28 April, 2011

28 April, 1944

438th AAA AW BN
APO 578 % Postmaster, N.Y.
England
28 April, 1944       1010
My dearest fiancée –

I am now at the Dispensary, the most difficult place to write a letter, by the way, but since I am free for the moment, I decided to start writing now. Usually things get busy.

1140

See what I mean, dear? I didn’t finish the above sentence, when our new chaplain dropped into the Dispensary to make a social call. When he left, it was time to come back to the Castle and here I am again. It’s lovely out again, though a bit cooler than yesterday. Charlie et al are not back yet, so I’m still somewhat more alone than usual. Yesterday was a rather quiet day and evening. After dinner I did a little reading – medical journals – and listened to the radio. There was no mail at all for me, but I didn’t mind as much as I used to because I know there’s some mail on the way and I know you’re my true sweetheart and fiancée to boot – and when I think those things over, I feel so good that I can overlook the lapse.

This morning my eye is definitely on the mend and the assortment of colors is starting to disappear. There never was any pain associated with it – and since the cosmetic factor has no value over here to me – I didn’t mind the thing at all.


You mention a Porter girl – a student nurse at the B.I. I don’t seem to recall her although it does seem to me I had a couple of patients by that name. Anyway, as long as she had something nice to say about me, I’m satisfied. It’s too bad you don’t hear some bad things about me too, because you’ll find, darling, that some patients didn’t think I was so ‘hot’. Anyway, I’m glad I have some friends back in Salem and I am glad that you do have confidence in me. With that, I know I’ll do so well and I don’t have the slightest fear about my ability to come back, start practicing, work like hell and get a decent following of patients. And I know darn well that you’ll be a great help to me too! Dinner bell –

1235

Hello darling –

I hate to write you interrupted letters but I sometimes just don’t seem to have one solid hour without interruption. I guess you got an idea about interruptions that night at the Seder at my house – from what you wrote. I’m not that busy now – but I do remember some irritable evenings when I’d just get ready to take it easy and things would start popping. And the worst part of it was that you might have spent a very quiet and unbusy day. Oh well – just trying to scare you a bit, dear!

Well – honey chile – I’ve got to get started back. Someone I have to see is to be at the Dispensary at 1315 and it’s about a 12 minute walk. I hope I hear from you today, dear – but in any case, I’ll try not to mind. Solong for now, Sweetheart and be well.

All my love forever, dear
Greg
P.S. Love to the folks,
Love
G.

P.P.S. I tried to get some Mother’s Day cards. They
don’t have them here – And Mother’s day in England
is the Sunday before Easter.
Love
G.

* TIDBIT *

about Operation Tiger
Part II


Slapton Sands
"Tiger", under the command of US Navy Rear Admiral Don Pardee Moon, was one of several assault rehearsals conducted at Slapton Sands on the Devon coast. So vital was the exercise that the commanders had ordered the use of live naval and artillery ammunition to make the exercise as real as possible so as to accustom the soldiers to what they were soon going to experience. As mentioned in Part I about Operation Tiger, the exercise "landings" were begun during the morning of April 27. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of Operation Overlord (Allied code for the invasion itself), was aboard an observers’ ship on April 27, when Exercise Tiger first went terribly wrong— failed air cover, late landing craft, confusion on the beachhead. Amphibious tanks heading to shore, misfired their guns and wounded soldiers on the beach. At least one of the tanks sank in choppy seas while its frantic crew managed to escape. Furious, Eisenhower returned to his headquarters, deeply worried about what the exercise augured for D-Day. Worse was yet to come as the unloading continued during that day and the next, when a follow up convoy was expected.

The follow-up convoy consisted of two sections from two different ports. The Plymouth section, LST Group 32, was composed of USS LST-515, USS LST-496, USS LST-511, USS LST-531, and USS LST-58, which was towing two pontoon causeways. The Brixham section consisted of USS LST-499, USS LST-289, and USS LST-507. The convoy joined with HMS Azalea as escort and proceeded at six knots in one column with the LSTs in the same order as listed above.

Meanwhile, at a little after 10pm on the night of 27th of April, a group of nine German E-boats set out on a normal reconnaissance mission from their base in Cherbourg into the Lyme Bay area, under the command of Kapitain zur See Rudolf Petersen.

Kapitain zur See Rudolf Petersen

From the French mainland Kapitan zur see Petersen radioed the bearing of a possible target at 2317 hours and the E-boats of the 5th Flotilla split up into pairs for the attack. They followed the usual channel route without any sign of a convoy or 'enemy’ ships. As they headed towards the Lyme Bay area, they suddenly came in visual contact with the LST convoy. Since they could not see any naval escorts, they quickly positioned themselves for a torpedo attack.

As the convoy approached Lyme Bay it was maneuvering a loop to head back towards the shore. It was here that the E-boats made contact and opened fire. No warning of the presence of enemy boats had been received when LST 507 was torpedoed a few mintues after 2am, hitting its auxiliary engine room and cutting all electric power. The ship burst into flames. Gasoline aboard LST-507 exploded and set the ship afire. The fire fighting attempted by the crew proved futile as most of the fire fighting equipment was inoperative due to the power failure. After about 45 minutes or so the survivors of the attack were ordered to abandon ship.

LST 531 was hit by two torpedoes shortly after LST 507 was hit. LST-531 capsized and sank within six minutes. Trapped below decks hundreds of soldiers and sailors went down with the ships. There was little time to launch lifeboats and some of the lifeboats were jammed. Many men leapt into the sea. Several minutes later LST 289, which opened fire at the E-boats, was torpedoed. However LST 289 managed to limp back to shore but only after suffering a number of deaths and casualties of its men aboard. The E-boats used smoke and high speed to escape.

LST 289 after the attack

Senior officers ashore, quickly assessing the damage, ordered the five surviving LSTs to continue steaming toward Dartmouth, their destination. Capt. John Doyle, commanding officer of LST-515, the lead ship, disobeyed the order. He turned back to look for survivors. “We started looking for the ones who were still alive:’ Brent Wahlberg, 515 gunnery officer, remembers. “We found 132 survivors.” Many of the dead, they noticed, were floating head down, feet up, with their life belts inflated. No one had told them that the life belts were to be worn under the armpits, not around the waist, and their heavy backpacks had pulled their heads under the cold water. That lesson from Exercise Tiger would be taught to invasion troops, saving countless lives. Others succumbed to hypothermia in the cold water. In all 749 American soldiers and sailors died that night, 946 in total during Exercise Tiger. In hindsight the casualty list was three times that which ‘U’ Force (VII Corps) would suffer on Utah beach on D-Day. Unfortunately, three months later Rear Admiral Moon shot himself. People close to him said he never got over the disaster at Slapton Sands.

Rear Admiral Don Pardee Moon

The German victory led to further panic at SHAEF. It was discovered that ten officers missing had BIGOT (Access to Operation Overlord plans) security clearance. They did not know the date of the invasion; no one did at this stage. However, anyone with BIGOT clearance would have access to the location of the invasion, landing beaches and probably a whole host of other information that would be of use to the enemy. The German boats had closed on where the LST’s had sunk and switched on their searchlights, presumably to look for survivors. It was assumed they might have taken prisoners, which was later discovered to be the case. A vast fishing fleet mobilized in Lyme Bay to trawl for dead bodies from the attack. Although many bodies were never recovered all ten of the 'Bigots' were found floating in their life jackets.

Meanwhile, orders went out imposing the strictest secrecy on all who knew or might learn of the tragedy, including doctors and nurses who treated the survivors. There was no point in letting the enemy know what he had accomplished, least of all in affording any clue that might link Slapton Sands to Utah Beach. Nobody ever lifted that order of secrecy, for by the time D-Day had passed, the units subject to the order had scattered. Quite obviously, in any case, the order no longer had any legitimacy particularly after Gen. Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, in July 1944 issued a press release telling of the tragedy. Notice of it was printed, among other places, in the soldier newspaper, Stars and Stripes.

The following is the recollection of LT Eugene E. Eckstam, MC, USNR, (Ret.), a medical officer on USS LST-507 when it was struck, adapted from: "The Tragedy of Exercise Tiger," Navy Medicine 85, no. 3 (May-Jun 1994): 5-7 found on the web site: Oral Histories of World War II:
When our medical unit reported back to LST-507 [after a training elsewhere], it was in Brixham and had loaded some 290 Army personnel. The tank deck held 22 DUKWs (amphibious trucks) with jeeps and trucks topside, all chained to the deck and fully fueled. Army troops were everywhere.

Loading occurred 24 April 1944. We and two other LSTs sailed from Brixham on the afternoon of 27 April to join five LSTs coming from Plymouth. Only recently I found that our British escort had been warned about E-boats in the area, but the U.S. forces had not been given the correct radio channel to monitor. We sailed along in fatal ignorance.

General Quarters rudely aroused us about 0130. I remember hearing gunfire and saying they had better watch where they were shooting or someone would get hurt. At 0203 I was stupidly trying to go topside to see what was going on and suddenly "BOOM!" There was a horrendous noise accompanied by the sound of crunching metal and dust everywhere. The lights went out and I was thrust violently in the air to land on the steel deck on my knees, which became very sore immediately thereafter. Now I knew how getting torpedoed felt. But I was lucky.

The torpedo hit amidships starboard in the auxiliary engine room, knocking out all electric and water power. We sat and burned. A few casualties came into the wardroom for care and, since there was ample help, I checked below decks aft to be sure no one required medical attention there. All men in accessible areas had gone topside.

The tank deck was a different matter. As I opened the hatch, I found myself looking into a raging inferno which pushed me back. It was impossible to enter. The screams and cries of those many Army troops in there still haunt me. Navy regulations call for dogging the hatches to preserve the integrity of the ship, and that's what I did.

Until the fire got so hot we were forced to leave the ship at 0230, we watched the most spectacular fireworks ever. Gas cans and ammunition exploding and the enormous fire blazing only a few yards away are sights forever etched in my memory.

Ship's company wore life jackets, but the medics and Army personnel had been issued inflatable belts. We were told only to release the snaps and squeeze the handles to inflate. Climbing down a cargo net, I settled into the 42 degree F. water, gradually getting lower as the life belt rose up to my arm pits. The soldiers that jumped or dove in with full packs did not do well. Most were found with their heads in the water and their feet in the air, top heavy from not putting the belts around their chests before inflating them. Instructions in their correct use had never been given.

I recall only brief moments of hearing motors, of putting a knee on a small boat ramp, and then "awakening" half way up a Jacobs ladder. I was on the only American ship, LST 515, to rescue survivors. This was at dawn, about 0600. I had been in the water over 2 hours fully dressed and insulated. Those that had stripped to swim, only God knows where they died. Drowning and hypothermia were the two major causes of death. I often wonder if many "dead" victims were really in a state of hibernation, and what would have happened had we been able to immerse them in warm tubs. But who ever heard of a tub on an LST in wartime? We couldn't even do a reliable physical exam under the circumstances.

Both dead and alive were taken to Portland. The dead went on to Brookwood Cemetery near London where they were buried individually. The rumor of mass graves is false. We got dry clothes, courtesy of the American Red Cross and then an exam at an Army field hospital in Sherborne.

Lessons were learned although the appalling loss of life had little or no compensating benefit to the allied landings at Normandy. However, recommendations for the D-Day invasion included:
  • using larger escort forces if available
  • the need for rescue craft during any large scale landing
  • ensuring that vital information on enemy contacts was disseminated quickly 
  • introducing standard procedures and special communication circuits for each Operation including the use of the same radio wavelengths 
  • reinforcing the message for all hands not to look at flares or fires ... to do so reduced ability to see objects in the dark 
  • limiting the amount of fuel carried to that needed for the operation itself to reduce combustible material and thereby fire risk 
  • making rifles and pistols more generally available to fire on E-boats when they paced close aboard especially when guns could not depress sufficiently 
  • making life boats and life rafts as near ready for lowering as possible 
  • illumination rockets to help slow moving large ships locate E-boats in darkness
  • improving fire fighting equipment including the installation of manually operated pumps for LSTs and other ships carrying large amounts of inflammable material
  • providing training in the use of the kapok life preserver jacket in preference to the CO2 single type. The former was more effective in keeping heads above water 
  • loosening boot laces where an order to abandon ship seemed likely to make it easier to remove heavy waterlogged boots in the water.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for this succinct post. My father is a LST 289 survivor and I had the privilege of attending one of their reunions in Washington DC in 1997.

    ReplyDelete