I had just turned 18 when
I was drafted into the Army on March 6, 1943, in Rochester, New
York, along with many others from Western and Central New York State.
We were all gathered at Fort Niagara, NY, which was then a marshalling
area for draftees.
When there were sufficient
numbers of qualified draftees, we were then assigned to a new Army
unit, the 299th Engineer Combat Battalion, and, at the proper time,
still in March, we were transported, by train, on a long journey
across the country to Camp White, Oregon, near Medford. There, we
underwent several months of basic training followed by several months
of field maneuvers in the desert regions of Oregon. I became a squad
leader soon after entering basic training and received my corporal
stripes at that time.
Maneuvers were followed by
our assignment to Fort Lewis, Washington, around late October or
early November 1943, where we surmised that we were destined for
the Pacific Theater of Operations. I was able to go home on a 4-week
furlough during that period. Some time in December 1943, we received
orders to proceed by train to Fort Pierce, Florida, a naval training
station, where we underwent long hours training in amphibious landings,
using demolitions, plus other navy-taught skills, such as hand-to-hand
combat and judo. I remember that we had to jump off 15-foot platforms,
with rifle and backpack, onto the sandy beach, being sure to land
with a roll-over movement, so as not to break any limbs. It was
rather frightening, especially the first time I attempted it. We
spent a lot of time practicing landings and bailing out rubber rafts,
which were periodically filled with water by high waves and had
to be turned over. I did not really know how to swim properly, only
to "dog paddle a little", and, being in charge, I would
tell the others that I would hold the oars, without saying why,
but which gave me some degree of flotation.
By my 19th birthday (January
11, 1944), I got my sergeant's stripes, befitting the rank of squad
leader. The maneuvers at Fort Pierce lasted until March 1, 1944,
when we left by train for Camp Pickett, Virginia, where we were
trained, among others things, to crawl under barbed wire while machine
guns were firing real bullets in close proximity to our heads, with
occasional tracer bullets to let us know how close they were; we
practiced using gas masks in a room filled with tear gas. I remember
the tear gas and perspiration combination on our necks causing a
burning sensation. We went on marches, practiced marksmanship, grenade
throwing etc.., for a month. In the meantime, we were getting vaccinations,
medical examinations, and some sort of indoctrination talks about
On April 1, 1944, the battalion
was transported by train to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. On April 4,
we left Camp Kilmer by train, then took a ferry boat to the port
of embarkation in New York City where we boarded a troopship, the
S.S. Exchequer. We left New York on April 6 in the morning; by evening,
our ship was in a convoy made up of other troopships, cargo ships
and several destroyers. We were told that a battleship and a heavy
cruiser were leading the way.
I was prone to seasickness,
as were many others, and did not have much appetite. The sleeping
accommodations were in the hull of this ship. There were bunk beds
five layers in height, made of canvas, and which sagged in our faces,
as there was not much space between them. The toilets were all mounted
on one large water pipe, with no partitions, and one could hear
water swishing by each one of them, which hastened one's exit from
there. I remember showering and washing my hair with what I had
no realized was salt water, which made my hair gooey and unpleasantly
We had some light drills,
with gas masks, and weapons inspections. I remember Easter while
on board ship, and the Chaplain celebrating mass. I also remember
practice firing by the ship's guns. We often heard depth charges
exploding during the crossing. We had submarine alerts and learned
that one of them had been sunk.
On April 14, the convoy began
to split up for different destinations. During the night of April
16-17, we finally landed at Cardiff, Wales. We debarked on April
18 and boarded a train for Ilfracombe, where we were picked up by
trucks at the railroad station, and taken to Braunton Camp Hut.
We were then assigned to the 1st Army.
Amphibious training began soon after our arrival. My Company B was
assigned to the VIIth Corps, Companies A and C were assigned to
the Vth Corps. We practiced landings, wading through water to do
our demolition work on beach obstacles, much as we had done at Fort
Pierce, Florida, using C-2 plastic explosives and tetratol (a solid
brick-like explosive). The C-2 was put into canvas tubes, which
contained a hook on one end and a cord on the other end, so that
they could be quickly fastened around the obstacles. This two-pound
assemblage was known as the "Hagensen Pack", named after
Lt. (jg) Carl P. Hagensen, USN, who had designed and experimented
with it. Detonating caps, attached to a primacord, were pre-inserted
into the plastic explosive, all of which were strung in series to
a main primacord that had a detonating fuse to set them all off.
Around May 14, we were told
that some of us would be attached to Navy Demolition personnel,
and, like other groups, half of my squad and I were assigned to
Navy Lieutenant E.P. Clayton, who had a similar number of Navy men
to team up with us.
Along with additional demolition training and preparation of our
demolitions for D-Day, we were brought to an indoor facility with
a very deep pool where we had to practice and get accustomed to
going down in a diving helmet for underwater demolition. Fortunately,
we never had to put this to use on D-Day.
After about two weeks of
this training, we were moved to an isolated camp and remained there
without any outside contact, in order to keep the invasion operation
secret. On June 4, we were put on board LST (Landing Ship Tank)
and informed more specifically about what our mission would be.
The plans were for us to invade the French coast on June 5, but
the weather turned out to be very bad, so we stayed on the ship
and were told that the new plan was for an invasion on June 6.
On the eve of June 5, the
LST left port. I don't know from where the LST left, but I think
it was somewhere west of Weymouth, perhaps Plymouth. We were too
nervous to know or care from where we were leaving, and more interested
in where we were going and what the reception would be like.
D-Day was, and still is,
a memorable day for me as I was in the initial landing assault on
Utah-Beach. I was a 19 year old sergeant and a member of an Army
Navy demolition team that trained together in England for several
weeks for that eventful day.
Our team consisted of six or seven combat Engineers (my half-squad
contingency), and about the same number of navy underwater demolition
specialists. Our training with the navy included underwater demolition
methods as well, and, fortunately, it was never necessary to put
those methods to a test as I was never at ease in the water (not
a swimmer, but I never admitted it to anyone). We were under the
command of Lt. E.P. Clayton, a navy deep-sea diver who gained some
prominence in 1939 in his salvage activities involving the sinking
of a U.S. Navy ship, the S.S. Squalis. The teams were called Naval
Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs), and the assignment of each unit
was to clear its designated fifty-yard beach sector of all German
beach obstacles as these would impede, and even damage, subsequent
landing craft when the tide came in. That is why we had to land
at an early morning hour, when the tide was low and the obstacles
were readily visible.
D-Day began with us aboard
an LST (Landing Ship Tank), in a rendezvous location somewhere in
the English Channel, not far from the English coastline facing Normandy,
France. Hundreds of other troop carriers and warships were doing
likewise (although I could not see any of them in the darkness of
night) - all in readiness to do battle with the Germans. We had
been on the LST since June 4 in preparation for a June 5 invasion,
but it was postponed because of heavy storms and rough waters in
the Channel. The weather forecasters were under great pressure to
accurately predict the next day's weather conditions because of
the dire effects further delay would have on the Allied Forces'
chances for a surprise invasion and a successful push inland. Everything
seemed to be riding on the weather, and the element of surprise.
We had already been keyed up for the June 5 assault, and now we
had another day of adrenalin rush to deal with. The postponement
gave us more time to reflect on the unknown that they lay ahead,
and to engage our thoughts in some private meditation. We knew we
were on a dangerous mission, that some of us would not survive even
the initial assault landing, so there was not much in the way of
banter and bravado taking place aboard ship.
We finally got the clear
notice, and our LST moved to a new rendezvous position the night
of June 5. Around midnight, many planes could be heard flying overhead
in the direction of Normandy. We knew that airborne troops would
soon be making advance assaults to establish an inland foothold,
and that it would help make our job easier in establishing beachheads.
From our position on the LST, we could hear the sounds of bombing
and antiaircraft coming from the coast. And over the next hour or
so, the intensity increased, and the coastline was being lighted
by all this activity. In the meantime, many more transports planes
had been flying overhead, carrying still more paratroopers. As we
heard, and saw later, many of them died in their courageous efforts
to establish a rear flank.
Sometime around 02:00AM,
we were given our orders to debark from the LST. Our landing craft
was lowered into the water and we went over the side with full combat
gear, including individual satchels of various explosives, detonators
and fuses which we had prepared and waterproofed at the end of training.
Part of the waterproofing included the novel use of latex condoms
fitted over pull-type manual fuses and then taped at the open end
with rubber friction tape. The fuses were thus waterproofed, and
they could still be pulled to activate them.
The Channel was still quite choppy, and climbing down a rope ladder,
more properly known as a "scramble net", into a bobbing
small craft was frightful in itself and the jump off the net had
to be timed so that the craft was not jolting upward at the instant
one decided to drop to the deck, or one might wind up with broken
Our outer clothing, in addition
to woollen undergarments, included military cotton fatigues, specially
treated with a wax-like, waterproof coating. But, as we realized
later, it was of no value once seawater penetrated inside through
various openings and remained trapped there even after we reached
shore. The real purpose of the special coating had escaped my memory
until more recent discussions with some old comrades, at a post-WWII
reunion, reminded me that it was intended to provide protection
in case the Germans resorted to gas attacks, particularly with mustard
gas, which causes skin burns. A gas mask was a required part of
our equipment that offered primary protection from a gas attack
because if the lungs were attacked, there was little hope for survival.
Our craft, piloted by a navy
helmsman, headed for our final rendezvous location. There we teamed
up with other landing craft from the LST to form a wide circle that
maintained a throttled-down rotation, awaiting the arrival of dawn
and "H-Hour". The wait seemed to last forever. The combined
effects of bobbing craft, drenching salt water spray, and sickening
diesel fumes made most of us wish to be on the beach as soon as
possible. I thought that if I had to die, I preferred it to happen
on terra firma.
At the break of dawn, every
ship in the Channel opened up with awesome firepower which was directed,
along with increased aerial bombing, at the beaches and German shore
batteries. The light flashes from the naval guns outlined the silhouettes
of many ships that had not been visible because of the pre-dawn
and early morning mist. It was a reassuring sight, and a boost to
our morale, to know that we, in our little crafts, had all that
support for our landing. The longer the bombardment went on, the
more hopeful we were that our chances for survival would be improved.
The signal was finally given for our circle of landing craft to
fan out and head for our designated beach sectors. On our way in,
we passed some landing crafts that may have encountered mines or
had been hit by German artillery. Floating dead bodies of GIs suddenly
gave me a first-hand glimpse of what war is like. Now, I thought,
maybe the odds were not as promising.
Our helmsman was reluctant
to bring his craft near the shoreline, saying it would get hung
up on the bottom. These boats were designed for shallow drafts and
he certainly could have advanced farther toward the beach, but without
a countermanding order from Lt. Clayton, that was where we had to
jump off. I felt certain that the helmsman was fearful for himself
and playing it safe so that he could get out of harm's way regardless
of the added danger his action posed for us. That memory has stayed
with me all these years. My suspicions were confirmed when we jumped
off the ramp and found ourselves in water up to our chests or necks,
depending on an individual's height. Making the slow advance to
shore with all our gear seemed like an eternity; fortunately, there
was no indication of small arms fire coming from the Germans at
the time, but there was sporadic enemy artillery fire along the
beach. The time of our landing was about 06:30AM, which was planned
to give us enough time to destroy all the obstacles before the tide
came in. We had to place our demolition charges on the backside
of the obstacles so that the explosions would hurl the fragments
seaward. This would protect personnel already on the beach, but
it also meant for some delays in the demolition progress when subsequent
waves of landing craft were arriving. It all worked out fairly smoothly.
The job was finished around mid-morning, but there was pain associated
with it, due to the loss of a member of my squad, Leo Indelicato,
who was killed by artillery fire during that task.
Later in the morning, a fellow
squad leader, Leon "Toby" Tobin, came over to my sector.
He had landed with B Company a few sectors to my left. We compared
notes and casualties. My assistant squad leader, Corporal Alfred
Kurzawski, had been killed, along with a private - and one other
who had been wounded and evacuated back to a hospital ship and eventually
back to England. It meant that I had lost four fellow New Yorkers
from a roster of thirteen - about average for D-Day, as it turned
Toby showed me the close call he experienced. He shook his water
canteen and there was a rattle from a large steel bearing inside.
The bearing was from a special German land mine that would spring
up in the air, after being stepped on, and explode numerous bearings
in all directions. He did not know the bearing had penetrated the
canteen because of the water that was in it all the time. But, as
the water ran out the puncture hole, he felt wetness in that area
and also became aware of the rattling noise. Somehow, that type
of mine became known as the Bouncing Betty.
At one point when Toby and I were facing the seawall, we heard an
explosion very close by, and from the corner of my eye I saw two
soldiers blown out of their entrenchment at the base of the wall.
They may have struck a mine, but, instinctively, I turned to look
seaward and noticed a small naval craft a hundred yards or so offshore
with a couple of men hovering over a mounted rocket launcher. I
wondered if they were experimenting with it or knew what they were
doing. I had never seen or heard of such a device before. That little
boat was bobbing up and down, and I wondered, also, how they knew
when to fire the rockets so as to hit an enemy target - or, by chance,
some poor American GIs who never expected to be killed by their
own side. To this day, I still wonder what really caused their death;
it has made more of an impression on me in recent times when there
has been so much more public awareness and open discussion about
casualties from "friendly fire" and "collateral damage".
And, in WWII, there was not the sophisticated weaponry that we have
today with "supposedly" pinpoint accuracy.
Around 01:00PM we said goodbye
to our navy counterparts when our unit was no longer needed at Utah
Beach. They had to get on a landing craft as a first step in returning
to England, and we engineers had to move inland and regroup with
our Company B. At that moment, we were very quite envious of our
navy friends and wishing we too could be on that craft; this could
be the last day of war for them but only the beginning for us. Note: While the war was still in progress, one of my squad members
who corresponded with one of our navy counterparts learned that
two of the team had died in a demolition training accident back
in the States. How ironic and sad.
We moved off the beach and
were joined by the remainder of my squad, and we were instructed
to take up rear guard position in a field some 300 yards from the
beach. It was good to be together again, and still alive, although
I had lost my personal items in a backpack which I undoubtedly left
on the landing craft after the helmsman had said he was not going
any closer to the beach. In addition to shaving kit, K rations and
other personal items, the backpack also contained a complete change
of clothes which I sorely needed because I had developed hives from
my saltwater drenched clothes and the impregnated fatigues were
adding to that problem. The fatigues were the first things to go
in order to dry out the rest of me, but the night was a chilly one
and I had to make the best of it.
We did not know what was
happening to our buddies in A and C Companies who were in the Omaha
Beach assault. But, as events later revealed, it was a hellish nightmare
producing vivid memories for the survivors, and which persist to
the present for those still alive.
Approximately one-third of
our Battalion's men, who were mostly from the western half of New-York,
were either killed, wounded or missing in action on D-Day. But we
had good replacements who became proud members of the Famous 299th
Engineer Combat Battalion and served well along with us in the other
campaigns (notably Northern France, Bastogne, Ardennes and the Rhineland)
all leading up to V-E Day in Germany.