|The circling was endless,
always the exercise was the same. We circled clockwise and counter-clockwise,
for hours on end, both days and nights. The coxswain, at least, was kept
busy piloting the boat. The rest of us were simply bored passengers except
for the few minutes when we would make our dash to the beach. The LCVP's
(landing craft vehicle personnel, 36' long) lined abreast in an effort
to arrive simultaneously. If the surf hit the boat dead astern, we had
a reasonable chance to raise the ramp and retreat to sea without being
broached. In these last few minutes, the rest of the crew was kept busy.
Then it was back to the boredom of circling, repeating the process over
and over again.
Weeks later, after a weekend pass, we left Little Creek, Virginia. We left by train for USNATB, Fort Pierce, Florida. Finally, we would end the monotony of the endless circling. Wrong! More of the same except we had a vertical wall and a cargo net to tie to for a few minutes. Then, it was the circle, the dash to the beach, back to the mock up, the circle and so on. One day, after another full day of the same, we paused to study the new bulletin board. Only one small notice caught our eyes. ‘WANTED, VOLUNTEERS FOR EXTRA HAZARDOUS DUTY.’ We wondered what it was all about and four of our boat crew signed our names. Next morning, we marched down the road to its very end. There, in front of the old casino, we were welcomed into the Scouts and Raiders by Ensign Bell and introduced to Ensign Tripson, Ensign Herick, Shorty Buchanon, Ponds and Kaylor, all members of the Ships Company.
Since we were already ‘expert’ with small boat handling, no training was necessary in their operation. Our training was very intensive, including the use of short wave radios, stealth, hand-to-hand combat, body building, all sorts of gunnery, nighttime silhouette studies, scouting, rubber boat use, demolition, swimming, map reading, raiding and signaling. Most ‘Special Forces’ currently use the training first used on us. Each crew was soon to be issued its own LCPR (Landing Craft Personnel Ramp, smaller and faster than the LCVP). Having already made friends with Sal, the Harbor Master, I was advised by him as to which was the best boat. Sal was right, when operating at full speed, one man had to go to the bow as lookout and we threw a four-foot rooster tail.
My crew could afford to be the last one to leave on our missions and almost always we would be the first to return. This was helpful in night missions, enabling us to be in our bunks while other crewmembers were still returning. During those night missions among other things, we would study and memorize the silhouette of the beach, noting every knoll and tree. Later, this would help us find an enemy beach on their shores. A rendezvous with a ship at sea in pitch-blackness became routine, at least for Ensign William G. Morrisey, III, our crew officer. Slowly, our edges were being honed. Paddling a rubber boat all night through the swamps, crawling on our stomachs to ambush or evade each other served to harden and educate us. We began to bear the posture of confidence and assurance.
Our final exercise was to take place off Ft. Lauderdale. We arrived, only to be told by Ensign Tripson, that we could not take part due to the lack of accommodations. His statement raised such a howl that the ensign promised to do something. Our crew was the only one singled out and we were in no mood to sit on the sidelines. Besides, we felt we were by far the best crew and wanted to prove it. Ensign Tripson told us of a Coast Guard station to the south that patrolled the beach with horses. He simply pointed in the direction and said, ‘See if you can take it. The command post will be in the Mess Hall.’
Without any transportation, with no one in command, we hitchhiked to within three or four hundred yards of the station. Information was provided by civilians. The Base was surrounded by water connected by a causeway. There were two guards at either end. We decided to split up and each man try to get to the mess hall on his own. We, one by one, penetrated the base to within 30 feet of the mess hall. The base having been alerted, had placed an extra guard, who was lying on the roof of the mess hall. I had spent about two hours getting to the last thirty feet when he saw me. In the meantime, I had spent at least two hours on the base in barracks and under them.
At one time, I was prone on the path when a mounted guardsman came along. The horse knew I was in his path and stopped. The rider urged the horse on as I steeled myself for a broken back. The horse very slowly and deliberately stepped over me. I was soaking wet again that night, this time from perspiration. We felt that the mission was a success in spite of the fact that the base was warned and that it had employed extra-ordinary measures to look for us. Had the exercise been actual, the sentries would have been easily eliminated. Ensign Tripson somehow knew all about our little trip and greeted us with a wide grin. It appeared that we were graduates.
As with any unit taking such realistic training, we had our share of casualties. Sergeant Zimmerman (U.S. Army) lost his right arm when a faulty grenade exploded. A Scout and Raider died from an ‘unloaded gun’ accident. His last name was Montiagn and very much liked by all. Among the new gear that was tested, was an underwater exhaust on our LCPRs to enable us to approach the shore in silence. The other item was the first wet suit for swimming in cold water. It was made of inner-tube rubber, very difficult to get into and constricted the neck so badly it caused throbbing headaches.
We left Fort Pierce by train and proceeded to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Upon arriving we were led to settle in warm clean barracks, after Florida what a change! It was bitter cold outside. I often heard from old salts that the North Atlantic is very rough in the winter and it was certain that we were headed east to the European theatre.
A few days later, at dusk, we boarded the USS TARAZET, a troop transport. During the early part of the night, we felt the ship rolling and pitching. We were under way. Ernie Chyz and I groped our way topside for some fresh air. We felt our way through the dark unfamiliar passages and staggered into the cold night air. The ship was being tossed about and I thought we were running aground or being tossed against a mountain. After becoming oriented, the mountains on either side became waves with their crest at about 45 degrees. Our ship was slowly making its way, riding each wave and slipping in the troughs. Ernie produced a bottle of Jack Daniels, shortly we were enjoying the roller coaster. I slept like a baby that night, being rocked to sleep.
One or two days out of Gibraltar, we picked up our escorts to shepherd us through the dangerous waters ahead of us. I often wondered why the Navy sent us un-escorted across the Atlantic. It appears the seas are so rough in January that the U-Boats cannot set up a target. A torpedo would pass thirty feet below us, perhaps above us, if that were possible. The Germans were operating near the coast of the United States where the shipping was heavy. The North Atlantic was to cross and not to hunt on.
We hugged the coast of North Africa and arrived at the port of Oran. Our stay was not long. As we made our way toward the pier, we noticed many warships with heavy camouflage. We were told that these belonged to the French and were mostly deserted, of no use to us. The crews of these French ships refused to scuttle them when ordered by the Free French. At least, they were not in German hands, with no thanks to Vichy. We didn't give them much choice. Fight or leave, and they left. During the invasion of North Africa, our French ‘ally’ killed many Americans.
At Algiers, we left the ship and spent a week or so in a barrack built and used by the French. We stayed there just long enough to visit the bazaars and venture into the casaba, the ancient native part of the city.
We boarded an LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) one-day and entered the port of Tunis. Tunis caught a lot of the fury of war. When the German army retreated from North Africa, Tunis and Bizerta were the two main ports of their escape. With our infantry and air force pounding them, the Germans boarded anything that floated. The channel to the docks was littered with ships either sunk or scuttled and the channel was almost effectively blocked.
The maneuvering of our ship was very slow, sometimes at full right or left rudder to avoid some hulk. A ship here with its bow missing, another on its back with its keel in the sunlight, a sunken submarine with one third of its bow pointed toward the sky. Here and there many masts sticking above the water like telephone poles without wires. Dock cranes were twisted into weird shapes, roofs were blown off and not a single unbroken window was to be seen. For a while this place must have been part of Hell. Now it would become a junkman's paradise.
Nearby, my cousin, shot through the throat became one of the most decorated soldiers in American history. Our stay here was short. After a few days in another French barrack, we left for Bizerta, which although not as badly damaged as Tunis, was just about as deserted.
By truck, we reached our final destination, a little south and east of Bizerta an army or former French base called Ferryville. Our quarters were a row of tents. Ferryville must have been an old ammunition dump. There were high walls lined with concrete backed by dirt. Here and there would be flattened knolls for anti-aircraft guns. Forty-millimeter shells lay scattered about.
Our tent had in its center, a makeshift stove made of metal ammunition containers. When facing the roaring wood fire, the front of you would roast, while the back was blue with cold. The nights were bitter cold in Tunisia. The cold spell left us and things became more tolerable.
The Navy, never one to waste talent, put us to work as instructors. One group of paratroopers and another of Rangers passed through our courses. These gentlemen had our respect because like ourselves they were volunteers and serious to be of service to their country. When I think of the Rangers with almost 98% casualties at Salerno, I could not help feeling some apprehension for them. We thus occupied our time until the Navy decided where to send us.
One day we were issued automatic pistols with fifty rounds of ammunition. With the absence of an armory like we had at Fort Pierce, we took our sidearms to our tents to unpack and clean. Twenty minutes later I was lying on the floor, shot, through both legs. Eric, one of my closest friends, checking the ejector, forgetting that the slide stays open after the last round, squeezed the trigger after miscounting.
It felt like someone slammed a crow bar across my legs. Through the excruciating pain my anger surfaced. I became furious. Gone were my Commander stripes, gone was my Congressional Medal of Honor, my Navy Cross, and the Silver Star! I was going to be sent home on crutches, maybe a wheelchair, possibly a basket! A syringe of morphine brought me to an instant calm and I barely remembered the bumpy ambulance ride over the deep rutted dirt road to the army field hospital.
I was shaken awake by a gowned surgeon and informed that I would be all right in about six weeks. I asked if I still had my legs and he replied in the affirmative, saying that the wound just had to be cleaned, like a rifle and tightly bound in order to heal. I fell asleep again, immediately. I awoke to find an ancient nurse of about thirty looking down at me and of course I immediately fell in love with her. When I saw a Colonel slip his arm around her waist I knew I did not have a chance. Silently, I suffered, maybe soon, I would get a bullet in the head or the heart, that would kill the pain.
Ernie Chyz, my best and reliable friend, as usual had the answer. Ernie arrived in a bulky jacket for a visit. I at first thought that he had gained a lot of weight, until he started to unload the bottles of wine and beer from inside his clothes. My bed soon became the local bar, especially for the army men whose units had left to pursue the war in Sicily and Italy.
These men were still recovering from their wounds received while fighting in Africa and Sicily and consisted of men from the following units: The 3rd Division, the 36th (Texas) and the 45th (Thunderbird Division). We would be seeing more of the 45th later on. I noticed that in the corner of the ward was one patient that required a lot of help each morning when dressings were being changed. I was told that the bed was occupied by a German prisoner from Rommel's desert army.
The prisoner was very emaciated and it was obvious that he had and still was suffering a great deal. He had been incapacitated for more than a year. We made an attempt at introducing ourselves to each other. I learned that his name was Hans Hillsher and that he was from Hamburg. He was quite tall, his hair was almost yellow and eyes of blue. The pride of Hitler's ‘supermen’, Hans was in charge of a machine gun nest with two others. Both of his companions were killed.