HOUSTON — The clouds were low. The sea was rough. A cacophony of shouting men and the constant boom of exploding shells filled the air. Waves of American, British and Canadian soldiers landed on Normandy's beaches. The hospital ship filled rapidly with the injured, and the USS Texas began taking on casualties.
Through the battle smoke, they gazed from the landing craft and saw security: an enormous red, white and blue flag.
In honor of the 70th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, invasion, the flag that was aloft will go on public display Friday for the first time since World War II in an exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science thanks to a crewman who gifted the flag.
"It was a firsthand witness to one of the most epic battles in history," said Andy Smith, manager of the vessel that is now a memorial in the Port of Houston called the Battleship Texas. The USS Texas also was present when the American flag was raised at Iwo Jima in 1945.
The USS Texas' 17-by-9 foot battle flag was raised on its mast June 5, as 156,000 Allied soldiers prepared to cross the English Channel and face the Germans. The USS Texas, which already had fought in World War I, was tasked with drawing enemy fire so the troops could land, Smith said.
The flag told the other Allied powers this ship was a friend. Working in unison, the crew fired more than 255 rounds of 14-inch shells in just 34 minutes. The rounds came so fast and so furiously, the troops on the beach were relieved when they saw the USS Texas and its constant barrage, Ernest Hemingway described as a correspondent for Colliers magazine.
"She's firing, and she's moving, and she gets as close to the shore as she can," Smith said. "Part of her mission is to be a target."
The days pass in a blur of fighting. By June 25th the USS Texas, flag unfurled, is at Cherbourg, battling to capture the port city. On the bridge is navigator Emil Saul, helmsman Chris Christiansen and dozens of crewmen. Suddenly, there was an explosion.
"We got struck there. Wiped out completely," said Saul, remembering the moment when the German shell destroyed the bridge.
Christiansen was killed, and 11 were wounded, including Saul, who spent nearly three years in the hospital recovering.
The crew, though, didn't forget. They awarded Saul the massive battle flag, a token for his sacrifice.
For years, as Saul finished school, got married, raised two daughters and enjoyed a long career with the Coast Guard, the massive wool and linen flag with just 48 stars remained carefully folded in storage.
"I loved it and was so proud of it and it was so beautiful," Saul, now 89 and living in Charlotte, North Carolina, said. "I really thought about how it's going to last ... or it's going to be destroyed."
So, in 1992 he donated the flag to the Battleship Texas.
But Smith worried that Houston's heat, humidity and sunlight could damage the artifact.
"You think of the flag that flew at Fort McHenry, the Star Spangled Banner, the flag that was raised at Iwo Jima — it's at that level of significance," Smith said.
The years passed, and the flag remained hidden.
Now, due to a collaboration between Smith and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which has the space and conditions to display the flag, it will be the centerpiece of a D-Day anniversary exhibit.
"We are losing these crew members at an alarming rate ... the veterans of World War II are dying off regularly," Smith added. "We just don't know how much longer we have and we really wanted to get this flag viewable to those guys."