|One evening, we quietly
slipped out the harbor and began to cruise rather aimlessly about the Mediterranean.
Little by little, more ships of every type began to form around us and
a convoy had its birth. Ensign Morrisey gave us our briefing and pointed
to the boat we were to use. Our objective: the south of France, the playground
of the French and now the Germans also. Our beach was called ‘Blue Beach’
and lay east of Nice and west of St. Rapheal. Blue Beach had a sandy bottom
with a gradual slope to the beach. No rocks, little surf. I don't know
where the information came from but it was ideal for landing craft.
Blue Beach was shaped into a crescent with a hill on the right, ending at the waters edge. The left side of the beach was marked with a concrete pillar that was a support for a concrete railway bridge that ran from right to left about 50 yards from shore. Directly behind the sand tapered 400 to 500 yards where the seaside homes were built. These multiplied until they actually became the outskirts of a town. A blacktop road rose from the sand heading to the town, taking a long gentle turn to the left. The road disappeared from view among many homes and buildings.
Our mission was to find Blue Beach before dawn. lay to and wait to escort the assault waves to their proper landing area. H-Hour was just after dawn.
Ensign Morrisey pointed to an armored LCP with a pointed bow that was on davits. We were eager to see what we were going to rely on so we climbed aboard and inspected the boat from bow to stern. The boat appeared in good condition. Ernie had twin fifties in his turret and I, a 30 caliber air-cooled Browning. The bilges were clean and dry, at least we could not see the sea slipping swiftly below us. Coveallo got the bright idea to start the engine to see if it ran. A few minutes without cooling fluid would not hurt the engine. With the engine running at half throttle, it was obvious that something was wrong. A vibration and rumble shook the entire boat. After inspecting the screw, we decided that the shaft was bent. As soon as any demand was placed on the boat, the shaft would probably snap. We would become sitting ducks.
Someone thoughtfully had fastened a new shaft inside the boat as a spare. I suspect it was known that the shaft would have to be changed. With only a few hours of daylight left, we decided to attempt to remove and replace the shaft. Over the side went Ernie Chyz, a line tied around his waist. We realized later, if he fell, the line would probably kill him instead of helping him. We had already removed the key and five bolts that bound the shaft to the engine. Ernie removed the screw and handed it up. We pounded out the shaft, inserting the new one and with the new screw secured, the sun sank below the horizon.
In minutes, it was pitch black so that we had to grope our way off the davits. On either side of the gunnel, rocket racks had been installed, twelve on each side. By the faint moonlight, we loaded the rocket racks, brought up the radio and ammunition for the machine guns.
We flicked on the radio and heard static. Our code name was ‘Sugar Baker’ (Scout Boat Blue Beach). Since radio silence was in effect, we could not test the transmitters and except for the static, the receiver was silent. Our guns were loaded, and we grabbed a bite to eat and arranged our personal gear. No sleep that night. At around 3:00 a.m. our LST slowed, we boarded our boat and were lowered to the water. Joe Coveallo started the engines and put it in gear before we touched the water. Immediately, we cruised along side at the same speed, unattached. As we increased speed, we soon found ourselves alone in the blackness. Things never went so smoothly.
The cold salt-water spray in my face felt good. Ensign Morrisey was constantly checking our RMP, the compass and his watch. After about 3 hours, we throttled down as we made out the silhouette of the distant shore about 600 yards ahead. We approached land barely idling the engine to minimize noise and all eyes searching the shore for our memorized landmarks. Our training now began to pay off. Intelligence must have reliable information on our beach. It would not do to miss it. Such things as gun emplacements, roads and beach conditions were all a part of the considerations when this particular area was chosen.
It was still dark but a little predawn light helped us distinguish a small horizontal line. The sun was about to break over the horizon as we slowly inched our way towards the line on the shore. With our eyes straining, it soon became evident that it was the bridge we were looking at. Like the many times before, Ensign Morrisey brought us in right smack in the middle of our target area. We edged closer and closer, to about 300 yards.
There was no mistake, we were at the right place at the right time. I was surprised to see the bridge so close to shore, it could not be more than 100 to 200 feet from the water. We detected no visible moving lights. All was still except for the idling throb of our engine. Joe would put the engine in neutral and as we drifted, Joe would put it back in gear until we were back in our normal position, the west flank of the beach of the invasion beaches.
Over and over we drifted, as silently as possible, we uses our engine only to come back to our position. Still no fire from shore. Our eyes now turned toward the sea hoping for a glimpse of the Higgins boats that must be circling slowly. As each boat loaded with troops left the transport, it would join its group and circle, waiting for the rest of the boats to join in. Each circle of 7 or more boats would dissolve itself into a horizontal line and like a wave would make its speedy dash toward the beach.
The boats would have 100 feet between each other leaving room for the boats heading back to the transports for another load of troops. After a number of such waves had landed their troops, larger landing craft would follow LCI's and LST's. The LST would discharge artillery, tanks, trucks and other heavy equipment. The last two types would land after a safe perimeter or large circle of ground was taken and held by the assault troops of the preceding waves from the Higgins boats. When the heavier landing craft would begin to land, our job would be over, for by then, the landing spot would be obvious to the landing craft at sea.
It seemed to take forever for the daylight to break. Soon however, the blackness turned to gray. We started to distinguish dark shapes on the horizon. The numerous ships of the convoy were there, about 2 to 3 miles out of range of any large artillery pieces. The sea was as smooth as glass, but on the horizon a thin white line appeared that should not have been there. We stared and could not imagine what it was.
Ernie thought it was a solitary wave. He was correct. One and just one wave about 2 feet high stretching from horizon to horizon, made its way toward us, lifted our boat, passed under and broke on the shore. An omen? I thought so. I had a brooding feeling all was not well but this was forgotten in the next few minutes.
Ernie Chyz was the first to notice. The first wave was starting its run to the beach. Flecks of light appeared on the horizon and the naval bombardment began. A series of events started materializing all at the same time. The flashes of the naval guns on the horizon, the whining of shells over our heads toward the beach, the arrival of our left LCT (Landing Craft,Tank), its cargo hold filled with rocket racks, the first 3 assault waves approaching at full throttle, with the first wave about 500 yards from the shore, the LCT firing its first rack of rockets.
These landed on the beach at waters edge. They were in a perfect position and began firing rack after rack of rockets, each exploding a few feet ahead of the preceding rack, effectively exploding any land mines.
By now, the town had awakened, daylight had arrived. The first wave, on our starboard all guns firing, began to pass our position, boats perfectly aligned. Ernie spotted Ensign Burgess (our old small boat officer) on the left side by the incoming wave. All heads were down below the gunnels except for Ensign Burgess. He wasn't about to make a mistake and stood fully exposed. Ensign Morrisey gave the word to fire one rocket to find our range. The hot blast of rocket exhaust hit our faces and we curiously watched where it landed.
A perfect hit on the Railway Bridge we were to avoid. I glanced at Ernie who was grinning from ear to ear, said, ‘Don't look at me, I didn't do it’. ‘The LCT did it’, I yelled back. Ernie agreed that the LCT now heading back to sea must have done it. Someone will catch hell from the Admiral. We were much closer to the beach by now so that when Joe Coveallo pushed the button, all the other rockets cleared the bridge and landed close together in an area still untouched. About seven rockets did not leave the racks and we later slipped each into deep water.
About now, Ernie started firing his 50 caliber machine guns over the heads of the assault troops. Almost at once, a stroke of ill fortune. The firing pin on his right gun broke, followed by a failed ejector on the left gun. He was stuck in the turret with his now useless guns, ‘a seat on the 50 yard line’.
Ensign Morrisey had Joe wield the boat around so our stern pointed toward the beach. This gave me a 180-degree line of fire. My gun fired perfectly. I swept the beach from left-to-right and right-to-left. At each end, I would raise the muzzle so that my line of fire was hitting higher and higher until I was hitting the buildings on the gradual incline. Soon small splashes began to appear around our boat. I thought the splashes were spent bullets, until the antenna of our radio, next to my head disappeared with a twang.
With less than 100 yards from the beach, the firing upon us was hardly spent ammunition but very much alive. I searched for some sign of movement or smoke from any of the buildings above the beach. Whenever I thought I saw something, I would fire. A machine-gun is not very accurate, especially when fired from a bobbing boat. It would be enough if it kept the enemy pinned down, preventing them from firing on our assault force.
There was one window in a pastel painted building I was sure I saw movement in. Try as I might, I could not get a round through it. I had slipped in hundreds of extra tracers in the belts earlier and still I had trouble. later, I would score a bull's-eye, accidentally. I had to climb out of the well for a moment. My Browning was pointed down towards the water. I lost my footing and gave the trigger a good squeeze. The rounds hit the water and ricocheted through the windows of the pastel colored building. An accidental bull's-eye. The smell of cordite filled the air and the oil on my gun burned away.
An empty LCI out of nowhere, bow high, came off our port beam, her three 20mm guns firing, giving additional support. A few seconds later, we heard a different sound. like a bucket of bolts being thrown on a steel deck. I glanced up from my firing to see the LCI moving full speed astern. I gave no further notice. Later, we found the reason. More and more splashes around us and we took a few hits forward.
Ensign Morrisey, having noticed that all the preliminary assault waves were already in and out of the beach, decided to go ashore. Except for one or two boats, the shoreline was empty. As we walked past the shoreline, under the bridge, we noticed dozens of German POWs against the hill that met the bridge. A piece of the vertical support about 3 feet by 2 feet was missing. It looked like the support ‘we did not hit’ with the rockets. Some half dozen soldiers were guarding the prisoners who looked tired with faces drawn and no wonder, like all prisoners, they were frightened and apprehensive, wondering if they would be executed. What a rude way to be awakened.
An army intelligence Captain was sitting at a card table stacked with various unit badges taken from the prisoners. These told what units the army was running into. A GI offered me a German sub-machine gun that was heavily bloodstained. I took it and it was my souvenir for many years.
As we looked up the road that led to the town, we could see troops scurrying here and there and the sound of occasional small arms. It was early afternoon by the time we left the beach and decided we could try to get some food from one of the many ships in the vicinity.
As we approached, the LCI that was previously helping us, it was curious that we could not see anyone on the decks. It was more curious when no one was about to throw us a line. We managed to moor ourselves and climbed aboard. Again, an eerie feeling. The ship was deserted, just floating by itself with anchor hoisted.
Ernie and I looked at each other and wondered what was going on. Our hands started to move towards our sidearms. Off the main deck was a hatch, which led to a large wardroom. We opened the hatch and stepped into the dim wardroom. It was also the ship's dining room. Every table held a body or wounded man.
The curious noise we heard when this ship steamed past us with its 20mm guns firing became clear. Being a much larger target, they had run into heavy automatic fire that couldn't quite find our boat. Almost everyone topside was either dead or wounded. The ward room deck was slippery with blood.
The noise of the ‘bucket of bolts’ was the bridge and gun tubs taking direct hits. The sound of bullets hitting steel decks. Here also was the reason why they had retreated in reverse at full speed. To turn would expose the entire side of the ship and would have made a much larger target. I don't know if a doctor was aboard but the wounded were being aided and resting. We eased out of the room to return to our boat. Instead, below was an LCVP loaded with wounded on stretchers with a few lying on the deck.
This was one of the two that we saw on the beach as we landed. The passenger's uniforms torn, some soaked in blood. Many were in apparent great pain, others simply quiet. The coxswain of the boat yelled up to us asking if we had a doctor on board. We replied in the negative and suggested he try one of the larger ships in the bay. The coxswain thanked us and put it in gear. The bouncing, tossing boat must have been torture to the wounded.
An apprehensive gloom settled over me. The ‘ghost ship’ and now the landing craft, being wounded is such a personal and secluded sensation, that no chaplain, doctor or buddy can share. It's an agony felt only by the one who is wounded, to all others, they are watching a drama unfold, they see and hear but cannot feel and cannot think what the wounded feel and think. All others are merely observers. A portion of my heart stayed with the LCI and another with the ship.
Dusk was rapidly setting on the Riviera as we pointed our boat toward the LST that transported us into the area. The return trip was about two hours and soon it was pitch black. With all ships blacked out, we had to move more swiftly. A sudden flash of light about 3,000 yards to the southeast, clearly an explosion had taken place.
The sky was just as suddenly filled with tracers feeling for the unseen bomber. Anti-aircraft added their bark to the bedlam and a display of ‘fireworks’ was seen as never before. We learned later, one lone bomber dropped a radio-controlled bomb just ahead of the wake of a ship.
One plane, one bomb, one hit. This would never do. One of Hitler's magic weapons, but fortunately, only one, for no more hits were seen and the bomber escaped. As we watched the fireworks, by the light of the moon, we began to see splashes in the water about us. The hardware thrown at the bomber had not found a home and it began raining metal and bullets. We kept our heads down and helmets on.
Ernie still would not give up his grandstand seat. One or two objects hit the boat but did not hit anyone. We caught up to the now empty convoy, which was steaming at a good speed towards Bizerta. Joe pulled up next to the LST at almost full throttle. Ernie and I grabbed the hooks and the davits pulled us out of the water with our engine still turning. Halfway out of the water, Joe shut off the engine. Ensign Morrisey, as he did so often, found the LST in the dark and Joe brought us in.
It was dinnertime and we were famished. We found our bunks, freshened up, and quickly moved toward the mess hall. At the entrance, we were stopped by a guard. ‘The prisoners must eat first’, he said. ‘What prisoners?’ we asked, and he replied, ‘the German prisoners that were brought aboard’. ‘The prisoners?’ we asked in one voice. We were incredulous. Ernie put his hand on the guard's chest and with a ‘gentle’ pressure the guard moved backwards for us to enter.
I'll never forget the special dinner, big steaks and french fried potatoes. Had we known of this menu, I am certain the guard would have been overboard along with his prisoners. I'm sure the Germans had not ever seen a meal like this. To make the crew and assault crew wait was unbelievable. Any compassion I had for the enemy vanished as my mind recalled the haunting memory of the ghost ship and the LCVP with the wounded. The memory would make me a determined foe in a different time, place and theater of war.
It has been over half a century since the above events took place. What I have written is most vivid in my memory. Try as I might, I cannot remember where the LST took us. We boarded a transport, perhaps moving about so much, it ceased to matter how we got there. The ultimate destination was the important thing.
Our transport took us east to the Suez Canal, south into the Red Sea and further south around India, then due east to San Diego. A two week leave, with orders to report back to Fort Pierce, where we exchanged our titles of Scouts and Raiders for simply Roger I.
Roger I was attached to an organization known as S.A.C.O., but that's another story.