06 Dec The USS Osprey: a D-1 Sacrifice
Who were the first Allied fatalities in the Normandy Invasion? Some would immediately picture paratroopers (perhaps specifically even mention British Lieutenant Den Brotheridge). Others may claim an air crew knocked from the sky in the early hours of June 6th.
But in fact, the first men lost as part of Operation Overlord were sailors aboard a little-known vessel in the Channel, the USS Osprey (AM–56). Even the most dedicated World War II buff may not know the story of the Osprey, but it’s one we should never forget.
The Osprey was a Raven-class minesweeper built at Virginia’s Norfolk Navy Yard and commissioned in 1940. Her job was simple but far from easy: to clear any waters through which forces had to pass of enemy mines. It was, as you can imagine, a difficult and dangerous job, and one with incredibly high stakes. For the Normandy invasion, everything hinged on getting a critical number of forces onto the beaches. If too few Allies got ashore due to the thousands of mines Germany had sown, winning the war became a much more difficult proposition. No wonder the motto of WWII minesweepers was “Where the fleet goes, we’ve been.”
After service in the Caribbean and North African waters, by 1944 Osprey was assigned to the minesweeping flotilla clearing the Channel prior to D-Day. About 5:00 PM on June 5, the vessel ran into a magnetic mine off of the coast of the Isle of Wight. The explosion occurred near the storage lockers for the ship’s ammunition, which magnified the damage. Heroic effort by the crew extinguished the resulting fires, but could not stop the flooding. They abandoned ship, leaving behind six crewmen, almost certainly killed in the initial blast. Their bodies were never recovered.
These six men are considered the first Allied forces to die in the invasion, perishing on June 5, 1944. Because our Necrology Wall at the National D-Day Memorial records only the names of those KIA on June 6, these pre-D-Day deaths are not represented. But to pay due tribute to these six heroes and to see that their memory does not fade away, here are the names of six sailors who gave their lives to ensure that the great invasion the next day would succeed:
- Lieutenant Junior Grade Van Hamilton, Arkansas
- Seaman Second Class John Medvic: Pennsylvania
- Fireman First Class Walter O’Bryan, New York
- Quartermaster Second Class Emery Parichy, Illinois
- Motor Machinist Mate Second Class Joseph Vanasky, Ohio
- Motor Machinist Mate Third Class Cleo Whitschell, Michigan
The USS Osprey and her D-Day story has been back in the news in recent months. This past summer, in time for the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, photos of the ship’s bell from the Osprey
began to appear in various British social media. While the location of the wreck is known and it’s frequently used as a dive site, no permission had been given to salvage any parts of the Osprey, and so possession of this bell was illegal. Apparently realizing this, whoever had the bell turned it over anonymously to British officials and then to the US Navy. The current plan is to display the bell at the American Embassy in London.
The story of D-Day is made up of thousands of smaller stories, all contributing to a fuller understanding of one of the most momentous events in history. The sacrifice of the valiant minesweeper Osprey and six of her crew is but one of these stories.
Lew BlackwellPosted at 21:22h, 27 March
My father, Lcdr ( at the time) Cecil L Blackwell was the commissioning Commanding Officer of the USS Osprey in 1940. He left the Osprey in Casablanca in December 1942 following the invasion of North Africa. The Osprey was the lead ship for the central force. Its truly amazing that after all these years ,the ship’s bell has been found and returned.
Lew Blackwell ( 3/26,2020)
Michael TaylorPosted at 18:49h, 24 October
My father, William H. Taylor jr,, was a seaman 2c onboard the Osprey’s sister ship, the USS Raven AM-55 during the invasion of North Africa. The Osprey and the Raven were built simultaneously in the same drydock at Norfolk Naval Shipyard where my dad and I both worked and retired from. My father once said he had friends on the Osprey and he was a witness to the sinking of the Osprey after it hit a mine during the D- Day invasion. The Raven wanted to stop and give assistance to the Osprey but was told to keep moving. I attended with my dad many of the Raven’s reunions and so I’ve heard the Osprey’s name mentioned many times. My dad passed away in 2016, but, I know his heart would be joyful to learn the Osprey’s bell had been found.
Wishing you well,
Michael D. Taylor (10/24/2016
Dexter KoontzPosted at 21:05h, 06 June
My father, Alva G. Koontz, Jr. was an electrician’s mate on duty when the mine was struck. His best buddy and high school buddy, Robert Yelnick was on a different shift, and so was sleeping. When the mine blew, it threw him into the bunk above, breaking his nose, “winning” him a Purple Heart. When it blew, Dad ran down to find Bob, and Bob ran topside to find Dad. They missed each other a couple of times in the smoke and chaos and assisting the injured, but both made it off, riding out the next few days on the Tender Ship Ajax. I wish Dad had gone to some reunions as I would love to have attended with him. Dad passed in April of 2016.
Dexter KoontzPosted at 12:18h, 07 June
I wish, after re-reading the article, that I had included a fact about the mine that took them down. The waters had been churned violently from storms preceding the invasion, tearing the mine from its anchoring, and that is why it was able to be triggered by the shallow draft U.S.S. Osprey that evening.
John P. DeWittPosted at 23:20h, 13 June
My father, John H. deWitt, was a yeoman aboard the USS Osprey through the North Africa campaign and Operation Overlord. He told us that after the ship hit the mine and the order to abandon ship was given, that he stepped across from Osprey to another ship and didn’t even get wet. I think he said the captain at the time of sinking was named Fish or Fisch.
Lew BlackwellPosted at 14:58h, 14 June
My father, Cecil L Blackwell , was the commissioning CO of the Osprey and served on Osprey until after the North African campaign. I have the commissioning flag signed by all the original crew members.
The ships bell was recovered several years ago and a memorial display is planned for the Embassy in London. The seven killed were the first US casualties of Operation Overlord.
Let me know if you want more info.