Telling their stories: John O'Malley
Seventy five years ago, Lake Oswego resident John O'Malley was one of 156,000 American soldiers to storm the beach at Normandy on D-Day. It was one of the most horrific events in modern history, with more than 10,000 allied casualties — 6,630 of whom were American.
O'Malley doesn't think about it much now, but when he does he feels very lucky to have made it out, even though he was later captured by the Germans and kept as a prisoner of war.
Born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1922, O'Malley was the son of a department store owner. He attended the University of Notre Dame, where he earned his bachelor's degree in journalism while completing the U.S. Naval Reserve Midshipmen School and was a part of a class of 1,200 new naval officers to graduate in 1943.
"It was kind of automatic, it was just something you did," O'Malley said of his choice to enter the service. "That's what you did back then."
After Midshipmen School at Notre Dame, Ensign O'Malley was sent to Virginia Beach, Virginia, where he trained to pilot amphibious vehicles called Landing Craft Mechanized, special boats that were able to transport large numbers of vehicles and troops from destroyers to the shoreline. He was quickly pulled out of the bunch and recruited to be trained as a Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer to assist infantry personnel requiring naval gunfire support.
He was sent to Fort Sill in Oklahoma where he learned spot artillery fire before shipping out to England in November 1943.
He remembers the ride across the Atlantic Ocean aboard the RMS Mauretania being more of a cruise than an intense ride into battle.
"It was windy and stormy, but we didn't realize what we were getting ourselves into," he said. "It was an ocean liner, so we had the same amenities that the tourists would get."
Once they arrived in Liverpool, they were shipped down to Dartmouth where they camped for about seven months, training for beach landings, exercising and waiting around for the hat to drop.
"We were constantly training. Hiking, camping, all that stuff you do when you're connected duty with the infantry, which we were," O'Malley said. "There were only about 25 of us (Naval Gunfire Liaison Officers)."
Attached to the 29th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, O'Malley trained for seven months until Tuesday, June 6, 1944, when he and his division played a major role in Operation Overlord to land at Omaha Beach where the cliffs were steepest, and casualties were the highest.
"The first three days we were just trying to get up off the beach, really, that was the goal," O'Malley said. "It was a sandy beach with lots of rocks, so you just try to follow along and get out of there before you get wiped out."
Once they'd reached the top of the cliffs, the 29th division searched for targets in the hedgerows above the beach.
"We'd moved inland, and we were running out of things to shoot at," he said.
A few days later, as O'Malley and 28 infantrymen were out on night patrol, they became surrounded by a German company that began shooting.
"We settled down in this hedgerow and all the sudden, the war started again," he said. "It was like in the training films where there's fire going all over above your head and your only option is to keep your head down, or lose it."
Whilst attempting to crawl their way out of the fray, O'Malley and his fellow soldiers crawled right under a German encampment.
"They were throwing grenades and we were getting hit pretty badly. All of the sudden I've got a rifle in the back of my head," he said. "We thought we had it, but we were in the wrong place, but it was better than dying right at that moment."
Upon being taken prisoner into a German army division, O'Malley was put on a truck headed to Paris where he was identified as a naval officer and transferred to a camp called Marlag und Milag Nord, where merchant sailors and royal navy officers were held between Bremen and Hamburg.
"Conditions weren't actually that bad; this was a British Navy pan, so there were guys from all over the world — Australians, Egyptians, Greeks, anywhere you could get into the Royal Navy," he said.
As the war drew to a close and Allied forces closed in, the Germans decided to move O'Malley and his fellow prisoners to a camp near Lubeck about 100 miles further east. They marched all the prisoners rather than transporting them, and he recalled that during one of the days marching, American planes came over
head, and he had the surreal experience of having to get down and avoid being shot by plane fire.
"It was strange trying to stay safe from our own fighter planes," O'Malley said. "One of the older Royal Officers I enjoyed, Commander Crowsdale, he was killed walking down the road. I always regretted that. He died for no reason."
Soon after arriving at Oflag prison camp near Lubeck, on May 5, 1945 at 5 p.m., O'Malley and his fellow prisoners saw in the distance the 11th Armoured Division of the British Army roaring up the highway toward the camp.
After being liberated, O'Malley was transported to England by the Royal Air Force before getting sent back stateside. Once back in the U.S., he spent about a month at home with his parents, who had moved their store to Cincinnati, before finishing his year-and-a-half left of service in U.S. Navy at an Enlisted Separations Center in Toledo, Ohio.
It was at a Toledo Rockets basketball game where he met his wife Betty. The two settled down and had two sons, Mike and John Jr.
After the service, O'Malley began a long career in advertising working as a copywriter for department stores across the country. The family would move to St. Louis, Kansas City and Minneapolis before landing in Lake Oswego where O'Malley finished his career working for Portland-based Meier & Frank.
O'Malley was once president of the Friends of the LO Public Library, as well as president of the board of the LO Adult Community Center. He remains in Lake Oswego to this day.
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