NAMPA — Bob Haga was 18 years old when he stood on the deck of the U.S.S. Chickadee and watched the U.S.S. Osprey — another ship filled with fellow minesweepers — sink into the waters of Omaha Beach. They couldn’t save everybody — he knew that — but God knew he wanted to.

Haga, 93, was the only D-Day survivor and one of seven World War II veterans at the Nampa Warhawk Air Museum’s Kilroy Breakfast on Tuesday, a monthly gathering of veterans from Idaho and neighboring states.

This breakfast marked two days before the 75th anniversary of the Allied invasion of the Normandy coastlines in France. 

“We saw planes crashing, being shot down. The sea filled with bodies, hundreds, maybe thousands,” Haga recounted. “The water was red. I’ll never forget.”

Thousands of Allied soldiers lost their lives that day in the rough seas off the coast of France or on the beaches just beyond. Haga was one of the lucky ones. If the Germans had been shooting just slightly lower, he said, he wouldn’t be here.

Haga’s team left England ahead of the armada, sweeping for underwater German mines. His vessel was next to the Osprey when a mine hit the quarters carrying the ship's ammunition. The six men killed in the initial blast were among the first casualties of D-Day.

He remembered throwing ladders to crewmen trying to climb from the water; their skin was burning off their arms. 

Years later, Haga felt a tug to visit Normandy again, but he couldn't bring himself to go alone, he said. So, he enlisted the help of his best friend and neighbor, Stan Roberts. Together, they visited the beaches and newly installed memorials for Haga's fellow minesweepers. 

“There are tombstones, as far as the eye can see in every direction,” Haga said, “and I know some of the men I saw in the sea were buried there, and that will always give me pause.”

Bob and stan

Bob Haga and Stan Roberts are veterans, neighbors and best friends. Roberts went with Haga back to the beaches of Normandy so Haga could visit the new installation honoring his fellow minesweepers who lost their lives on D-Day.

During the Warhawk's breakfast Tuesday, as Haga and Roberts sat side by side, the museum played an interview with a Nampa resident who served in the infamous 1st Division 16th Regiment — the first group to storm the beaches on D-Day.

Silence set heavy over many of the veterans in the room listening to Bert Ray Chandler.

Chandler still had the letter from General Dwight Eisenhower that was given to the troops in the transport ship on the way to the beach, while the war’s end rested on their shoulders. He doesn’t know how he managed to hold onto it in his pack.

“The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you,” the letter reads. “I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty, and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!”

Three hours into battle, Chandler’s company had gone from 189 to 69 men.

“I remember looking at the water and it looked like it was raining,” Chandler said in the interview, “but it was the bullets in the water.”

He was the squad leader at only 22 years old. He was told they would have aerial cover, but the division ran the beach without it.

“How anybody ever made it …” Chandler said in the video interview, his eyes spilling tears. “If there was ever a hell on earth — it was June 6, 1944, at Omaha Beach.”

Riley Bunch covers federal politics as well as education and social issues for the Idaho Press. Reach her at rbunch@idahopress.com or follow @rbunchIPT on Twitter.