beach, Jack and the others on board were second in line to join the action on the sands ahead, a move set to commence at 8:00 a.m. While they waited for the signal to proceed, enemy forces hit the LST ahead of them. Jack’s ship was ordered to retreat farther back in the water – far enough away that the men could maintain some level of safety, but close enough to keep an eagle eye on the beach. They were commanded to remain there until darkness fell.
In the chaos of the waiting period, Jack and many stayed topside to watch the operation unfolding. Amid the calamity, he saw another ship take a hit and witnessed an airplane shot out of the sky.
Jack says that in the moment, he didn’t worry about the horrors that day. “I wasn’t crammed in some foxhole somewhere. I took a sort of fatalistic approach,” he recalls. Jack’s unit was told that it was adamant that they win the war, one way or another, or they’d “have to learn how [the enemy] liked their eggs.”
Aiding the injured
Jack’s LST waited in the water until the dark of midnight before pulling close to shore. Making their way onto the beach, the sailors picked up about 100 wounded men, roughly 20 of whom were seriously injured. The ocean swells were an angry eight to ten feet high, making this rescue effort all the more difficult.
With a medical team on board, as well as a small operating room built into the ship, Jack and his team went right to work to aid the injured, assisting with several amputations and treatment of major chest wounds.
Reflecting on the past
“I was very lucky to survive,” Jack says of the entire experience. Indeed, with more than 10,000 casualties and 4,414 confirmed dead from the Allied forces alone, it was a remarkable feat to walk away from the events of D-Day physically unscathed.
“Sometimes, when I think about D-Day, I wonder what would have happened if we had continued on course and not received the order to back down,” Jack told The Forester in April 2011. “The ship would have dried out and we would have been sitting ducks until the next high tide. That’s when I get a sinking feeling that a lot of us sitting ducks would have ended up like thousands of others on the beaches that day.”
After serving overseas in World War II for about eight months, Jack returned to the U.S. He re-entered the country by way of New York Harbor on December 26, 1944. He then transferred from the Navy to the Marine Corps and moved to Parris Island, South Carolina, for the rest of his military career. From there, he spent three years in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he completed his medical specialty training in urology. Immediately after this, he moved to Durham to begin practicing medicine, swayed to the area by Dr. Coppridge of Coppridge Urologic Group. Jack worked at the same practice for the duration of his successful career as a doctor, beginning in 1950.
Jack more than grasped the nettle at Normandy, bravely facing unfathomable circumstances to champion the Allied cause; beyond those uncertain days in 1944, Jack carved a niche for himself in each place he lived and in every role he served. On this 75th anniversary of D-Day, we honor Jack’s service to the United States, recognize his peer sailors and soldiers in the Second World War, and remember his fallen comrades, all of whom gave their lives in sacrifice to safeguard the freedoms we continue to enjoy today.
Editor’s note: Next week, please be sure to revisit our blog to catch up with Jack and learn more about the remarkable life he leads at The Forest at Duke and beyond.
—Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist
Header image: 24-year-old Jack in his naval uniform in 1944.