CROSSING THE CHANNEL

By Don R. Marsh

 

 

June 8, 1944. Tidworth Garrison , England

 

The call was made to “mount your vehicles” – it was the moment we had trained for over the past months and years. We are actually and literally going to war. Our convoy stretched out for miles as we pulled out of the gates of the Tidworth Army Garrison like the lemmings headed down to the sea. Our destination was the docks at Southampton , England . The folks in the villages and small towns turned out to wave and give us the “V” for victory sign. Many old soldiers saluted as we passed their row homes and the women said, “God Bless and good luck, Yanks.” Both we and they were well aware that we would never pass this way again. It was a sobering moment in all of our lives.

 

 We had removed our 2nd Armored Division shoulder insignia and the unit identification on the vehicles, for secrecy, but everyone within 100 miles knew the 2nd Armored Division was on the move; if they couldn’t see us they could sure hear us. The D-Day landings had occurred two days prior so the destination was no secret. The giant exodus from England was finally being put into place. Roads in southern England were clogged with men and war materials heading for the ships to transport the American war machine on to the continent and into battle on the beaches of Normandy .

 

Arriving in the dock area guides were posted directing the traffic to prearranged locations for loading “by the numbers” with designated ships. Vehicles were backed into the cavernous hull of the LSTs in assigned positions of disembarkation. Nothing was being left to chance. Our communications group vehicles were sandwiched in between the Sherman and Stuart tanks and half tracks from the 66th Armored Regiment, 2AD.

 

Our Communications Section  of Combat Command “A” of the 2nd Armored Division  was comprised of a seven man wire team, a four man command radio half track and one officer in charge, 1/Lt. Walter S. Moll. Members of the wire team were Sergeant Earlie J. Jones, Corporal William J. Veno, Privates Douglas J. Elfer, Fred J. Newland, Lawrence A. Hull, Don R. Marsh and Clovis Waldroop. The radio half track was comprised of S/Sgt. Thomas Spiers, Corporal Howard Zappendorf, driver, and radio operators Privates Vernon Evans and William Truitt.

 

News photographers from major newspapers across the USA were present to take photos of the men and ships being loaded on the LSTs. A photographer from the Boston Globe asked my buddy Larry Hull to take his photo on the deck; the photo then appeared in the Boston Globe, Larry’s hometown newspaper. A copy of the photo was sent to his parents residing in Brighton and later when I saw the copy, I asked him what in the hell he had to smile about -- at that moment! No one from the Racine Journal Times was present so I didn’t get my picture in the newspaper or even a mention on page 26.

 

When our vehicles were fully loaded aboard the LST the skies darkened as the late afternoon rains threatened. We were confined below decks for the remainder of the sea voyage across the English Channel . There was no one there to see us off, wave goodbye or say, “bon voyage.” On the contrary, the Channel was being prowled by German u-boats that had already taken its toll in the White Sands pre-invasion exercises. Our destroyers and sub-chaser corvettes were searching and dropping ash cans of explosives in areas of suspect. Not a very comforting thought to those of us locked down below inside the iron coffin. One torpedo into that tub and we would sink to the bottom as other unfortunates had suffered; including a 2nd Armored Division LST attempting to land in the Sicily Invasion, in July 1943, with loss of life. The ship’s rocking motion and engines kicking in told me that we were leaving the dock and headed out to open sea. The final journey of a lifetime for some had begun.

 

Some men remained on or in their vehicles. I chose to find a spot on the catwalk that lined the outer shell of the ship to be alone; there I found a gray British army blanket someone had left behind the day before. This was now time for my serious personal and private thoughts. Ironic – a private with private thoughts, if only the Army knew! Unknown to me at that very moment, but one of my high school classmates, Jack Heegeman, who had came ashore on D-Day with an Engineer unit was assigned to clearing the obstacles on the beach head. We were informed that our initial landing forces of V Corps under command of Major General Leonard T. Gerow, had suffered heavy causalities in the landing area assigned to us – Omaha Red Easy Beach .

 

The selected stretch of Omaha Red Easy beach was 7,000 yards long with a crescent curved shoreline with cliffs at each end of the sector. It had a tidal range of 18 feet expected during the assault, with the low tide exposing firm sand for about 300 yards from high to the low watermark. The Germans had installed mined underwater obstacles all along this tidal flat. The beach main Exit Draw was identified as E-D1. Hopefully, our Allied D-Day landing troops had pushed far enough inland to establish a defensible beach head, enabling us to land without sustaining heavy casualties from expected artillery fire. The beach head was far from being totally secure. Rommel had a huge arsenal of tanks at his disposal to throw at us at any time of his choosing. Fortunately for us, Hitler prevented Rommel from unleashing his Panzers, whose sheer numbers would have devastated and over-whelmed us – creating another possible Dunkirk .

 

At a time like this it was for each person to find his own comfort and solace. I watched as one of our troops held his rosary in his hands, his head bowed in silent prayer. My thoughts were of my family, in particular my Irish mother who had a difficult life raising her seven children, at times alone; my brother Ed, serving in the Pacific with the Navy as a Gunner’s Mate 1st/Class and my other brothers and sisters still at home.

 

Thoughts turned to my father and his military experiences, who at the age of 41 in World War One, with a wife and three children, volunteered for the Illinois National Guard to serve once again as an Infantry Sergeant. This time with Company “I” of the 132nd Infantry Regiment, 66th Brigade of the 33rd Infantry Division in the Meuse –Argonne, Somme offensive in 1918 in France ; having served a previous hitch at the turn of the century in the Philippines in 1899, during the Insurrection, with F Company 12th US Infantry. The Old Sarge must have loved the smell of cordite!

 

 I wrapped the Brit’s abandoned blanket around me and reflected on my life up to that point of what had transpired in my 21 years on this earth. As for tomorrow, the fear of the unknown remained in the subconscious; the future being impossible to predict, so I didn’t dwell on it. Trusting in Fate, my Destiny on earth was already predetermined. Instead, I counted my blessings and reminisced.

 

I grew up in poverty in The Great Depression in a small Midwest industrial hick town, but managed to graduate from high school while most of my friends dropped out for a variety of reasons. While in high school, I had met my first and only true love. Her name was Phyllis – she became my high school sweetheart for all three years.

 

I closed my eyes and recalled how she would ride her bicycle to our house, whistle loudly and then coyly duck behind the huge oak tree out front to wait for me. My father would call me and say, “Donnie, your little Italian girl friend is here.” I could still picture her laughing and hiding behind the old oak. Those were the best of times and those were the worst of times.

 

Phyl and I were inseparable all during those teen years. Summer nights we would walk along the sand at the Racine North Beach on the Lake Michigan shore line. In the winter we would ice skate on the frozen zoo pond. She was in both my French classes for two years. Probably the reason I took those elective classes! She was very popular with a winning smile and a great sense of humor. She was awarded her “letter” in volleyball despite being not quite 5 feet tall.  

 

Then she graduated in 1940 and moved out of state; with that my whole world changed. We lost contact, but I never stopped thinking about her. Others would come along, but none ever replaced her. Though I often wondered what became of her I was not aware that she was employed at the Oakland Army Base Hospital in California as I was thinking of her. Here again, Destiny would come into play in our two lives.

 

A sudden jolt shook me from my reverie. The bow of the ship was on the beach. In the crossing we lost one LST that hit a floating mine and sunk with loss of life. Our LST obviously maneuvered through the minefields, following the shore beacons from the Beach Master’s signal lamps which guided the ship on to the shoreline. There wasn’t any sandy beach visible where we beached, but it didn’t matter. We were beached! Of course we were still confined below decks and had no knowledge of the shoreline nor the history making massive flotilla of naval warships surrounding the landing areas.

 

The night time hours dragged by, while we continued to be locked below decks. Now it was waiting until the tide receded and we would off load at the first light of day break. German aircraft were heard droning overhead and dropping lethal bomb loads. The near misses would rock the ship and we knew they were not finished bombing for the night, as others followed with their bomb runs. The ships anti-aircraft guns hammered throughout the night with the empty brass shell casings from the Bofors’ guns landing “plink-plink” on the steel decking of our LST. That is when the adrenaline began flowing! Orders were to remain in place and grumbles could be heard among the men, but strangely there was a lack of conversation. What could be said that made sense anyway?  We knew we were sitting ducks without any recourse.

 

Daylight broke and the bow doors opened and the ramp lowered. Veno got behind the wheel of the jeep with its top down, with windshield covered and lashed to the hood. I took my seat next to him. The vehicles belching fumes started rolling down the ramp on to the beach. Our turn came at the top of the ramp and as I looked out over the front of our jeep, all I could see was water in front of us! We were 30 yards from dry land!

 

We had been assigned to transport a temporary back seat passenger, a non-member of our wire team, a switchboard operator, who was a young Jewish private from New York . He was so damn nervous that he kept turning around on the small back jump seat and each time he turned, the barrel of his carbine struck Veno in the back of his helmet. Veno at this point a bit edgy himself, although a veteran of North Africa and Sicily, said, “The next God damn time you hit me with your fucking carbine I am going to take it away and ram it up your ass.” The frightened New York guy sat motionless the rest of the way, except I saw that he had already pissed his pants and his crotch bore the tell-tale wet stain. Often wondered what scared him, Veno or the sight of all that water? Or both?

 

Veno eased the jeep down the ramp and into the water. It had to be three or more feet in depth. I believe we managed to get five feet from the edge of the LST bow ramp when the engine sputtered and died. The coil shorted out and refused to start as Veno ground the starter. The water-proofing did not hold and there we sat. But, not for long. The Beach Master had a huge caterpillar tractor on standby for just such a malfunction. The Cat operator snagged a chain on to the front bumper and towed us on to the shore. We lifted the hood, removed the water proof material, dried the coil and took off to chase the tail end of the vehicles leaving the LST.

 

 Our destination was the wooded area near Mosles where we rendezvoused with the command and prepared to meet the boss – Brigadier General Maurice Rose, Combat Command “A” Commanding Officer; who had been ashore since early morning on June 7th, conferring with the Corps commander’s staffs. By midnight, June 9th, 86 officers and 1,581 men and their vehicles had reached the initial assembly area. We were about to join the 101st Airborne Division at Carentan -- in the exclusive Brotherhood of War.

 

Publication or reproduction, in part or whole, is prohibited without written

permission from the author, Don R. Marsh. All rights remain the sole property

Of The Marsh Family Trust.