Wednesday, June 6, 1984/Page 3C
D-Day: A Special Report
By Coit Hendley
"Everything was more real than reality"
D-Day is a misty part of my past that took place 40 years ago. Actually, it was not one day, but 10 months of my life, beginning when we arrived in England the previous October. It was an all time high, a continuous emotional binge that I never since have experienced. Everything was more real than reality. Friendships were intense. Whiskey tasted good. There was a grand purpose that the men who served in Vietnam many years later could not possibly have felt. Battered England was heroic. We believed in heroes. One thought of death abstractly. Getting killed was what happened to others, not to you.
I was 23 years old, a lieutenant (jg) in the United States Coast Guard and commanding officer of the LCI (L) 85. The ship carried four officers and a crew of 30. We started out from Orange, Texas in February 1943, where the ships were build; went to North Africa before the Germans were defeated there; invaded Sicily and Salerno, Italy; from a base in Bizerte; then went into drydock in Tunis for an overhaul. By October 1943 we were headed for the port of Falmouth, England. That marked the beginning of the experience called D-Day.
Our flotilla set up headquarters in Greenway House, several miles up the Dart River from Dartmouth and near Dittisham. It was the home of the writer Agatha Christie, who moved into the gardener's house for the duration. The estate was at one time the home of Sir John Gilbert, half brother of Sir Walter Raleigh.
Training began again. I met my wartime girlfriend, WREN Sylvia Grashoff, of the Women's Royal Naval Service, and a lot of other British types and began having a marvelous time. Those were good days. The magnitude of what was happening was apparent. The southern part of England, by May of 1944, was an armed camp with more than 3,500,000 men from dozens of countries. Airstrips and ports were jammed with planes and ships. Air strikes against Germany were continuous.
Then, during the last week in May, the canvas bag arrived. It weighed 15 pounds, was sealed and marked top secret. An accompanying dispatch warned all commanding officers not to open the bag until ordered. Several days later, a dispatch came through -"Open ONWEST/O. Open ONWEST/U". The seals were broken, to reveal the orders, three inches thick, containing the plan of attack. There were charts, maps and photographs of the beaches to be assaulted. D-Day was not named. The actually day was to be announced later.
All ships were sealed. Sealing a ship meant that no man could leave except on official business and then had to be accompanied by a commissioned officer. No officer could leave the vicinity of the docks without written permission of the base commander and the permission was not given often. The men working on the docks were not allowed to speak to the ship's crews nor go on board any ship.
Only the commanding officers knew the invasion had been set. For a weeks we studied the plans. One day, all commanding officers reported to the flag ship of our assault group for briefings. A compartment in the hold of the ship had been cleared. Before us lay Operation Overlord. At one end, a scale drawing of the area to be assaulted was painted on the wall, with the beach sectors and landmarks indicated. From the other end of the room it looked just as it would 10 miles at sea on the day the force approached France. On the deck, the positions of all ships in the assault were painted in; the rendezvous areas for various assault groups were labeled. Courses to the beaches were marked. Even the buoys were painted in.
But the day - D-Day - was not yet revealed. It all depended on the weather and the tides. The plan admitted that the operation might be postponed from day to day. If we received a signal reading, "Post Mike One," the invasion would be held for 24 hours. "Post Mike Two" meant an indefinite delay. On June 2, we began loading troops at the docks in the harbor of Weymouth. The LCI (L) was one of the many amphibious vessels designed especially for beach assaults; one of the more successful designs, suggested by Winston Churchill, in a memo to the U.S. Navy. They were 158 feet long; could travel 4,000 miles without refueling; weighed 380 tons when loaded; and had a top speed of 16 knots.
We could accommodate 250 troops for several days and we could land them on a beach in less than 3 feet of water. We were carrying units of a beach battalion, a mixture of about 220 Army and Navy men who were to go ashore right after the first assault waves. Their job was to organize the beaches for the massive amounts of men and cargo that would be coming. The men jammed on board, loaded with equipment, dressed in impregnated clothing (protection against gas). They were rather grim about the whole thing. We knew these men as we had been working with them in the last two practice operation off Slapton Sands in Devon.
The plan called for us to leave Weymouth 13 hours before H hour. That meant we would sail right after support and arrive off the Normandy beaches before breakfast the next morning. On June 3 about four in the afternoon the message finally came through - "D-Day set for June 5". The wind began blowing up that night. By the next morning the English Channel was a choppy sea with gale force winds. All that day the men waited on the ships for the sailing hour to arrive, watching the weather and discussing the weather. Never have so many men applied their minds to the subject before. The whole invasion depended on a good break in the weather.
The morning of June 4 came and the weather was no better. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower had agonized all night. A dispatch came to all ships - "Post Mike One". The invasion was delayed 24 hours. Gen. Eisenhower had decided that the weather was too bad to make a try. But newspapers all over the world falsely reported the invasion had begun, due to the slip-up of one newswoman. The consternation this caused was considerable. This is what the troops and sailors waiting to make the assault read in the Stars and Strips that morning:
"New York, June 4 - A false announcement of a false landing in France turned the 48 states upside down yesterday and created a hoax rivaling Orson Welles' Martian invasion. Millions of radio listeners throughout the nation heard and believed a flash - 'Eisenhower's headquarters announced allied landings in France.' "Typical of the news impact on the country was the reaction of the 10,000 baseball fans at the Polo Grounds. Hearing the flash on the stadium's public address system, they cheered wildly then stood in silent prayer while the game was halted for one minute." Then urgent messages "to withhold publication of the flash" and finally "kill it" came in rapid succession from London. Steady, reliable A.P. explained: 23 year old teleprinter operator who had been practicing the form of the message to be sent out when the invasion starts thought she had destroyed all the tape containing the punched out message. Before sending the first part of a Russian communique however, she inadvertently ran through the transmitter a part of the tape she had thrown away. Commander E.C. Carusi, commanding office of a U.S. Navy Battalion, made the classic comment on the incident: "Add to the list of obstacles - Element A.P."
The troops settled back in their crowded quarters and waited for the next day. The weather was still the main topic - next to the false invasion report.
Then sailing orders came through the afternoon of June 5 although the wind was still blowing and the channel was still choppy. "Intend sailing convoy in accordance with previous plans. Flag will slip at 1600 and lead out." D-Day was June 6. Dusk in England came around 11 p.m. during that week. Thus meant the major part of the journey across the channel was to be made in light. Only from 11 p.m. until the transports arrived off the beaches around 3 a.m. would the darkness be of help. As we plodded through the rough water, into the evening and night, we waited for the air attacks, the E-Boat attacks or the submarines. On the last invasion exercise held off Slapton Sands, German E-Boats had slipped in and sunk two U.S. ships and badly damaged a third. Some 750 Americans were lost. Nothing happened. Shortly after 3 a.m. the transports reached the area off the beach where they were to anchor. We formed into assault groups and circled slowly waiting for the time to break off and make a run into the beach.
H-Hour on Omaha Beach was 6:30 a.m. This was at half tide and most of the beach obstacles would be exposed on sand. The attack plan called for the DD tanks (swimming tanks) to be on the beach at H minus 10 minutes. T hese tanks were the allies' secret weapon, as they had not been used in any previous assault. They were regular tanks with rubber flotation devices attached. We had trained the men in these tanks in elementary seamanship. Even earlier, 1,162 planes and 512 gliders were to drop 15,500 men of the 82nd and 101st U.S. Airborne Divisions near the town of Ste-Mere-Eglise. The Americans were to land 23,250 men at Utah Beach and 34,350 at Omaha Beach, a total of 57,600. The British and Canadians would land 24,970 on Gold Beach, 21,400 on Juno Beach and 28,845 on Sword Beach for a total of 75,215. In addition, the British would use 733 planes and 355 gliders to drop 7,990 men behind the lines.
On Omaha Beach at H hour exactly, LCIs would deposit another groups of tanks, this time regular land tanks. Also at H hour, 225 Rangers were to land on the beach under Pointe du Hoc, a 100-foot-high cliff separating Omaha and Utah beaches. They fired grappling hooks to the top, and used ladders borrowed from the London Fire Department to climb the sheer rocks. The Germans fired into their faces, cut some of the ropes but eventually were drive back. Only 90 of the Rangers came through alive and unwounded. The gun batteries they were to capture had been removed days earlier. One of the young lieutenants killed in that assault was the fiancÚ of a girl I married some years later. I didn't know either of them then. At H plus one minute the first of the Regimental Combat Teams would hit the beach. At H plus three minutes the Navy demolition party would land. Their job was to clear a number of channels through the obstacles and mark them with flags so the succeeding waves of larger landing craft would get in without trouble.
At H plus 15 more Rangers were to hit the beach to flank Pointe du Hoc, or if that was unnecessary, to go inland to other objectives. From then on, Regimental Combat Teams would land in sections until all were ashore, some 34,350 men the first day.
My ship, the LCI (L) 85, was to beach at H plus 120 - two hours after the initial assault. As we approached, there was no immediate sign of trouble. There were flashes from the various warships shelling the shore, plus a few black puffs of shell fire at the water's edge. Closer to the beach we saw signs that the landing was not going to be easy. A great number of small craft were drifting, out of control and shot to pieces. The entire beach area was covered with heavy smoke. The sector where we were to land was blocked by sunken LCIs and by a confused mess of small craft which were abandoned, broached or hunt up on obstacles covered with mines.
The control vessel for Easy Red Beach hailed us as we approaches the point of departure (10 minutes from the beach) and directed us to go in. I was on the conning tower with Ensign Harold C. Mersheimer and an enlisted man, but I can't remember who he was. It might have been George Lott. Charge O. McWhirter, chief quartermaster, was below me in the pilot house with several other crew members. McWhirter was at the helm. My executive officer, Lt. (jg) Arthur Farrar, was on the bow. He was responsible for the ramps and the forward winches and was in charge of getting the troops off the ship.
The engineering officer, Paul M. Petit, was on the stern in charge of the stern anchor, designed to be dropped as we ran in to the beach and used in helping us get off again. I spotted an opening and headed in. But we grounded some distance from the beach. Four tanks were on the sand directly in front of us. Three of them were burning and the fourth seemed to have been hit. Every now and then the fourth fired, but at long intervals. A think line of troops was stretched out face down at the water line firing at the Germans.
Now there is a nice little thing about an LCI (L) that occurs at this point. It has to do with the man rope. The idea was that as the ramps go down, a member of the crew dashes off the ship, carrying a small anchor attached to a rope (or line as the Coast Guard called it). He makes it to the beach and plants the anchor and the soldiers have the line to help them wade through the water. They were carrying up to 50 pounds of gear and men had been lost in other invasions when they stepped into holes and couldn't get back to their feet with all that weight on their backs.
Well, Seaman Gene Oxley had volunteered for that duty. Oxley went down the ramp and stepped into water over his head. The ship was stuck on some sort of obstacle. It was impossible to disembark troops at this point on the beach. Oxley was hauled aboard and the ramps taken in. As the ship was backing away from the beach, a shell hit amid-ships and went into number three troop compartment.
"We could hear the screams of the men through the voice tube," Quartermaster McWhirter recalled. That was the only hit we suffered on this beaching, but we didn't have time to make a count of casualties. The beach battalion doctors went to work. The engineering officer managed to get the stern anchor in but the winch sputtered out and he never got it going again. We went down the beach about 100 yards and there seemed to be one spot clear of debris. We beached again, this time without a stern anchor. As the bow hit the sand, a mine went off just under the bow, splitting a forward compartment. We got the port ramp over and Seaman Oxley again took the man rope to the beach. This time the water was about chest deep. He crawled through the obstacles and hauled on the line until there was a strain on it. Several soldiers on the water's edge stopped firing to help him steady the line. One soldier with a bazooka was right under the bow of the ship firing rockets at a pillbox up further on the beach. The troops began to disembark.
Shells had been bouncing near the ship the whole time we were coming into the beach. There was heavy machine fire. We were unable to get the starboard ramp down because of the heavy fire on that side. Then shells began hitting the ship. I remember waving to two friends - an Army officer and a Navy lieutenant - who were standing on the deck just below the pilot house. A shell hit, killing them both and wounding a number of other men. About two thirds of the troops managed to make it to the beach before a shell finished off the ramp. It went over the side taking all the men with it.
Lt. (jg) Farrar was on the ramp helping the soldiers when a shell grazed his left thigh resulting in a large flesh wound. "When I was hit I looked back and saw a hole the size of my head in the hull where the shell had gone through the ship without exploding. The ramp began to turn over," he continued. "I pulled a wounded man up on the ramp and held on to him. We could not climb the ramp and got ducked several times. By this time another wounded man was clinging to the ramp. I tried to pull a third man up, but he had a death grip on a lower stanchion and I couldn't break his hold. After it was apparent that he couldn't be saved, I let him go. When the ship stopped, I crawled up and Hesselgren (Boatswain's Mate Rudolph D. Hesselgren) helped me get them on deck. One of the men was dead when we brought him on board."
I had backed the LCI (L) off the beach again after the ramp went overboard. Small boats came along side and took off the remaining troops. Fires had started in three forward compartments. Our damage control party put them out. The ship was listing from the water coming in through the shell holes and the damage done by the mine. I went down on the deck and made a quick check of casualties with Simon Mauro, our pharmacist's mate. We had 15 dead and 30 wounded aboard. Only four of the ship's crew were wounded. The other casualties were all from the beach battalion.
Our radio man was in the worst shape. His name was Gordon R. Arneberg. A shell exploded in the radio shack, wrecking everything and cutting Arneberg's leg off. The crew dragged him out. I found his leg lying on the deck and kept walking around it. Finally, one of the crew with more guts than I had kicked it over the side. I decided to get the wounded to a hospital ship and we slowly made our way to the transport area and went along side the USS Samuel Chase. We got the wounded aboard and the officer of the deck on Chase said I would have to take the dead back to the shore for burial. I told him we would never make it and we would never know who these dead men were. He relented and took the dead also. We backed away from the Chase and Salvage tug (AT 89) came along side to help us. We tried to pump the compartments but the water was coming in too fast. She slowly settled by the bow and began turning over on her side. We scrambled up on the tug.
The ship floated for a short while with just her stern showing. The tug sent over a small boat with demolition charges to finish her off. That was the end of the LCI (L) 85.
The crew huddled together in one place on the deck of the tug. I sat down away from them. I found myself crying and a great feeling of guilt cam over me. I felt that i was to blame for the deaths and wounding of all those men. It was several years before those feelings faded. Gene Oxley, the seaman who had taken the man rope down the ramp, was left on the beach when we backed off the second time. He dug in to the sand for a while and then climbed aboard an LCI which had unloaded and was backing out.
As the LCI got clear of the beach, one of her gunners turned his 20 mm gun on a pillbox up the slope a short distance. This pillbox came right back at him and in three minutes the LCI was sinking. Oxley jumped over the stern and was picked up by a small boat that delivered him to the LCI (L) 93, another ship in the Coast Guard Flotilla commanded by Lieut. (JG) Budd B. Bornhoft. Bornhoft told me that his ship had landed at 10 a.m. and unloaded troops without being hit, possibly because he went into an area where several ships were burning and the heavy smoke provided cover. He went out to the transport area and got another load of soldiers. This time he ran into trouble. When he was on the beach, 16 men from LCI (L) 487 came aboard after the soldiers were off. The 487 was burning a short distance away.
Lt. Bornhoft said the men running up the ramps must have attracted shore batteries. The guns round the range and 10 direct hits later, one man was killed and eleven wounded. They abandoned the 93 and she burned on the beach. Oxley jumped off the stern, once again, and was picked up by a small boat from the Destroyer Doyle, which was close in firing at beach defenses. We all made it back to a survivors camp in Plymouth within a few days, including Oxley.
I wandered around Plymouth that night but all the pubs were closed. I found a British guy who dealt in the black market and sold me a bottle of scotch. I caught a train and went to see Sylvia, my English girl friend who was in the British Navy. She and her mother were home when I knocked on the door. The two of them burst into tears when they saw me. It was then I realized that somehow I had been reported killed. She was assigned to a communications unit and could track my ship and the erroneous report was filed that when my ship went down, all hands were lost. My father back in South Carolina was at a movie and saw a newsreel of my ship sinking and the announcer also said all hands were lost. My father was stunned and spent a week trying to get information from Coast Guard headquarters.
I had worked from the Washington Star before the war, and sent them an eye-witness report about D-Day immediately after the landings. When the story arrived in Washington, the managing editor Herb Corn called my father to tell him I was safe.
I went up to Weymouth and found Lt. (jg) Henry K. (Bunny) Rigg was short an officer. One of his watch officers had been wounded so I joined the LCI (L) 88 and went back to Omaha Beach where we worked for several weeks unloading ships and doing other things. I later joined the Flotilla Commanders staff and some months later came back to the United States to stations in Charleston, Baltimore and Washington before the war ended. I joined the Washington Star in 1945. I hadn't thought much about D-Day until last month.
One of the men in the crew, Eugene S. Swiech, of Berkeley, Illinois, wrote me several weeks ago. He happened to see me on a television program on C Span. I haven't heard from him for 40 years. In fact I have seen only one other member of the crew in all that time, and that was some years ago. Gene Swiech is a construction foreman and moves around the country on jobs. He wrote me:
"Everywhere I've traveled I have tried to find members of the LCI (L) 85 without success so it was gratifying to know there is at least two of us still around."
Then he called me last week. "Why don't we have a reunion and what day is more logical than June 6?" he asked.
He's coming to Washington today.