Finally we got ready to cast off for Normandy. The date was June 5, 1944. We ran down this little river in Dartmouth and finally out to sea, to the English Channel. When we got out into the Channel it was awfully rough. The wind was blowing hard, sea was running high and it was raining. Conditions were really bad and some of the fellas were getting seasick.
The LCTs were the smallest craft to go all the way across from one side of the channel to the other. The LCIs and LSTs were larger ships. The small landing craft all got loaded just off the beach of Normandy and made the short run in. But we had to ride our landing craft all the way across and it was one rough ride! After we got beat around for quite a while, the order came down for us to turn back. Now remember this was June the 5th, the day that the landing was supposed to take place. But because of the severe weather it was postponed.
So we turned back and headed on back to Torquay, which has a big harbor. In fact it is a big seashore resort on the channel coast. We pulled in the harbor in Torquay and dropped anchor and we had no sooner dropped anchor (it seemed to me) then the air raid sirens went off and we had an air raid. But they didn’t hit us; they didn’t even come close. They were bombing around the city somewhere.
In a little while we pulled the anchor back up and took off again. This time it was the real thing, we kept going. Going across the Channel it was still pretty rough; the storm had died down some but it hadn’t quit all together. It was in that little window of opportunity that General Eisenhower decided that we would go. It’s a good thing he did because there was no way they could have kept the fellas on those ships until the next tide was right. That would have been another six weeks or so.
We kept going across the channel, I can remember it was about midnight, or a little after, maybe one or two o’clock in the morning. It was pitch black and we were bucking into the waves and we heard all these airplanes coming. They went right over our heads, in fact they went so low we could look up and see them. It was our paratroopers going over to make their jump. They were in C 47’s and they all had the white stripes, they called them the “D Day stripes. These stripes were painted on all the allied planes. So if you saw an airplane with white stripes on the wings, you knew it was a friendly plane.
Of course we had air superiority, which was a very fortunate thing. I doubt the landing would have been successful unless we had that air superiority. It was quite a thrill to see those troopers going over because we knew what was ahead of them; or we thought we knew. A couple of hours before we heard the planes go over the Battery Commander came around and handed each of us a mimeographed sheet of paper. It was General Eisenhower’s message to the troops and it was quite an inspirational message. It was the one that said, “ You’re members of a great crusade and everybody’s counting on you. We know your up against great odds but everybody is sure you’ll win through to the end.”
It was quite an inspiration and as I read that I thought to myself, “Gee, I ought to keep this because this really is a historical document.” In the excitement of the next few days I never knew what happened to it. I wish I had put it in a safe place, but I don’t think there were too many safe places at that time. We proceeded on and just before it broke daylight we started to hear the thunder of the guns. When you hear artillery off in the distance it sounds just like a big thunderstorm. It was the naval guns opening up with the Naval bombardment of the beach. As we got closer and closer you could pick out the individual gun blasts as they went off.
We were making our final run into the beach. By that time it was daylight. It was about 7:00 in the morning. I think the first wave had hit about 6:30 AM. We passed right off the bow of a battleship. It had all its guns leveled down horizontally; it was lying broadside to the beach. The guns were firing right straight into the beach. Just as we went past the bow I was looking at this ship and was amazed at how big it was and how small a vessel we were on. As they fired broadside with all the guns the battleship jumped sideways in the water about, I guess ten or twelve feet. It was amazing to see a huge vessel like that being shoved that far sideways in the water with the recoil of those guns.
After we had gotten inland a little ways we saw the havoc those naval guns had made. Boy, they blew holes in the ground that you could put a house in! It was unbelievable. Of course some of those holes could have been bomb craters too. They were really doing a lot of damage. I don’t know how much damage those Naval guns did to the Germans, but they sure did blow down a lot of houses, tore up a lot of orchards and killed a lot of cows. Just about this time was when we came under fire, our baptism of fire. The shells started coming in and landing all around the boat. The shells were landing around all of the boats and hitting some them, of course.
There was one German gun in particular that seemed to be firing directly at us, because he kept dropping a round right in front of our landing craft. We kept going, didn’t take evasive action or anything, just plodded right straight in. He kept firing and they kept falling short and falling short. We thought, “ Oh man, that next one is going to be right in here!” But it never was, he finally stopped firing. Whether he shifted his target to something else or he got knocked out or not, I don’t know. When we were about 1 1/2 miles from the beach our ship approached an LCT that had struck a mine and was sinking. We passed close enough to the vessel so that we could look down into the cargo compartment. I couldn’t see anyone alive, but we couldn’t have stopped to help them anyway. I learned later that it was a battery of artillery just like ours. It was Battery B of the 29th Field Artillery Battalion. The ship sank with the loss of 59 officers and men. When we got closer to the beach we came under small arms fire. You could hear the machine guns open up, rattling on the ramp, the steel door at the bow of the ship. The whole bow goes down and that’s what you run off on, the ramp of the boat. We could hear this German machine gunner, boy he was really peppering away at the bow of the ship. We thought, “ Man when we pull into the beach and drop that ramp down he’s going to be able to shoot right in here.” But he never did either. He probably got knocked out before we ever hit the sand.
So, we kept peeking over the side. You’d raise your head up and take a quick peek at the beach to see how close we were coming and it was getting pretty close. Finally we felt the lurch that meant the ship has grounded itself. They had dropped the kedge anchors back just before we grounded. When we heard those kedge anchors go down we knew we were really close. Then we felt the lurch and came to a sudden stop. It was really a thrill to hear that ramp go down. A ramp makes a lot of noise, all those chains and everything when the ramp is dropped. It was thrilling to hear that ramp go down because you know you are on foreign soil and somebody was doing his best to shoot you. We had our tanks all started and warmed up ready to take off. We did that on our final run in. Our tanks were just idling. The first three guns pulled off and didn’t have too much of a problem. We had to pull our gun ahead a little bit, get the armored trailer, swing it around and hook it up.
Well, boy we didn’t waste any time doing that! We were working like a bunch of demons to get that thing hooked up. The thing weighed a ton I guess. We got our trailer hooked up and jumped back on the tank; all except the Greek. It was standard operating procedure that the Chief of Section had to lead the tanks off on foot. The reason for that being, if there was a shell hole right there or some kind of an underwater obstacle that nobody had seen before he would see it and be able to direct the tank around it.
I was directing the driver, sitting on the gunner’s seat looking over the shield, following the Greek off. He got down into the water, which was about up to his armpits, across his chest. He was plodding through the water and a German opened up on him with a machine gun. This machine gun was kicking up the water all around him. I was looking almost right straight down at him from my perch up on the tank and thought, “Holy mackerel, their just bound to hit him!” He just kept plodding along; he never even ducked down in the water. I think if it had been me I’d have ducked down into the water, but he just kept plodding along. Finally they stopped firing. Of course in a situation like that you never know what happened.
The Greek walked on up the beach and we followed him. Then he clambered aboard our tank. When we got up on the beach our orders were to go right up to the sea wall. Where we landed there was a sea wall, about a five-foot concrete sea wall. It was all pockmarked with shells and bullet holes in it. On the way up, I looked around. It was quite a sight. There were all kinds of vehicles and some were burning. Some tanks with their tracks blown off and some vessels that had grounded and couldn’t get back off the beach. They had hit the beach so hard they couldn’t back off and the Germans were shooting them full of holes. It was really a chaotic scene. There were quite a few GI’s lying around on the beach, some were wounded, some were dead. We pulled up to the sea wall, shut the engine off and prepared for action. It didn’t take us too long because we were really professionals at that. The next thing was to get out and dig our personal hole. If you weren’t actually on the gun firing you could get down in the hole and take cover. So we got off, dug our holes and were all set to go.
It seems that there was a barrage balloon crew on every landing vessel that came across the channel. This was a crew of about four or five fellas that had a winch, a big heavy winch that was hand operated. However, it was small enough that four men could carry it. They had this barrage balloon that they towed on a long steel cable, to prevent the enemy airplanes from coming in and strafing (machine gunning the troops). It kept the enemy aircraft up at a height above the barrage balloons. If the Germans came down and tried to strafe they’d hit that cable with their wing it would slice the wing right off the plane.
When the vessels hit the beach, these fellas would grab the winch and bring the winch in and set up on the beach. So, all along the beach the barrage balloons were protecting us. I can remember we came under some mortar fire. I was lying down in my hole looking up in the sky, watching a barrage balloon. All of a sudden there was a loud crack close by and the barrage balloon started going straight up in the air. A shell had hit right at the base of the winch and cut the cable. The barrage balloon was loose and I think it wiped out the crew of that barrage balloon. The balloon took off, going somewhere into the stratosphere.
Our forward observer was a First Lieutenant, Lt. Caldwell. He had gone in with Infantry with the first wave. He had gone inland far enough and found a tree. Of course there weren’t any trees on the beach, just off the beach were sand dunes and then over the sand dunes was a marshy area. There were only a couple of roads, causeways, across the marshy area. We had to wait until the Infantry had secured the roads before we could get off the beach and get across the marsh. There was no way we could get across the marsh; all the tanks would have gotten bogged down. We had to wait until the causeways were cleared. Lt. Caldwell had gone inland with the infantry and climbed a tree to get observation. While he was up in the tree an Infantryman came along, saw him up in the tree, thought he was a sniper and started shooting at him with his rifle!
He came down out of the tree hollering, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” He was almost down, the guy kept missing him, and he had one foot up in the air and the guy shot him right through the bottom of the foot. So our forward observer had to go back to the hospital and somebody else took his place. As it turned out we never got a chance to fire even one round off the beach because we didn’t have any observation. It was just one of those circumstances of war. Dock Jones and I crawled up on top of the sand dune and we were looking out over top of the sand dune to see how the battle was going to take this marshy area. It was quite a sight. The marshy areas was in front of us and down a little bit lower than we were, so we had ring side seats to this battle. The Infantrymen were slogging through the marsh and every once in a while you’d see a fella open up with a flame-thrower on a pillbox. We couldn’t even see the pillboxes; they were so well camouflaged. We couldn’t see them from where we were, but we could hear the machine guns, the rifles, hand grenades and mortars going off. It was quite a battle.
While we were observing we saw the causeway off to our left a little bit and it went straight across the marsh and made a hard curve off to the right. This was the causeway we were going to have to go down after the marsh was cleared. There was a farmhouse where the road curved, facing down the causeway. There were a couple of tanks that had started down the causeway, one in back of the other. They couldn’t go two abreast, as it was too narrow. We saw them churning down the causeway firing with their turret guns and machine guns. All at once the whole front of the farmhouse flopped down! It was a camouflaged gun position, hiding a German 88- gun crew! They opened up on those two tanks. With the first shot they hit the first tank, it wheeled around and fell over into the ditch. With the second round they got the second tank, it started to burn and also went off into the ditch.
Later on that afternoon when we were going down the causeway ourselves we passed those two knocked out tanks. The first one, the 88 had gone right in the front end and out the back. The second one had caught fire and burned up. It was quite an impressive, and at the same time, discouraging sight to see how easily our tanks could be knocked out with the 88’s. This was a very powerful weapon that the Germans had. At that time we didn’t have anything that could stand up against them.
Late in the afternoon we got off the beach, got inland and pulled into a firing position. By that time it was almost nightfall as we got the guns prepared for action. We had another forward observer. He radioed back the coordinates to us and we commenced firing on these targets. After it got really dark the firing slacked off a while and a few of us were able to get down and dig our holes. That’s what you do at nighttime; you have to sleep in a hole because you never know when a shell is going to come in. If you are sleeping on the ground, above ground, the chances of getting hit are a lot higher than if you are down in a slit trench or a foxhole. It is tough sleeping in a foxhole so most of us dug slit trenches where we could stretch out.