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Mike Welch, far right, and five crewmates from the U.S.S. Tide were honored for their D-Day service at Wrigley Field on June 6.
Sixty years later, a hero's reception
From M, fall 2004
In 1944, Mike Welch (B.A. '43) saved several lives during the World War II D-Day invasion. He never earned medals or citations for his bravery off the Normandy Coast. But, on June 6, 2004, Welch and five fellow crewmembers from the minesweeper U.S.S. Tide held a reunion in Chicago and were invited to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field. Called onto the field before the game, the men were honored for their service.
"The reception in Chicago was just astounding," says Welch, who now lives in San Diego and is treasurer of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association's San Diego Chapter. "Forty thousand people rose as one and clapped and cheered, and every one of us had tears in our eyes. All through the game people were coming up and thanking us."
Welch, a first lieutenant and ensign aboard the Tide, helped clear a path across the English Channel to within a hundred yards of the Normandy coast the night of June 5 and early morning of June 6. "Once the landing started, we withdrew to defensive positions" to protect against enemy boats and submarines, he recalls. "We had front row seats for the invasion....The noise was terrific."
"There had to be 10,000 acts of heroism that day that went unrecognized. Everyone did what they had to do."
Allied troops managed to get a toehold on the beaches on June 6. But that night, German planes dropped more mines off the coast. The 221-foot-long Tide swept an area close to Utah Beach early on June 7. The crew had just finished and was moving away from the coast when they sailed directly over an enormous magnetic mine.
"The force of a magnetic mine is all straight up," Welch explains. "Someone watching [from another boat] said it lifted the entire ship four or five feet out of the water."
Blown open and burning, the Tide was going down fast.
"A fourth of the crew was killed and the rest of us were injured. Every single one," he recalls. Despite two crushed vertebrae, Welch, as first lieutenant on deck, was in charge of a six-man fire-fighting crew, some of whom had broken limbs. The danger of exploding fuel kept rescue boats at a distance and the sea was too heavy to swim. "We had to put [the fire] out," he says. "Fortunately, the sea was so rough, waves swept in and helped put out the fire."
As men then clambered onto ships that pulled alongside, Welch went back on board and into the steward's mates cabin, quarters for five African American men. The Navy was segregated at the time; a steward, the only role available for African Americans, did chores like cooking and cleaning for officers. In the rush to evacuate, the men had been left behind.
"The blast had shattered their legs and they couldn't get themselves the six feet up and out of the cabin," he says.
Unable to bend down, Welch had two men pull themselves up on his pants legs to where he could help support them. Welch, who had played on the undefeated 1941 Gopher football team, then dragged them to the doorway and pulled them up onto the deck. He returned for two more men, and then the final survivor. All were evacuated before he, too, climbed aboard a waiting boat. Within 20 minutes, the Tide had sunk.
Despite his excellent physical condition, Welch's recovery took a full year. He later used his U business degree to go into sales for Brown & Bigelow, building a career that ended as vice president of a firm that spun off that famous St. Paul company.
It doesn't bother Welch that his heroism of 60 years ago was never formally honored by the Navy.
"There had to be 10,000 acts of heroism that day that went unrecognized," he says. "Everyone did what they had to do."