by Mark Johnson, COL, USA (Ret.)
My father, SGT Robert “Bobby” Johnson, was in B Company, 104th Medical Battalion, 29th Infantry Division. Over the last few years, I have discovered a good bit of information about dad’s service in World War II. I knew he had landed at Omaha Beach during D-Day. However, recently I became interested in finding the specific landing craft dad was on during the assault of Omaha Beach. I was hoping that once I identified the landing craft dad was on, I would be able to reconstruct what dad went through on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Dad was killed in a plane crash in 1981 and I did not question dad about his experience in WWII prior to his death. I wanted to gather information about dad’s D-Day experience and pass that information to the next generation.
With the help of Charlie Giese and George Hopchak, who were on the landing craft with dad; Charlie Hyde, the son of Anson Hyde, a B Company Commander; and two prominent D-Day authors, Joseph Balkoski and Laurent Lefebvre, I was able to discover that dad was on a landing craft LCI(L)-94 (Army #532) on D-Day. The history of 94 is extensively documented and I was able to obtain first hand accounts of what dad experienced on D-Day.
LCI(L) vessels were large landing craft compared to the Higgins landing craft, which were built in greater numbers for WW II. The LCIs were the smallest steel oceangoing ships in WW II. They were built by Consolidated Steel Company in Orange, Texas. At its peak, during World War II, the company employed 20,000 people. There were 912 LCIs built. The U.S. fleet received 662. The British were given 220 and the Russians received 30. LCI(L)-94 was built in 1942 and delivered to the Navy in February, 1943. It went from Galveston, Texas to Norfolk, Virginia and in 1943 it crossed the Atlantic for Britain. LCI(L)s were 158 feet long and could reach a speed of 16 knots. They could travel 4,000 miles at 12 knots. They had a crew of around 33 and could carry about 200 troops.
Since large numbers of troops could be carried on one LCI, combat units could be more readily kept together during amphibious landings versus separating them in multiple small landing craft. This greatly improved communications within the units. However, with a full compliment of troops, the sleeping and “dining” was extremely crowded and 48 hours was considered a reasonable time limit for 200 troops to be aboard .
An LCI(L) could deliver troops directly to the beach area, since its bottom was flat. However, there was no keel to hold the LCI steady and any slight breeze would blow it side to side. This made them hard to maneuver and moor. Also, special training was needed to raise and lower the heavy side troop ramps.
LCIs had been called “Lousy Civilian Idea (LCI)” by sailors and soldiers because they were hard to maneuver and presented a big target to coastal defenses. The bottom of the hull was largely unprotected and mines could sink it easily. Also, since they carried large quantities of fuel and ammunition, any enemy artillery fire or mines had the potential to destroy the LCI with a tremendous loss of life. They were designed to deliver troops to beaches with clear lanes marked through mined areas and coastal defenses greatly neutralized. This would not prove to be the case on Omaha Beach!
However, they had four mounted 20 mm guns that could help protect the troops. Many of these LCI’s had Coast Guard crews since these crews had better training for amphibious landings.
B Company, 104th Medical Battalion was in Bodmin, Cornwall, England. The company was billeted in a hotel and the local citizens were very friendly. On May 6, 1944 they went to Blandford, England and then on May 15 they went to their marshalling area. The 104th soldiers boarded different landing craft. Dad boarded LCI(L)-94 June 3, 1944 at Weymouth, England as part of Flotilla 10.
The Germans expected the allied amphibious force to cross the English Channel further to the north where the distance between England and France is much shorter than between Weymouth, England and Normandy, France. However, the allies saw the opportunity for surprise with the Normandy invasion and the proposed Normandy landing sites were deemed suitable for the instant ports needed for the vast armada of men and equipment.
LCI (L)-94 had a crew of 4 officers and about 30 enlisted. Lieutenant Gene Gislason was the commanding officer. His nickname was Popeye, as noted in the D-Day text by Steven Ambrose. Lieutenant Gislason was born in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin in 1916. His maritime career began on the Great Lakes and he graduated from the New York State Merchant Marine Academy in 1938. As a holder of a chief mates license for ocean going vessels and a first class pilots license for the Great Lakes ships, Lieutenant Gislason was qualified to sail any ship in the world any place in the world. His first Coast Guard assignment in World War II was as a navigator aboard the cutter Argo in 1942. Due to his experience, skill and leadership ability, he was selected to skipper LCI(L)-94 during many amphibious landings including Omaha Beach.
The Executive Officer was Lt.(jg) Albert Green. In addition to the crew, there were thirty six men of the 29th MPs, one hundred and one soldiers of the 112th Combat Engineers and 42 members of B Company, 104th MED BN on 94. The B Company unit was lead by Lieutenant Charles Giese. Dad, George Hopchak, Richard Baldwin, Albert Cheoaitis, Mitchell Persin and others were in B Company aboard 94 and their job was initially to give first aid and evacuate the first casualties at Omaha Beach to a point above the high water mark.
The invasion force consisted of approximately 175,000 men, 5,300 ships and 11,000 planes and required a full moon with a low tide for the landings to expose as many mined obstacles as possible. This would allow the landing craft to maneuver around many of the mined obstacles and the engineers would come ashore and destroy as many of the obstacles as possible while they were exposed at low tide.
The early days of June, 1944 had bad weather, with low clouds, high winds and heavy rain. The invasion force was ready to go at 4:15 AM on June 4. However, due to the bad weather the invasion was put on hold and some ships had to be recalled, while others that had begun to cross the English Channel were held at sea at the location of their advancement.
At 9:30 PM on 4 June the decision was made to make June 6th D-Day. The weather would still be marginal, but it was improving and it was feared the element of surprise would be lost with further delays. It is truly amazing that the large, complex invasion plan was kept secret to that point.
The plan called for massive Naval and Air Force bombing of the coastal defenses prior to the landings on Omaha and other beaches. Airborne troops were dropped behind the German lines to confuse the enemy, secure key areas and attack the Germans from multiple fronts.
The LCI’s stayed anchored in the harbor until June 5. At 5:00 PM on June 5th LCI(L)-94 along with the massive fleet lifted anchor and headed for Omaha Beach. Aboard 94 the men spent the night prior to June 6 in their own way. Some double checked equipment, others talked, gambled, slept or in the case of Lieutenant Giese, took a shower.
Lieutenant Gislason briefed the crew on the location of the pill boxes, machine guns, mines, entanglements and other obstacles they expected in their sector. He said they should expect mines, enemy submarines and planes along with “new enemy weapons”. All names were checked for correct serial numbers and beneficiaries. Then the skipper wished his crew good luck and they manned their stations. At 4:00 AM the crew had on full gear with impregnated clothing, life jackets, helmets and gas masks. Motor Machinist’s Mate, First Class Clifford Lewis was manning a gun and he noticed they were surrounded by hundreds of invasion ships. Spitfire and P-38s flew overhead. Then they gradually moved ahead of the main body of ships. After the long bumpy ride in the flat bottom LCI they neared the coast of France. Many soldiers were very seasick from the turbulent voyage. General Quarters was given at 7:15 and the ship came under heavy German fire. Shrapnel and machine gun fire clattered against the ship and smoke poured from other burning vessels they passed as they drove to the beach. The skipper was a veteran of the merchant marine and amphibious landings at North Africa, Sicily and Salerno. As fate would have it, I may not be here if it were not for the fact that dad was on the LCI guided by Lieutenant Gislason.
LCIs 91, 92 and 94 all approached Omaha Beach together within 1000 yards of each other. The intended beach sector for LCI(L)-94 was Dog Red, close to Easy Green.
In the sector of Omaha the three LCIs were entering, the U.S. Air Force bombers had bombed too far inland and the U.S. Navy guns had fired too far from shore to neutralize any of the coastal defenses. The multitude of mined obstacles were still largely intact. At 7:40 LCI(L)-92 was hit on the stern by German “88” artillery fire. Then she was hit amidships and exploded. Survivors were thrown into the surf that was covered with burning oil. German gunners raked them with machine gun fire. LCI(L)-91 was in the same sector and, as it approached the beach, it was hit with rifle and machine gun fire while attempting to maneuver through the obstacles. It struck a teller mine and then was hit with “88” rounds. About 8:10 a terrifying blast lifted 91. A sheet of flame shot forward from the forward hold. Forty one soldiers in the forward troop compartment were trapped in a fiery furnace and most were killed instantly.
Lieutenant Gislason superbly steered 94 around numerous mined obstacles. He had initially headed west toward Vierville. The intended beach sector was called Dog Red, close to easy Green. It became clear to the skipper that the same fate awaited 94 as happened to 91 and 92 if they kept that same heading, so he turned east to between Saint Laurent and Colleville sur Mer on the boarder of Dog Red and Easy Green where the Colleville Cemetery currently is located. Mr. Green told me they came so close to one obstacle with a mine on top of it that he could have reached out and touched the mine.
At 7:45 the crew of 94 were called to their beaching stations and at 7:47 they crunched on the beach. There were load explosions and the ship shook.
Dad and the other soldiers on 94 came ashore in shoulder high water that had even deeper swells. My brother, Rob, said dad told him he swam part of the way to shore, sometimes underwater.
The pilothouse of 94 was hit with three artillery rounds killing three crew members and injuring two. The communications and steering were knocked out and only one screw was functional. Another landing craft had become entangled with a line from 94. Even with the weight of the vessel down with the troops and their equipment disembarked, there was still great difficulty in freeing 94. After being on the beach for 50 minutes and under heavy fire, the port ramp was cut away and communications was provided by a line of the crew relaying information from the sides of 94 to the skipper at the helm. The skipper was thus able to hand steer off the beach. Repairs were made and 94 stayed in the fight.
Lieutenant Giese’s men of B Company started to treat the casualties on the beach while still under enemy fire from mortars, artillery and small arms. George Hopchak noted that he was wounded on the beach and was given first aid by Dad. LT Giese moved his men through an opening in the barbwire and went two miles to the west. It took them 3 hours to go 2 miles. They reached the western end of Omaha Beach. That sector of Omaha Beach was full of burning vehicles, wrecked landing craft and dead soldiers. The grass on the slope leading inland was on fire.
All across Omaha Beach the treatment of the wounded was extremely difficult. Failure to open up the draws on the beach early meant soldiers had to climb the bluffs, something Medics could usually not do with badly wounded soldiers. Many times soldiers were only taken to the foot of the bluffs. All potential aid station sites were initially under fire. Medics and litter bearers were often fired on and evacuation of wounded out to sea was impossible during the early hours. Care initially consisted of applying tourniquets, possibly a shot of morphine, giving wounds a quick cleaning, and applying sulfa and or the new wonder drug penicillin (the U.S. pharmaceutical industry had produced 100 million units of penicillin in May 1944.) Even once the beachhead was established, evacuation out to sea took several hours and involved cramped landing craft with little if any care for the wounded during the evacuation.
One of the heroes of D-Day was Dr. Joseph Shelley, one of the B Company physicians on Omaha Beach. His skill and bravery saved many lives. Dr. Shelley was a senior medical student when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He had a one year internship after medical school and went into the Army in June, 1943. Then he went to England in September, 1943 with the 104th Medical Battalion. He landed with B Company of the 104th on Omaha Beach and cared for the wounded throughout the first day. There was no evacuation of the wounded during the first day.
He was with B Company when they reached the Elbe River. After Germany surrendered, he was sent to Bremerhaven and met Eva Markham of the 108th Evacuation Hospital. They would later marry and settle in Saint Augustine, Florida where they had five children. Dr. Shelley practiced medicine until 1985. He delivered over 2,500 babies and he remained in the Florida National Guard for 19 years.
It would not be until D+1 when the entire B Company, 104th Medical Battalion got back together, since they had been on several different landing craft. The men of B Company were with the 29th Division until they reached the Elbe River. Throughout the fighting across France and into Germany, B Company saved many lives.
There were many instances where B Company evacuated casualties under enemy fire and risked their lives to clear evacuation paths. Dr Shelley noted in a letter that dad was with a unit that was pinned down by fire from a hidden German machine gun in an area of hedgerows. Dad was a running back on his high school football team and he volunteered to run across an open field in front of the machine gun to draw fire and expose the gun. Dad ran about 200 yards at an angle to expose the gun and allow the infantry to destroy it before it caused more casualties.
At the Elbe River they helped the German Medics with the vast numbers of casualties. At one point inland, the men of B Company signed a German Red Cross Flag. The flag is displayed in the 29th Division Museum in Baltimore, Maryland . The men of B Company were highly decorated .
There were a couple of instances where LCI(L)-94 was beached intentionally at low tide to allow the crew to exit the vessel. When repairs were needed on an area of 94 below the water line, they could beach the flat bottomed vessel at low tide, accomplish the repair and refloat her as the tide came in.
LCI(L)-94 served as harbor control vessel and evacuated the wounded after D-Day. LT Gislason was awarded the Silver Star for his outstanding leadership and guidance of LCI(L)-94 . Many of the crew were decorated for their bravery. After several months, 94 returned to Savannah, Georgia to be repainted from Atlantic grey to the South Pacific green and black colors.
From Savannah, Georgia, 94 went to San Diego, California and then to duty in Okinawa as part of Flotilla #35. After the end of the war, she returned to Galveston, Texas and then was docked near Lake Charles, Louisiana prior to being decommissioned. Many of the WW II LCIs were later used in the tourist industry on various rivers in the US!
The men of B Company, 104th Medical Battalion, 29th Infantry Division and the men of LCI(L)-94 were true heroes during World War II.