The Ahern Family - D-Day

John Ahearn at
Utah Beach on D-Day

John Ahearn and the D-Day Landings in Normandy, France

John L. Ahearn
Lieut. John Ahearn commanded the second tank that landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, the 6th of June, 1944.

We Often Remember D-Day but Forget to Say, "Thank You"
by E.J. Montini, columnist for The Arizona Republic
It had been more than a year since I spoke to John Ahearn and, the truth is, I wouldn't have called if I hadn't seen a wire service story about the anniversary of D-Day. "You've moved away from the area, haven't you?" Ahearn said. "That's what I was told after not seeing you for a while." We met about 10 years ago. Ahearn stopped by my old house to introduce himself during one of his daily walks through the neighborhood. We talked politics and weather and children. His granddaughter is about the same age as my daughter. I didn't think to ask him about the quirky hitch in his step, figuring it must be the consequence of age rather than what it was -- the consequence of war. The consequence of heroism.

A month or so before the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994, Ahearn's son-in-law called to tell me Ahearn had been there. "You should ask him about it," he said. Ahearn agreed to tell me his D-Day story, as long as I didn't play up the "hero thing." A real hero, Ahearn said, was someone like his father, a mail carrier who managed to raise three boys on his own while suffering through emphysema. "Heroes in everyday life are bigger than heroes in war," he said. On June 6, 1944, Ahearn was a company commander with the 70th Tank Battalion. They landed on Utah Beach, as they'd landed previously on beaches in Sicily and North Africa. After fighting their way off the sand, Ahearn took his tanks inland to support the infantry. At a crossroads, he split his command, leading one group and sending another, under the command of his friend Lt. Tom Tighe, in a different direction.

Not too far inland, Ahearn's tank was immobilized by a land mine. While surveying the damage, he heard the voices of injured Americans somewhere behind the nearby hedgerows. They were wounded soldiers, trapped in a minefield. Not knowing whether medics would get to the injured men in time, Ahearn decided to go in after them. "What could I do?" he told me. "I had to try." Along the way, he stepped on a mine. He lost his right leg below the knee and most of his left foot. Others threw him a rope and pulled him back. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Purple Heart and more. The last time I saw the medals and citations, they were in an old gift box, the kind they hand out at department stores during the holidays.

In the decades since the war, Ahearn lived through the death of his first wife, put himself through law school and raised a large and prosperous family in Phoenix. He and his second wife, Irene, visited Normandy years ago. It was an overcast October day, and Ahearn spent a long time at the grave of his friend Tom Tighe, who was killed a few days after Ahearn was wounded. "I'm glad you called," Ahearn said Monday. "How are things going for you?" It's what people from his generation say. It's the kind of thing my mother and father used to say. Too often, even on the anniversary of D-Day, the answer we give them is incomplete. "Things are fine," we tell them, forgetting to add, "Thanks to you."

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 8 June 2000

The following is an edited transcript of John Ahearn talking about his experience. You can also listen to a recording if you have the right software on your computer.
I saw General Roosevelt on the beach and got out of my tank and reported to him. He told me to go on with my mission to secure the lateral parts of the beach, and to get inland as fast as we could. I had 14 tanks, and Lieutenant Yeoman took half and proceeded north. I took the rest south, and found an opening farther down the beach. The opening in the wall had a tank-like object in it. I had not been informed about anything like this and was concerned, but pushed through rapidly since that was my mission. I found out later that this thing was called "Little Goliath" and was a tank killer. During the bombing, the controls to this thing had obviously been severed.

We observed a German strongpoint, and although there seemed to be no activity, we fired some shells into it, and with that, a number of soldiers came out. There were about 30 impressed soldiers not of German origin. They came with their hands in the air warning us of mines. We turned these prisoners over to the infantry.

At the juncture of the road leading to the town of Pouppeville, I split my force and had Lieutenant Tighe proceed inland. I took the rest of the force down this narrow road, across the dunes and across the hedgerows to see if I could find any other strongpoints. Shortly after we split, my tank hit a mine, and we were immobilized. I radioed Lieutenant Tighe, and I proceeded on foot over several hedgerows to reconnoiter. I heard cries for help, and saw three paratroopers who were injured. I returned to the tank and got the large first aid kit. A hedgerow separated me from them, and I found an opening and crossed it.

I was trying to get as close to them as possible when an antipersonnel mine went off under me, and threw me into the bank of hedgerows and knocked me unconscious. When I came to, I yelled for help, and Sergeant Zampiello and Corporal Beard came looking for me. I was hard to find since I was rolled against the embankment. I warned them of the mines, and they threw me a rope and dragged me out from over the hedgerow. Despite heavy paratrooper boots, my feet were mangled. I was brought into this tent which was a medical station, and that night they amputated one of my feet.

Later when I could stand a second operation, they amputated the other. I received the Distinguished Service Cross for my action on D-Day.

from Voices of D-Day: The Story of the Allied Invasion Told by Those Who Were There
edited by Ronald J. Drez

A DD Tank of the 70th Tank Battalion
A DD Tank of the 70th Tank Battalion

A Company, commanded by 1st Lieutenant De Witt C. Fair, landed with the first Battalion, on beach Tare Green, immediately in front of the fortifications in and around La Madeleine. B Company, commanded by 1st Lieutenant Francis E. Senger, landed with the 2nd Battalion, on beach Uncle Red, about 1300 yards southeast of La Madeleine. It was also faced with fortifications upon landing. These were field fortifications covering the causeway roads. They were reduced with little difficulty by company-size forces. Other small groups cleared houses along the roads which parallel the beach. These fortifications were much less formidable than these at the beaches where the landings were intended. This allowed much greater early success than could have been obtained against the others. C Company, commanded by 1st Lieutenant John L. Ahearn, landed with the engineers on both Tare Green and Uncle Red beaches. They cleared the beaches of enough obstacles to insure unobstructed landing of troops to follow. The dozer tanks provided cover from small arms and artillery fire for the dismounted engineers while they placed charges to blow those obstacles which could not be pushed aside by the tank dozers. The Battalion Commander, the Communications Officer, and one liaison officer came ashore in two 1/4-ton trucks with the assault waves.

Exit 3 was covered by 88-mm guns which prevented A Company from accompanying its infantry over the causeway through that exit. Instead, A Company and part of B and C, passed through Exit 2 with the 3rd Battalion, 8th Infantry. Halfway over the causeway to Exit 2, directly inland from the landing sites, they found a culvert blown and the road covered by an antitank gun. The first tank, a DD, was stopped by a mine. Another was knocked off the road by the antitank gun. Still another moved up. This one silenced the enemy gun. The blown culvert was not serious in itself because, after the gun was knocked out, the troops and tanks were able to ford the stream and push on. They passed through Exit 2 and on to the area just southwest of La Houssaye. Here the tanks stopped for reorganization.

Meanwhile, elements of B and C Companies, with the C Company Commander, Lieutenant Ahearn, and the Second Battalion,. Eighth Infantry commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Carlton O. MacNeely, moved south along the beach toward Pouppeville. They encountered continuous small arms fire all the way. G Company received artillery fire and ran into a mine field as well, when it approached a strongpoint at Beau Guillot. Tank fire forced the enemy in the town to capitulate. The tank-infantry team pushed on toward Exit 1. As they passed the minefield, C Company's commander saw a wounded paratrooper lying in the minefield behind the sea wall. Lt. Ahearn stopped his tank, told his crew to stay in it, dismounted to rescue the wounded man. As he was picking his way through the minefield, he tripped one or more mines which blew his feet off. His crew dismounted and, with the aid of ropes, succeeded in getting both men out of the minefield without accident. They evacuated them to the beach for return to England.

from Armor in Operation Neptune (Establishment of the Normandy Beachhead).

70th Tank Battalion on Utah Beach
Amphibious DD Tanks of the 70th Tank Battalion on Utah Beach

John Littleton Ahearn
John Littleton Ahearn, 89, of Phoenix, Arizona, passed away June 23, 2004. Visitation will be held 6-8 PM, Monday, June 28, 2004 with a 7:00 PM Prayer service at Hansen Chapel, 8314 N. 7th St., Phoenix, AZ. Services will be held 10:00 AM, Tuesday, June 29, 2004, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, 4715 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85012. Contributions may be made to Interfaith Cooperative Ministries, 743 W. Buchanan St., Phoenix, AZ 85007.
Arizona Republic 25 June 2004

John L. Ahearn
John L. Ahearn of Phoenix, Arizona passed away on Wednesday evening, June 23 at the age of 89. A deeply loved husband, father, grandfather and cherished friend to many, John was the oldest of three brothers and was born on November 30, 1914 in Brooklyn New York. John joined the Army before Pearl Harbor, and earned the command of C Company of the 70th Tank Battalion, the only tank unit to participate in the landings in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy. His was the first tank unit to land on Utah Beach on D-Day, his own tank the second to hit the beach. Penetrating inland, he permitted troops and equipment to move off the beach, and captured a defense position and dozens of prisoners. After his tank was disabled from a mine, he lost his legs while attempting to rescue two wounded American servicemen. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.

John moved West after rehabilitating, married his first wife Helen and had his first child, Mary. After being widowed, he met and married Irene, his wife of 49 years. He earned his undergraduate degree from Arizona State University and his law degree from the University of Arizona. Inspired by John F. Kennedy, John began a long and distinguished public service career, including becoming the Chairman of the Industrial Commission, a member of the Corporation Commission, the Democratic nominee for Congress and Arizona Attorney General, and he was instrumental in the formation of the Residential Utility Consumer Office.

His warmth, generosity, keen wit and Irish charm will be greatly missed. He is adored always by his wife Irene, his children Mary, Stephen, Denise, Kathleen, John and Michael, grandchildren Christine, Andrea, Gabriel, Alejandro and Kevin, and sons-in-law Richard Lee, Geronimo Ramirez, Jr. and Jeff Johnson. A visitation will be held Monday, June 28 from 6 to 8 p.m. at Hansen Chapel, 8314 N. 7th Street. Funeral services will be held Tuesday, June 29 at 10 a.m. at St. Francis Xavier church, 4715 N. Central Avenue in Phoenix. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Interfaith Cooperative Ministries (602-254-7450).

Arizona Republic 26 June 2004

Lt. John Ahern in 1943
Lt. John Ahern in 1943

Ahearn dies at 89; aided in founding RUCO
PHOENIX—John Ahearn, an attorney who briefly served on the Arizona Corporation Commission in the late 1970s, died Wednesday of complications of bone cancer. He was 89.   Ahearn, a Phoenix resident, was a decorated World War II veteran who lost his right leg below the knee and part of his left foot in the 1944 invasion of Normandy. He got into politics in the 1960s and helped shape Arizona's Democratic party, according to friends.

In 1964, Ahearn unsuccessfully ran against incumbent Republican John Rhodes to represent District 1 in the U.S. House of Representatives. He failed in a bid for the Corporation Commission in 1978 but was appointed in 1979 to fill a vacancy. Ahearn lost when he ran for a four-year term in 1980. As an activist, Ahearn convinced the Arizona Legislature in 1983 to establish the Residential Utility Consumer Office, a consumer watchdog group that represents the interests of residential utility ratepayers. His son, Stephen, now serves as RUCO's director.

Arizona Daily Star 26 June 2004

70th Tank Battalion Purple Heart Silver Star Distinguished Service Cross
70th Tank Batallion Purple Heart Silver Star Distinguished
Service Cross

Tribute to John Ahearn
by Ed Montini, Arizona Star
His wife Irene went to fetch his medals and military decorations. John Ahearn didn't know where they were. Irene shook her head, smiled at me and said, "I do. It would be lot easier if he would let me display them properly, but he won't. He'd prefer we keep them in a box." Ahearn and I were sitting at the kitchen table of the small, tidy condominium that he and Irene had moved into a few months earlier. They'd had a big house in Phoenix where they'd raised half a dozen kids, but it got to be too much for them, so they moved into a smaller place. This was 1994. John Ahearn was 79 by then.

Irene came back to the table carrying a shirt box that probably had been used at Christmastime some years before and set it down on the table in front of John. Before she could open it, Ahearn put his hands on the box and said, "You know where you find heroes? You find heroes in people who are courageous in situations not considered to be dramatic or dangerous. That's the God's honest truth. When I think of a hero, I think of my father. He was a mail carrier who had emphysema very bad. He had three boys, and my mother was in a mental institution. She was there for 16 years. I remember hearing my father retching at 4:30 in the morning. But he went to work. He raised three kids and went to see his wife as frequently as he could, riding all day on the Long Island Rail Road. That's a hero."

Not many days before this, I'd received a telephone call from Ahearn's son-in-law suggesting that I ask Ahearn about what he did on D-Day. The 50th anniversary of the landing in France was coming up that June.

I'd met Ahearn a few years earlier but knew little of his past. We lived in the same part of town, and his morning walk took him through my neighborhood. I'd seen him many times. He moved steadily but with a hitch in his step, as if there were pebbles in his shoes. One day as he passed by he stopped at my front door and asked if I was the young fella who wrote for the newspaper. We talked for an hour. After that we'd spend the occasional morning sitting on a bench in my yard talking about the news, politics and families. That day in his kitchen, however, I wanted to talk about June 6, 1944, when Ahearn was a 29-year-old tank commander riding in a landing craft that was headed for Utah Beach.

"Afterwards, you are struck by the horror and the danger," he told me. "But I remember being excited as we moved toward the beach." He'd already landed in Sicily and northern Africa as part of the 70th Tank Battalion. He'd lost friends and would lose more. After fighting through the beachhead, Ahearn led his tanks inland, where they captured 30 prisoners. Ahearn's tank then struck a land mine. When the column stopped he discovered wounded American soldiers in a nearby minefield. He wouldn't let any of his guys go after them, however. Instead, he went in himself. The mine he stepped on took his right leg below the knee and a portion of his left foot. He later was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (second only to the Medal of Honor) to add to his Silver Star, three Bronze Stars and Purple Heart.

If he had died on D-Day, John Ahearn might have been front-page news. Instead, he passed away 60 years later and got an article last Friday on Page B11. Having listened to him talk about his children and grandchildren, I know that he wouldn't have traded one moment of his long life for a parade, TV coverage or a front-page obit. Instead he demonstrated how far a certain kind of man can travel while walking slowly, even with a hitch in his step. And how difficult it is to follow in his footsteps.

Veterans for Peace 27 June 2004

Lt. John L. Ahearn
Lt. John L. Ahearn

Soldier's bravery lasted beyond the battlefield
by Connie Cone Sexton
Somewhere in France
July 4, 1944
Dear John,
Just a few lines to let you know me and the boys are thinking about you and hoping your
(sic) getting along  . . .  I wish I could tell you everything but you understand, I can't do that. We have delt (sic) them plenty hell here in France they will long remember us for this  . . . 

Somewhere in Luxembourg
21 December 1944
Dear Johnno,
Comment allez-vous? All of us are fine but from all indications we will not have a very merry Christmas. No rest for the wicked I suppose.

Somewhere in Germany
12 February 1945
Dear Johnno,
I was sorry to hear that you received only the D.S.C.
(Distinguished Service Cross) rather than the MH (Medal of Honor) which should be given for such deeds of selfless courage.

The correspondence is from long ago, men left behind on a World War II battlefield, writing to their comrade John Ahearn as he fought to recover from a bed at the Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C. On June 6, 1944, his battalion landed on Utah Beach during the invasion of Normandy, and in going after wounded soldiers Ahearn stepped on a mine, losing part of his left foot and his right leg below his knee. Ahearn had been in command of C Company of the 70th Tank Battalion, the only tank unit to participate in the landings in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy.

Sixty years later, two of his sons sat at a dining room table, going over the trinkets of his life, doing the things that had to be done to prepare for his funeral. From a small box emerged more than two dozen letters, some bound by rubber bands, all tied to a war decades past. Stephen Ahearn, 46, gingerly opened one of the envelopes and pulled out a letter from 1944. After his father had been wounded, his fellow soldiers and his commander kept him close with their letters. They sent him news from the war, news they shared about their own hometowns. And Ahearn was a faithful correspondent, knowing what mail can mean during war. The letters represent friendship just as the medals that Ahearn earned represent his bravery. He came away from the war with the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. He wasn't one to boast about his accomplishments. He had kept his honors tucked away, but the letters were soft and worn and now brought out to a dining room table as his family prepared to say a final goodbye.

Ahearn died June 23. The Phoenix resident, who was 89, will be honored today during a funeral service at 10 a.m. at St. Francis Xavier church, 4715 N. Central Ave., in Phoenix. He lived well beyond the battlefield, beyond the hospital. He moved on with help from prosthetics and became an attorney and a politician. During his years in Arizona, he served as chairman of the Industrial Commission, was appointed to the Corporation Commission, ran valiant but unsuccessful bids for Congress and Arizona attorney general and helped form the Residential Utility Consumer Office. He'd gladly talk about politics, especially about his devotion to the Democratic Party. But ask him to talk about his time during war and he'd usually shy away. "You'd have to pull it out of him," Stephen said. Growing up, he said his father didn't unload all his war stories, preferring to just be a dad, going out and tossing around a baseball.

Michael Ahearn said he grew up not thinking much that his father wore prosthetics. "He'd be out there tossing me the ball," the 36-year-old said. "When I think about that now, that's really something." Survivors include his wife Irene; sons Stephen, John and Michael; daughters Mary Ahearn Lee, Denise Ahearn and Kathleen Johnson; and five grandchildren.

The Arizona Republic 29 June 2004

John Ahern at Walter Reed Hospital
John Ahern at Walter Reed Hospital

Ahearn earned thanks of all of us
by Richard Ducote
We all owe John Ahearn a debt of gratitude. Not just for his sacrifice in World War II, which was considerable. Ahearn, who died last week at 89 in Phoenix, helped put safeguards in place to protect Arizona consumers. He left behind a unique resume. He was instrumental in founding the state Residential Utility Consumer Office (RUCO) and later chaired its advisory board. This was after a brief stint on the Arizona Corporation Commission. He was active in the field of utility regulation when the Palo Verde nuclear plant was under construction and general inflation was eating up paychecks like fire eats up dry brush. He was a fierce critic of what he saw as Palo Verde construction problems and cost overruns. But he engendered great loyalty from people all over the political spectrum.

A true blue Democrat with Irish Catholic stripes, he had much support in the conservative Republican stronghold of Sun City, the retirement enclave outside Phoenix. In that way, he helped later campaigns of Democrats Marcia Weeks and Renz Jennings, who held the majority position on the commission for a decade. Jennings called his friend "witty, jovial, passionate and fearless" and said he combined "firebrand eloquence with twinkly-eyed merriment." Bad luck or bad policy in the early '80s helped taint Republicans as saps for utility rate increases. Ahearn was appointed to the Corporation Commission by Gov. Bruce Babbitt in 1979 after the death of Stan Akers. But Ahearn was defeated in a run for the post in 1980. Later, he was named by Babbitt to head the Residential Utility Consumer Board to advise RUCO. Had Ahearn done nothing else in his career, we would have a lot to thank him for. Customer-funded RUCO stands as an advocate for consumers. This concept was startling to some utilities two decades ago when rate increases were often accomplished quietly in small rooms inhabited by suited gentlemen.

You could have called Ahearn brash. He would not have cared. As his son Stephen Ahearn told me Monday, his father possessed "a healthy dose of outrage." Ahearn was in it to help the little guy. That was also true when he worked with veterans after the war and when he served on the state Industrial Commission. He also had unsuccessful runs for Congress and Arizona attorney general. Despite those setbacks, he leaves a legacy of public service and true passion for protecting individuals.

Part of that legacy resides in his son Stephen who now serves as RUCO director. Stephen said the passion for public service was ignited in his dad by President John F. Kennedy. When JFK called on Americans to ask what they could do for their country, John Ahearn was a newly minted attorney. He graduated from the UA College of Law. Ahearn had done his undergraduate work at Arizona State University.

He was born in Brooklyn in 1914 and joined the Army just before Pearl Harbor. He earned command of a company in the 70th Tank Battalion, which took part in the landings in North Africa, Sicily and Normandy. His tank unit was among the first to land on Utah Beach on D-Day in 1944. After moving inland, his tank was disabled by a mine. Attempting to rescue two wounded American paratroopers, he lost most of one leg and another foot to a mine. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.

He always downplayed his wartime heroism and cited instead the heroism of his own father, a letter carrier with emphysema who raised three sons while their mother was away from the home with an illness. Now John Ahearn has passed on, one of the estimated 1,000 World War II veterans who leave us every day now. When we contemplate such people, we have much to be grateful for and much to live up to.

Arizona Daily Star 30 June 2004

John Littleton Ahearn
Remembrances and Photos

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