My Dad During World War II
My Dad's transport overseas was accomplished as part of a large convoy of ships of various sizes and purposes. Their transport was accompanied by many cruisers whose primary purpose was to protect the larger ships from attack by submarines or even aerial attack. My Dad stated that on several occasions while crossing the Atlantic, they would watch as the cruisers would fire depth charges. To him they looked like "large barrels" flying through the air followed by the tremendous explosions. He said he never saw clearly what the cruisers were firing at, but it did make them more secure in the fact that they were attempting to protect them from harm. He also stated that during the day, they saw only a few ships on the horizon, but late in the day the ships would bunch up and you could see 18 to 20 ships close together. He never knew the reason for this maneuver, but it was used by the convoy all across the Atlantic.
I was curious as to what the GIs did on their long voyage across the Atlantic. Since they felt secure from attack from above and below, many times they would "throw down a blanket" and start up a card game. My Dad stated that in the trip across, he was able to win about $110 which as soon as he arrived, he sent to his mother. He also stated that during the war, he sent her a total of $1200 because when he returned, she still had all the money he had sent her. I asked what my grandmother did for a living while he was gone and he said she worked for the city of Elba, Alabama in city beautification and that she planted much of the shrubbery that is around the courthouse, even to this day.
My Dad also related another event that happened while aboard ship. During his transport on the LST for the mock invasion at Slapton Sands, England, the crew had my Dad and his unit clean various parts of the ship, such as the galley, even though they had crew for such duties. They did the cleanup duty this trip, but later when they were being transferred by another LST, they knew they were headed for the actual invasion of Europe. On this trip they refused to do the cleaning, knowing they could not require such duty; they were headed for the invasion at Omaha Beach and knew they could not punish them any worse.
One discrepancy was noted and pointed out by an alert reader, Art Jacobson, on the internet. In Chap II, the mock invasion was described and the sinking of two ships was related as being by U-boats. After Art's e-mail and further research on the internet, an official source was located from the Department of the Navy, Navy Historical Center, in Washington D.C. that did verify the fact that two ships were sunk by German E-Boats instead of U-boats. This was the name given to the surface boats by the Allies that referred to enemy boats (German designation for the boats was S-Boats).
From the Department of the Navy articles, this operation was referred to as "Operation Tiger" and pertained to the practice invasions that were held at Slapton Sands, England from April 22-30, 1944. The residents of the small town of Slapton were evacuated so that live artillery and ammunition could be utilized in the maneuvers and the local people would be safe from harm. This area was selected because of the coarse sand beaches similar to Utah Beach. German E-Boats were based at the French port of Cherbourg and many times were on patrol in the English Channel at night. During the early morning hours of April 28, 1944 (2:04 A.M.), a small convoy of eight LSTs (convoy T-4 with five LSTs from Plymouth and three from Brixham) was slowly sailing through Lyme Bay toward Slapton Sands for the practice invasion when they were spotted by nine high-speed German E-Boats. The German commanders overheard a lot of radio traffic and were sent to investigate when they spotted the flotilla. Thinking they were destroyers, they immediately attacked the convoy. Three LSTs were hit by torpedoes from the E-Boats (using smoke and high speed to escape). One LST was able to be towed to port at Brixham (LST-289), a second burst into flames before sinking (LST-507), and the third turned over and sank in 6 minutes (LST-531). The Americans did not know the Germans were in the area until the LST-507 (from the Brixham section) was hit and a few minutes later, the LST-531 (from the Plymouth section) was hit.
Many mistakes were made during this maneuver by the Americans and the British. Due to a typographical error, the Americans were on a different radio frequency from a British picket ship that had alerted to the presence of the E-Boats. One will never know if this would have changed the end result, but at least the Americans could have been forewarned of their presence and made some preparation before being hit by torpedoes. The LST's also had minimal escort for protection. Two ships, a British corvette and a destroyer, were assigned as escort; however, the destroyer had a collision and was returned to port. A replacement for the destroyer was sent, but it arrived too late to provide protection. In addition, after being hit many of the soldiers drowned because they had their life preservers around their waist instead of under their arms. This resulted in their flipping over in the water while wearing overcoats and additional equipment. This was unnecessary drownings along with many others who died from hypothermia in the cold waters as well as many sailors and soldiers who were unable to escape from below deck before the ships sank.
The Army unit that was most affected by this incident was the 1st Engineers Special Brigade (198 sailors lost and 551 soldiers for a total of 749) which consisted of a "follow-up force of engineers and chemical and quartermaster troops not scheduled for assault but to be unloaded in an orderly fashion along with trucks, amphibious trucks, jeeps and heavy engineering equipment." Since the main assault forces of the 4th Infantry Division had already landed hours earlier during the daylight hours, it was obvious the unit was a follow-up unit similar to my Dad's which was an ordnance battalion. His LST was also a follow-up unit, but for the 1st Infantry Division. He was sent to Slapton Sands in a night maneuver as the Engineer Brigade, therefore, he was blessed in the fact that his transport did not have the same encounter. According to the Dept. of the Navy articles, exercises had been performed at the Slapton Sands area since December 15, 1943 and by this timeline, it is apparent that exercises were carried out at Slapton Sands from the time my Dad arrived at Christmas 1943 from Sicily until the final exercise on May 3-8, 1944 (referred to as exercise Fabius).
After talking to my Dad he stated that it was a very short period between the time he left for his part of the Slapton Sands practice maneuvers and the time he returned to Dorchester. They then re-equipped and left for the actual invasion at Omaha Beach within a very brief period. According to his memory and he stated that time did not mean a lot to him during the war, he was probably part of the Operation Fabius since he remembered the Slapton Sands maneuver to be very close to D-Day itself.
After reading several articles on the internet it became apparent that many people felt there was a cover-up because the news of the incident was not immediately released to the public. In actuality, as stated in the Dept. of the Navy article there was "no cover-up other than a brief veil of secrecy raised to avoid compromise of D-Day." Any immediate publicity may have made it more obvious to the Germans that the practice invasion was for a future invasion of Normandy instead of the expected invasion at the Pas de Calais. The Allies were very concerned about any information getting out about the future invasion. It seems that 10 men aboard the LSTs had been involved in the planning of D-Day and the Allies did not rest until they confirmed that these ten men had drowned rather than be captured by the Germans. Also, it was brought out later that the incident was, in fact, reported from several sources in August after the D-Day invasion in June. It was also published in the military newspaper, the Stars and Stripes, in the August 7, 1944 issue.
My Dad was stationed at Dorchester for six months during the build-up of men and equipment. (One source stated that 150,000 men were arriving from the states every month) While in England my Dad said it was not all work and no play. He related a time he got a pass and was at a small town near Dorchester. He rode one of the famous double-decker buses when a British girl offered him a seat. He took the seat and when he did, she sat in his lap. After this surprising incident, he saw her several times when he could get a pass. He stated that she was a "land army girl" which at the time was a part of the British military similar to our WACs. He stated that many of the British people were friendly and very appreciative of the United States involvement as their ally. They had been put through a lot since 1939 and had lost 60,000 men, women, and children at the hands of the German aggression. Their country and the people were really starting to show the affects of several years of war before we ever entered the picture. The Americans were considered a guest of the British and as stated in a GI source book, "It is always impolite to criticize your hosts. It is militarily stupid to insult your allies." The Americans were expected to try not to offend the British and work toward the defeat of a mutual enemy in Hitler.
Another incident occurred while they were at Dorchester that was a surprise to everyone. Their unit was assigned to sleep in the second floor of a building that my Dad said was part of a church. One of the GIs noticed as a fellow soldier, named LaBrie, jumped out of the window. He got out of bed, got dressed, and ran downstairs to check on him. He could not find LaBrie and returned upstairs to find him in the bathroom. He apparently had been sleep walking when he jumped and landed on a large concrete pipe. These pipes were about 3 to 4 feet tall and were filled with dirt. They were used to block the streets if needed. They could be moved out for such purposes should this become necessary. He was scrapped badly from his waist to his feet and had to be sent to the hospital for treatment. He was lucky to be alive since he could have hit the pipe with his head. He later returned to the unit after they were in Europe following the D-Day invasion.
My Dad also stated that the city of Dorshester was only about eight miles from the port of Weymouth which was on the southern coast of England. According to a tape on D-Day, Weymouth was one of nine ports that were used by the Allies in the final disembarkation for the invasion at Normandy. According to an excellent site on the internet, www.weymouth.gov.uk/vets8.htm, the port was commissioned on May 1, 1944 by the USNAAB as Portland-Weymouth base. While my Dad was stationed at Dorchester, aerial attacks on the base at Portland continued from April 16 through May 28, with none occurring after that date. This last attack involved approximately 30 enemy planes that came in over Portland under cover of the allied returning bombers. "Pathfinder flares were dropped. Approximately 15 bombs were dropped in the Portland-Weymouth area. Mines were also laid in Portland Harbour. Twenty LCT's damaged (seven considerably damaged, remainder light damage). Two LCV(P)'s sunk and various light damage was done to a number of other ships and landing craft. Damage mentioned was the result of underwater explosions, presumably mines. Portland Harbor closed for a day to all Shipping until the harbour was swept." I was surprised to learn that these aerial attacks by German planes were occurring so close to the actual D-Day invasion and within 8 miles of where my Dad was stationed.
My Dad's wrecker was loaded onto an LST with a full tank of gas and extra gas for a 150 mile inland push. According to the tape, this gasoline amount was required for all vehicles. During this time period after my Dad left for D-Day, the Weymouth harbor was used extensively for transport of personnel and supplies as well as receiving wounded. From D-Day through 15 September 1944, 16,390 wounded and dead of the US Army and Navy, British Army and Navy, prisoners of war and other personnel were evacuated through Portland-Weymouth. The totals passing through the harbor from June through September were: 304,274 personnel, 84,956 vehicles, and 3,693 ships.
Weymouth was also used for all types of repairs to many types of ships and landing craft. The USS Texas (14 inch New York Class battleship) was related earlier as being at Omaha Beach on D-Day and my Dad stated he went by it on a "Rhino" as the battleship was firing (Target: Point du Hoc). I later learned that the ship was also used in the attempt to take the port at Cherbourg, France. My Dad's unit had moved inland and cut off the peninsula that Cherbourg was on, preventing the evacuation of the Germans inland. In the mean time, Cherbourg was also being bombarded from the sea by the Texas among other ships. The port was taken on June 27, however, a German shell did hit the Texas on June 26. A 240 mm shell entered the ship and did not explode. The battleship was then returned to Weymouth where the shell was de-fused and removed by special teams trained in such duties. The Allies finally managed to take the port, but the Germans were able to sabotage it to the extent that the Allies could not use it for several months as a port.
It was related earlier about the large ten ton wrecker, Ward la France, that was part of my Dad's unit. Drumheller was mentioned as the name of the GI on that wrecker at the time when in actuality the main driver was a GI by the name of Miller. Drumheller was the assistant driver as Dietz. My Dad said that Drumheller was much of a man at the time with arms as big as my Dad's legs. He said the large wrecker had a huge tickle on the rear of the boom that was solid metal. My Dad said he could not move the tickle with both arms yet Drumheller could lift and attach it with one arm.
After arriving on D-Day, it was the responsibility of my Dad and Booth to clear the roads of obstacles. On one occasion, they came upon a German tank that my Dad could not remove. My Dad stated that a Sergaent Taylor checked in the tank and determined that he might could drive it, which he did. He then returned the tank to their area without having to tow which would have been a problem due to it's size. One source stated that the German Panzer tanks weighed 55,000 Kg which was over 120,000 lbs. Apparently the Germans had simply abandoned the tank in retreat, possibly just to block the road. The Allies many times utilized captured equipment such as using Italian guns on their own army when they were fighting in North Africa.
Also, it was described earlier about the liberation of Paris and the entertainment in the middle of the street where people were entertaining for tips. All types of people such as magicians were performing magic and as stated earlier, men were wrestling in rings for the public. The people were definitely glad to be liberated and my Dad said he even saw five girls walking along this walkway, singing songs and each one was dressed totally in one color including their hair color. One source showed a picture of a small boy with a candy bar that he had been received from an American soldier. They had not had such pleasures in years, since their German occupation, and he seemed so proud of the small gift.
Another event occurred later in the war that involved my Dad related to the weather he experienced. He said that he had always had a fear of bad weather, involving lightning. He was stationed in a place in Belgium that had been leveled by Allied bombing runs where there was a guard shack that had to be manned by his unit. My Dad happened to be the sergeant of the guard at the time. He had to accompany another GI to change the guard. The guard shack was the only building standing in a large open area due to previous bombing.
A cloud came up while he was at the shack and he stated that he had never in his life seen lightning as they experienced. It was striking all around their location and from that point on, my Dad said he never had a fear of bad weather. I suppose he felt that it could never be any worse and if he survived that, he would always be safe.
Later in the war near the Hurtgen Forest, my Dad related an incident in which they were very close to the front lines. They came upon a soldier that was walking out for aid after being wounded. He had improvised a tree limb that had a fork in it. He had placed a coat in the fork and was using the limb as a crutch. My Dad was blessed to not be on the front lines; however, this soldier appearing as they moved along near the battlefield re-emphasized this fact even more, just how lucky they were. He also related that only a couple of men were wounded in his entire battalion throughout the war which was an outstanding record not held by many units at the time.
When my Dad returned to the United States after the war he arrived at the port in Boston. He told about some paratroopers that had been returned to the states aboard their ship. The paratroopers apparently thought they should have been flown back to the states, so in protest when they were disembarking from the ship they threw their barracks bags in the water next to the ship. My Dad was immediately sent by train to all points South and was finally discharged from service in Atlanta.
I saw an interview with Tom Brokaw on 12-13-99 (on CNBC) concerning his experiences since writing two books entitled The Greatest Generation and the Greatest Generation Speaks. These books were written about his parents and the generation of people that lived through the depression and later World War II. He had nothing but praise for his parents and could not talk about their sacrifices without getting tears in his eyes and choking up. He kept talking about how resourceful they were and related many examples of how hard they would work to make ends meet. He told of his cutting grass and wanting a Sears lawn mower. He stated that his Dad told him they would just build one and they did. He also built ironing boards for his Mom. She told him that once she would like something from the store. This is much the same way my father was during my younger years on the farm when he and my Mom would work, night and day. It never ceases to amaze me how they could provide for themselves, three kids and my grandmother for all those years when I think of how much it costs to live now with only one child. This resourcefulness during the war and after the war was a trait much-admired in their generation and desired, but many times not achieved, by later generations.
Charles E. Crosby