My D-Day experience was the result of fortuitous events. Upon my graduation from the Adjutant General School in Washington, D.C., I was assigned to the 9th Port of Embarkation in Boston. My classmate, Lt. Haggerty of Boston, had the assignment order changed so that he would go to Boston in my place. (The 9th Port was sent to Basra in the Persian Gulf). I was the first officer to arrive at the 10th Port and was quite happy organizing the affairs of a growing organization.
Unfortunately, in time, a Major arrived to lead the Adjutant General Section. After he saw the table of organization and the possibility of becoming a colonel, he began to call his friends to transfer to the new unit. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, I asked a classmate at Fort Mason, San Francisco to arrange my transfer to the 14th Port at Camp Hathaway, Washington, which was to be commanded by a Lt. Col. at Ft. Mason. Thankfully the transfer was arranged and completed. (The 10th Port went to North Africa and suffered devastating air raids). Four months later, the 14th Port is equipped and trained, and shipped by train to Camp Shanks, N.Y. In July ’43, we boarded the Cunard Liner Aquitantia to make an unescorted run to the Clyde Bank, Scotland. Our Lt. Col. commander was relieved of his command by a General. The next few days was spent in Glasgow devising a plan to reassign the officers and enlisted men to cover five ports; London, Southampton, Plymouth, Hull and Immington. I was to be assigned to become Adjutant to the Port Commander of Southampton. In Southampton, we took over the Cunard Building in the old dock area. We were a compliment of 24 officers, representing 10 branches of the Army, and approximately 130 enlisted men.
Our Port mission was to expedite the turn-around time of Liberty ships and delivery of their cargo of tanks, trucks, and munitions, to the storage area on the Salisbury Plains. We were also to prepare for the Port of Southampton to become the focal point for the combined use of American and British forces. In conjunction with the British stevedores, it was critical to effect a faster turn-around for the ship arriving from the States. All material unloaded is carried by tank recovering units or trucks to the Salisbury Plains, North of Salisbury. Ports to the East of Southampton were for the sole use of British invasion forces since their target was Caen in Eastern Normandy. Ports to the West of Southampton were controlled by the Americans since their targets were Omaha and Utah Beaches, and the Cherbourg Peninsula and Harbor. We carried out our mission from Aug.’43 to Jan. ’44 when the London office descended on Southampton and took over the operation from the Civic Center, since the dock facilities were to be used jointly by the British and American Invasion Forces. In Feb.’44, I was sent to Dorchester, Dorset to serve as Adjutant to the Commanding Transportation Officer in charge of Marshaling area D.
We took over the Dorset Barracks for our offices and residence. From Feb. ’44 to May ’44, we were busy staffing the camps to house the flow of troops, having the motorcycle MP’s become familiar with the roads and routes to Weymouth and Portland, the embarkation area, and the elapsed time from each campsite to the ports for loading the ships. We had to devise the necessary forms to advise the Army units with the order of march so that they could be properly loaded into the Naval vessels so that the sections with the heavy fire-power would be first to leave the vessel on the foreign shore. We held trial runs where troops would be loaded aboard ships, sail down the English Channel and try to effect an invasion type landing at Slapston Sands, Devon, where the terrain would be comparable to the beaches at Normandy. From Feb. ’44 to June ’44 was a frantic time. I was fortunate to have read “OVERLORD” prior to the invasion and was familiar with the order of battle. I also had time to arrange a meeting with officers, who had formerly been enlisted men with back in Feb.’41, in the Finance office of the Second Infantry Division which was stationed in nearby Bournemouth awaiting the “Go” signal for the invasion. We reminisced about our old army days back in Texas in the early part pf 1941.
On the evening of June 5th, I drove out to Portland Bill, an elevated spit jutting out into the English Channel. All was quiet. The ships were loaded and standing out in the Channel. At 11PM, double English daylight time, (in England they jump 2 hrs. for daylight time while in America we only jump 1 hr.) the plan OVERLORD began to unfold. The sky overhead became dark with what seemed like an endless lines of planes and gliders carrying paratroopers, munitions and assorted material. Toward daybreak, one could see flashes of light and hear the heavy booming of the battleships in action. I visited the Weymouth Docks to see the following waves of troops departing. They looked like children in their teens. One was hard put to tell the difference between the officers and the enlisted men, for they all looked to be the same age. The young men had extra pairs of shoes and cartons of cigarettes tied to their bulging backpacks. They looked like they were going off on a picnic. Unfortunately, on the other side of the same dock, they were unloading the initial wave of wounded and prisoners of war.
This situation was quickly rectified so not to affect morale of the departing troops. On one such turn-around of Landing Craft Ships, I found my brothers ship, LST 495, entering the harbor from a return trip from Omaha with wounded army personnel aboard. I took a small boat out to meet his ship, and after conferring with the Captain, I managed to get my youngest brother off the ship until the following day when the ship would be ready to depart for France again. I hadn’t seen him since my entrance into the Army in Jan. 1941. My other brother, Henry, was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne and wasn’t to be seen either until wars end. But my youngest brother and I had an enjoyable reunion which would have to suffice until the wars end. It made my parents happy as well to know that we had met and spent some time together.
Until the Port of Cherbourg was captured and ready to serve as a working Port, and all the Muhlberrys in place, troops and material kept coming South to the camps to be shipped out of Weymouth and Portland. After several weeks, the French Ports were set up to take shipments directly so that our workload was drastically cut. Underwater pipelines were laid across the Channel to fuel the invasion force right in France. Air bases moved to France to provide close air support. With the war carried to the French soil, my work was completed and I returned to Southampton to pick up my duties there until wars end.
William R. Ehlert