NORFOLK (NNS) -- It was an unbearably hot and humid day in the hangar bay of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD 1) in the summer of 2015.
Intolerably eager for something to drink, I began to interview Mr. Bob Inman, a World War II veteran, during the week-long, navy-centric celebration of Fleet Week Port Everglades.
He was there during the largest amphibious invasion in recorded human history, at Normandy, France he helped get Marines to the beach through heavy German resistance. Racking machine-gun fire, blood, searing shrapnel and air thick with sulfuric-smoke from spent artillery shells is how he described that day.
I didn't care about the temperature, the humidity or my thirst anymore.
Before we parted ways, we shook hands and he thanked me for my service; a crushingly humbling gesture because after learning about his incredible experiences, I was actively debating if we were made out of the same stuff.
I frequently think back to that handshake and my conversations with him, which I find myself often doing when working with surface ships named after vanguards of heroism, people like Inman.
The guided-missile cruiser, USS Normandy (CG 60), carries the namesake and duty to live up to the standard set by the veterans who served, bled, fought and died on the beaches of Normandy, France.
Christopher Sterner, who served aboard Normandy from August 1997 until July 2000, is an active administrator for the USS Normandy Reunion Group; a nonprofit, 100% volunteer group designed to keep Sailors who served on Normandy in touch with regular correspondence, clinics, and reunions.
"She is the best command I've ever served on," said the former Fire Controlman 2nd Class. "No Matter the commanding officer, no matter the time frame. The blood on those beaches has somehow imbued something into the bulkheads of that ship - there's no other reason for it."
Shortly after commissioning in Newport, Rhode Island, Normandy was quick to enter the multinational campaign to free Kuwait in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Normandy fired 26 tomahawk missiles, protected allied ships and aircraft in the area, conducted maritime interdiction operations, and helped to locate and destroy enemy mines. She was the first US warship since 1945 to go to war on her maiden cruise.
Three years later, Normandy was tasked to support efforts, primarily as an Adriatic air-space controller, to assist the tumultuous and war-torn republic of Yugoslavia by providing humanitarian missions, air support for United Nations troops in Bosnia, and maintaining a naval blockade to limit supplies that stoked tensions in the region.
Later, Operation Deliberate Force, Operation Deny Flight, Sharp Guard, and Decisive Endeavor were executed flawlessly while also earning the distinction of "Most Tomahawks shot by a US Navy cruiser"
Perhaps most importantly, however, Normandy embarked nine World War II veterans on May 18, 1994 for commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the allied landings on the beaches of Normandy. Normandy served as a centerpiece for a national commemoration at the beachheads on June 6, attended by President William Clinton.
Garry Morris was on board the ship for the historic embark.
"Going to Normandy, France fifty years to the day after the battle, on the ship that bares the namesake, was probably the most surreal experience of my life," said the former Gunner's Mate Guns 3rd Class Morris. "When we later moored in La Havre, France, we were greeted by a huge crowd who were dying to meet us, shake our hands and - I'm not joking - get our autographs. I instantly knew they remembered. I knew that the outpouring of love they gave us was earned by those who came before us, some of which we now had the unheard of honor of bringing with us on our trip. "
Normandy, alongside a multinational flotilla, was busy preparing for the commemoration ceremony. Rigging an "A-Comm" ladder, former Boatswain's Mate 3rd class Jeffery Tueffel remembers when the magnitude of D Day hit him.
"During the routine evolution, while hard-pressed for time with a skeleton division, I looked up as sunrise dimly lit our small group of ships at anchor. We were only a fraction of what was present there 50 years prior," he said. "I had to hide the lump in my throat. How did they physically enter the breach of hell that awaited them? The Normandy rocker on our shoulders took on a whole new meaning that second. That strip of fabric memorializes every brave soul that fought and died."
As the day of ceremony approached Morris was able to see the immense meaning behind the title of the ship.
"We could clearly see the cliffs that [allied forces] had to scale under extreme enemy fire in order to reach and neutralize German machine gun nests and pill boxes. The whole time I could not get the images out of my mind of Germans firing down on them, mowing them down while they were trying to advance and secure the beachhead - all right there where I was looking."
For Morris, the experience cemented the importance of the namesake.
"Seeing that place and meeting those people proved to me that the legacy of D-Day and the name Normandy are hallowed and sacred. The effects of that great invasion and the sacrifices made on that day are still felt 50, now almost 75 years later. It was a huge honor to serve in the Navy, but still not quite the honor of having served on that ship whose own name and legacy gives me instant pride and instill respect to this day. "
The pride was universal.
"The men who died on the beach that day in the late spring of 1944 saved the world," said Sterner. "Literal super heroes, fighting the forces of evil and winning. That's what that ship means. That's what her name means. It unites every one of her crews to attain a level of outstanding performances throughout her time on the water.
For more information visit Normandy Reunion Group Facebook page.
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