Editor’s note: Frank Luksa of Duanesburg talked about his D-Day experiences for a story that appeared in The Daily Gazette on June 19, 2016.
“During the night, the darkened ships of the huge Allied armada silently crossed the channel between England and France. Early on the morning of D-Day, they launched an assault on Nazi German’s Fortress Europe. It was the largest naval armada in history. More than 4,000 vessels and 200,000 men participated on D-Day in the Invasion of Normandy. And leading the warships … was the American Destroyer U.S.S. Herndon, DD 638.”
— From “The Lucky Herndon: The Invasion of Normandy” by Jane Moore Roberts
Frank Luksa was there.
He was on the rear of the Herndon’s deck during the early morning hours of June 6, 1944.
“I was on an anti-aircraft gun, a 40-millimeter,” said the 94-year-old Navy veteran, who lives in Duanesburg. “I had a seat out in the open, so I had a good view.”
It was D-Day, and Frank saw everything as the Herndon approached Omaha Beach.
Started on the Eberle
Luksa was born in Edwardsville, Pennsylvania, and joined the Navy in 1942. His first stop was Newport, Rhode Island, for physical training and then further instruction in Norfolk, Virginia.
Luksa’s first assignment was on the U.S.S. Eberle (DD 430). He became a boatswain’s mate on the destroyer ship — training, directing and supervising personnel in ship’s maintenance duties.
“Anything the captain needs done, he gets you to do it and then you get the guys to do it,” Luksa said.
After some time on the Eberle, Luksa was transferred to the 1,650-ton Herndon, which had been launched in February 1942. “They needed some experienced men already,” Luksa said. “They took about seven of us off the Eberle.”
Luksa was aboard the Herndon for missions in Libya and Sicily. He remembers many trips across the Atlantic, trips to England, transporting troops for the build-up to the anticipated invasion of France.
According to the “Lucky Herndon” book, compiled by a relative of ship Captain Granville A. Moore, the destroyer was scheduled to sail close to the German fortress. The Herndon’s group of ships was ordered to pour fire on beach positions. Another goal was to take out enemy strong points.
According to the Moore book, the Herndon was the first warship to enter the support area.
“Throughout the period of the invasion, she provided fire support, screened assault vessels and patrolled in the Bay of the Seine and in the area of Cherbourg,” the book reads. “It was during this period that she acquired the name ‘Lucky Herndon.’ Other ships in the same area were hit by enemy mines, bombs and shore batteries. The Herndon escaped unscathed.”
Luksa remembers rough seas in the days before the invasion, but soldiers knew the word was imminent.
“These guys were sitting on these troop ships, they were on them a couple days and they were sick and they’re all green, first time getting overseas and most of them are only 22, 23 years old,” he said. “So we had to go.”
Luksa said the Herndon was only a couple hundred feet off shore when the invasion began. He sat at his gun.
“I saw everything that happened, let’s put it that way,” he said. “I saw the troops landing, I saw the paratroopers jumping out, the gliders coming in, the bombers coming through. I watched everything, I had a seat.
“There were no German planes to shoot at, we had the skies to ourselves,” Luksa added. ” I had nothing to do but sit in this chair and just watch everything and I had the best seat in the world.”
Luksa knows why he didn’t have to aim and fire during that first day of invasion.
“They were scared to come in, I think,” he said of German air power. “They didn’t have that many planes left anyway, know what I mean?”
But while Luksa could see everything … he was seeing horrible things. He still chokes up 72 years later, recalling the sacrifices soldiers made that day.
“These guys were jumping off these barges, from the troop ships, some of them are drowning,” he said. “There were 80 guys to a barge, sometimes the water would be over their heads.”
One paratrooper dropped right alongside the Herndon and drowned. German guns mowed down many soldiers who never even made it to shore. Radio men assigned to beach positions never made them. And German spotlights were trained on men in parachutes.
“I have pictures in my mind I will never forget,” Luksa said. “They were kids, only 20, 22 years old. I thought it wasn’t that bad before because I was younger. As I’ve gotten older, I think these kids didn’t have a chance at life.”
‘Lucky’ an apt name
Luksa said he always wore his life jacket when general quarters — battle stations — had been called. He understands why the ship was called the “lucky” Herndon.
“You better believe it was lucky, for all the places we’d been through and all the dive bombers and everything that missed us,” Luksa said. “I’m talking about shore batteries shooting at you and dive bombers coming at you.”
According to Naval History and Heritage Command, the Navy’s official source of historical information, the Herndon remained off Normandy beaches providing fire support and patrolling for enemy submarines until June 19.
By summer the ship was training for escort duty in the Mediterranean. In August, the ship was in a task force providing protection for carrier ships involved in the invasion of southern France. Convoy escort duty was also on the Herndon’s log during the mid 1940s, and was in the Pacific by the spring of 1945.
At war’s end, Luksa would court and marry Theresa Piekara, another Pennsylvania native. They settled in Duanesburg, where they raised three daughters. Frank would work many years in automotive body repairs.
He wears twin medals — one with his photo as a young Navy man, another worn for soldiers who never returned from D-Day and World War II. Luksa will never forget his seat to history, or the men he watched make history that day.