My dad commanded a Landing Ship Medium (LSM) in the Pacific for much of WWII but on June 6, 1944 he supported the landings on Omaha Beach in Normandy. Six months prior to the invasion he had gotten orders that sent him first to Hawaii, then to California, then to New York and from there to England.
In 2000 I interviewed my dad about his war time experiences. He was a career U.S. Navy officer serving 35 years. I grew up surrounded by the images of his ships and training units and he was always the proudest of those from his time in World War II. Dad passed away in 2005.
As the Allied planners prepared for D Day, the commanders of the invasion had decided that it would be necessary to bombard the beaches closer in than had been planned. Ariel and off shore heavy bombardment would not be able to reduce the embedded fortifications sufficiently and equally important keep the German forces, sequestered in bunkers, pinned down while allied forces established beach heads.
Hurriedly a number of LSM’s were modified to provide supporting fire to the beaches.
They were fitted with rockets and cannons to aid the bombardment of the German defenses and support the landing of troops on the beaches 1,000 to 4,000 yards off the beach. They were to deliver fire in a high trajectory that forced the enemy to dig in and go underground. Since they could take on positions on the reverse slope of the beaches facing away from the British Channel they would be invaluable. But, crews had to be assembled and some were drawn from the Pacific Theater.
Dad had just graduated from college with plans to join his father in his construction business in Florida when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. His older brother and he enlisted. His older brother, Al, became a Naval Aviator and went missing in action in the Pacific on a reconnaissance flight. My dad became an amphibious landing craft junior officer and then rather quickly, as casualties in the early landings were very high, a commander of an LSM.
The ship’s complement was 5 officers and 75 enlisted. Length: 203 ft 6 in (62.03 m). Beam: 34 ft (10 m). Displacement: 758 long tons (770 t) light; 983 long tons (999 t) attack; 1,175 long tons (1,194 t) fully loaded.
It carried 50 or so Marines and 5 to 15 medium to heavy vehicles including tanks, LVT’s and DUKW’s. My dad was informed that while he was in command, the Chief Petty Office was “in charge.” The Captain who led his squadron told him that the most important words he would say on the bridge of his ship in his first six months in command were: “What do you think, Chief?”
Dad was in operations in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands in 1943 and 1944. He was among the “experienced” officers dispatched to service for D-Day.
“I was one of the ‘old men’, a veteran of successful, but very costly, landings. I was 25 and a Lt. Commander. I had one boat shot out from under me in the Pacific and was forced to land with the Marines on a beach on an island in the Marshall’s that was only by a number because it was so small. We spent a day pinned down by fire from the jungle. A Marine sergeant kept us alive by giving ‘suggestions’ to me and a young Marine lieutenant about digging in and waiting for heavy support.”
When he got his orders to report for transport to Pearl Harbor he had no idea what was happening. It took a month to get him to England. At Portsmouth he was assigned to a modified LSM, now referred to as a LSM(R).
“It was insane. I and a chief had to to train a crew of sailors to handle the ship in the English Channel while Marine crews trained to work the guns. Only the chief and I had any experience. Conditions for training were not good. We had to maintain secrecy. We had to compete with other crews for training time. We did our best to simulate the conditions we would face but there was no way we could really do it. The weather was awful.”
Very little went as planned during the landing at Omaha. Sea conditions made navigation difficult especially for the lighter landing craft- the ones most of us think of with ramps dropping and troops pouring out. The defenses were even stronger than had been anticipated. My dad recalled that he had a series of battle orders to cover possible situations. “I remember thinking that we would probably have to get close to the beach to cover a retreat. Things were going that badly. Most of our guys were hit really hard when they got close to the beach. A lot died, more were wounded. It looked like everyone was pinned down. Eventually we were ordered to get close to support one channel where assault troops with engineers were clustered as they prepared an assault on the bluffs. They were dug in, getting shelter where they could and there were way too few of them.”
Artillery support from the big guns of the battleships and cruisers far off the beaches could only concentrate fire on the flanks of the beaches for fear of hitting U.S. forces. The destroyers were able to get in closer, but “We were able to get even closer and direct fire at specific targets. Of course that made us a target too. But we controlled the air and the Germans did not have a lot of heavy artillery so we were generally ok. My biggest worry was getting beached if we got too close.”
Dad’s ship turned parallel to the beach and cruised from East to West, guns and rockets blazing at targets of opportunity. “I kept thinking that we should have hit them harder and longer from the bigger ships before the landings but the weather was always a worry and the landing craft could not handle heavy seas. I don’t know. At one point we were asked to lay in rocket fire just in front of the engineers and infantry as they advanced on a large cement wall built between two huge dunes. Blowing it out of the way would require heavy charges at its base but the engineers had to get close. We didn’t have the fire power. The destroyers did but that would lay in fire too close to our own guys. I remember being relieved when I saw troops moving off the beach in narrow streams when the German fortifications were breached, but it seemed to me that there were not enough men left to really reach the objectives. We did our best, son, we did our best.”
Yeah, Dad, I am sure you did
PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT’S D-DAY PRAYERMy Fellow Americans:
Last night, when I spoke with you about the fall of Rome, I knew at that moment that troops of the United States and our Allies were crossing the Channel in another and greater operation. It has come to pass with success thus far.
And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer:
Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity.
Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith.
They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.
They will be sore tried, by night and by day, without rest — until the victory is won. The darkness will be rent by noise and flame. Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war.
For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.
Some will never return. Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.
And for us at home — fathers, mothers, children, wives, sisters, and brothers of brave men overseas, whose thoughts and prayers are ever with them — help us, Almighty God, to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice.
Many people have urged that I call the nation into a single day of special prayer. But because the road is long and the desire is great, I ask that our people devote themselves in a continuance of prayer. As we rise to each new day, and again when each day is spent, let words of prayer be on our lips, invoking Thy help to our efforts.
Give us strength, too — strength in our daily tasks, to redouble the contributions we make in the physical and the material support of our armed forces.
And let our hearts be stout, to wait out the long travail, to bear sorrows that may come, to impart our courage unto our sons wheresoever they may be.
And, O Lord, give us faith. Give us faith in Thee; faith in our sons; faith in each other; faith in our united crusade. Let not the keeness of our spirit ever be dulled. Let not the impacts of temporary events, of temporal matters of but fleeting moment — let not these deter us in our unconquerable purpose.
With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace — a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.
Thy will be done, Almighty God.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt – June 6, 1944