Men of D-Day


    
 Troop Carrier
Michael N. Ingrisano
Robert E. Callahan
Benjamin F. Kendig
John R. Devitt
Arthur W. Hooper
Ward Smith
Julian A. Rice
Charles E. Skidmore
Sherfey T. Randolph
Louis R. Emerson Jr.
Leonard L. Baer
Robert D. Dopita
Harvey Cohen
Zane H. Graves
John J. Prince
Henry C. Hobbs
John C. Hanscom
Charles S. Cartwright
 
 82nd Airborne
Leslie Palmer Cruise Jr.
Marie-T Lavieille
Denise Lecourtois
Howard Huebner
Malcolm D. Brannen
Thomas W. Porcella
Ray T. Burchell
Robert C. Moss
Richard R. Hill
Edward W. Shimko
 
 101st Airborne
John Nasea, Jr
David 'Buck' Rogers
Marie madeleine Poisson
Roger Lecheminant
Dale Q. Gregory
George E. Willey
Raymond Geddes
 
 Utah Beach
Joseph S. Jones
Jim McKee
Eugene D. Shales
Milton Staley
 
 Omaha Beach
Melvin B. Farrell
James R. Argo
Carl E. Bombardier
Robert M. Leach
Joseph Alexander
James Branch
John Hooper
Anthony Leone
George A. Davison
James H. Jordan
Albert J. Berard
Jewel M. Vidito
H. Smith Shumway
Louis Occelli
John H. Kellers
Harley A. Reynolds
John C. Raaen
Wesley Ross
Richard J. Ford
William C. Smith
Ralph E. Gallant
James W. Gabaree
James W. Tucker
Robert Watson
Robert R. Chapman
Robert H. Searl
Leslie Dobinson
William H. Johnson
 
 Gold Beach
George F. Weightman
Norman W. Cohen
Walter Uden
 
 Juno Beach
Leonard Smith
 
 Sword Beach
Brian Guy
 
 6th Airborne
Roger Charbonneau
Frederick Glover
Jacques Courcy
Arlette Lechevalier
Charles S. Pearson
 
 U.S.A.A.F
Harvey Jacobs
William O. Gifford
 
Civils
Philippe Bauduin
Albert Lefevre
René Etrillard
Suzanne Lesueur
 

 

Eugene D. Shales
Sergeant, 3rd Platoon, Company B, 299th Combat Engineer Battalion.

D-DAY Preparations

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 the enemy.

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 matted.

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 Invasion

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 bones.

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 out.
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.

Eugene D. Shales     (May 07, 1994)

The experiences of Eugene D. Shales were submitted with the help of the association "Les Fleurs de la Mémoire"