D-DAY, JUNE 6,1944 AS SEEN FROM US LCT (6) 544
By Bill O'Neill
Description of the LCT
US LCT (6) 544, the navy designation for Landing Craft Tank, was one of the approximately 5,000 vessels of all types that participated in the 6/6/44 Normandy invasion. As a craft, loosely defined as a vessel that could be carried aboard a ship, it did not rate an official name, or a USS (United States Ship) designation.
The craft was a 125' long, 25' wide and six foot in depth flat-bottomed barge-like vessel. It had a propulsion plant of three marine diesel engines, located below deck, two rudders, a bow ramp, two 20mm anti-aircraft cannons, and a heavy-duty stem anchor to help in beach retraction. It was a comfortable vessel compared to a prior model. It had a shower in a large head, hot water, and a separate galley with an electric stove and a refrigerator. Navigation wise, there was a 12' lamp for signaling, a good magnetic compass, and a short wave radio including a voice channel, all lacking in a prior model. The 12 man crew of the 544 was composed of five veteran petty officers who had served in the North African and Mediterranean campaigns, a skipper, and his assistant who were recently graduated ensigns, and five seamen who were fresh out of boot camp.
Omaha Beach is approximately four miles long and runs in an easterly/westerly direction. The back of the beach consists of steep hills up to five hundred feet high breached by four unpaved exits leading to villages situated along a road running parallel to the beach. At each end of the beach the hills turn into sheer cliffs rising almost directly from the sea. With an average 24 foot tide in the area there is a 150 yard stretch of exposed beach from the low water line to the high water mark. The high water line is marked mostly either by a concrete or wooden sea wall, about four feet high, and just beyond, piles of shale like stones another five foot high. From there to the foot of the hills, the terrain is either flat and grassy or pockmarked with sandy dunes.
The German defenses were designed to win the battle on the beaches by killing or driving the invaders back into the sea. The defense plan was multi-layered starting with craft and tank obstacles embedded in the tidal area of the beach designed to impeded the landings. Many were mined, and connected electrically so that hitting one would explode many. The land beyond the sea and shale wall was mined with anti-personnel, and vehicle explosives. Just before the base up to the top of the hills, the German's had planted a murderous array of machine gun emplacements, mortar pits, and mines. Strong points with 88mm cannon in concrete bunkers or removed turrets from 47mm French tanks set atop concrete holes. Each position had a panoramic view of its field of fire painted on its wall as well as aiming settings pre-calculated so that every inch of the beach was subjected to enfilading fire. The bunkers were sited to point along the beach line, and were protected from naval guns by thick concrete shields.
The idea was to kill as many invaders as possible before or at the shoreline. For any that survived, they would be forced to advance through the heavily fortified exits. The Germans were prepared for a different outcome in that if the allies breached the Atlantic Wall, they believed that the allies would be still be defeated by units rushed from nearby reserve areas.
The 544's mission in the battle of Omaha Beach, was to deliver a Headquarters 1st Infantry Division scout team and a squad of the 5t Battalion Special Combat Engineers to a sector of the beach known by the code name Fox Green,, The assault force mission was to capture the eastern most exit leading to the town of Colleville sur Mere, designated as an army marshalling area. A similar landing would be made on the western side of the exit.
The 544's voyage started on June 4th departing Wey mouth harbor at 3:30 am for the approximately 20 plus hour voyage to Normandy. As one of the slowest assault vessels, making around five knots, but one of the earliest to land, it was in the first convoy to sail. The sea was stormy with a gusting fifty knot wind and ten foot waves. The flat-bottomed LCTs were having a difficult time keeping station. With three engines and rudders LCTs were very maneuverable in calm water, but floating on the top of the waves, as they were designed to do, they were difficult to control in bad weather. Sometimes speeding up or slowing down to avoid collisions, sailing sideways at the whim of the wind, sitting high on the top of a wave then down the slope to a bone shaking crash to the bottom, with decks deep in water, nevertheless the LCTs wallowed along in wavy lines towards the far shore.
A little passed noon, British destroyers ran down the columns, and using loud hailers orally informed the craft that they were to reverse course and return to Weymouth. General Elsenhower had postponed the invasion because of the bad weather. The orders were given to make a 180 degree right turn at the drop of destroyer yardarm flag. With a still rough sea and high wind the turn, which must have looked like a Keystone cop movie scene, was accomplished and the armada headed for home.
Arriving at Weymouth around midnight it seemed that the 544 had just tied up to a mooring buoy when orders were received that the invasion was on. At its original time except 24 hours later the 544 cast off its lines and again set sail for France.
By dawn the crew had been up for over 32 hours, and a schedule to allow some sleep was arranged. The sea had moderated, visibility had much improved, and station keeping was more easily maintained than the day before. The view with these better conditions was astonishing. The sea was studded with landing craft of all types from horizon to horizon. Above the skies were crisscrossed with the contrails of hundreds of medium and heavy bombers. No warships or troopships were in sight. With their considerably greater speed they would soon catch up.
My final sleep period ended at 4:3 Oam just about the time the 544 was passing through the bombardment group's positioning for their work soon to begin. While I slept the column ofLCTs had diminished to only those to land on Fox Green, the others having peeled off to positions opposite assigned landing zones. About that time, huge flashes from battleships and cruisers lit the scene behind us opening the mayhem that was to follow.
I have been always fascinated by the flight of the shells in these pyrotechnic displays. Heated to white-hot temperatures, shells are clearly visible, especially in a dark sky. Sailing along lazily in pairs from the twin gun turrets of the warships thousands of these messengers of death and destruction flew overhead.
By now the warships had dipped below the horizon so that the gun flashes, without a moment of pause, resembled a severe lightning storm blasting off in the distance. The 544 now was at its first control point monitored by a US Navy patrol craft. Infantry loaded LCVPs (Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel) raced by, intent on meeting their scheduled landing. For these small boats the sea was still too choppy for a smooth ride, as it proved to be for the DD tanks* of Fox Green.
544 Manned and Ready
Now some 2.5 miles from the beach the crew were at their General Quarters' stations dressed for the occasion with steel helmet, impregnated anti gas outer clothing, and gas mask nearby. For the LCT general quarters required two seamen at the bow ramp controls, a loader and a gunner at each 20mm cocked and ready to fire cannon, one seaman to control the stem anchor, me safely behind the wheelhouse, skipper on the bridge along with the relief officer and helmsman/engine controller, and the craft's cook in the galley that was set up for first aid. I got a relatively safe station because, in all modesty, I could really handle the craft. The relief officer had only been aboard for a short time, not long enough to learn how to run the LCT. The skipper wanted me to bring the LCT in if he was incapacitated. The cook as the oldest man on the crew, married and a father of three, merits special mention. He ran a small family abattoir and butcher business, and was a volunteer EMT with several years experience. Those skills saved many lives on this day.
*Dual Drive Sherman Tanks fitted with a canvas skirt for buoyancy and a propeller to allow them to swim into the beach under their own power. They were launched from LCTs approximately two miles from the shore.
The army was ready to go. The jeeps had been prepared for traveling in deep water. Snorkel tubes six feet long were fitted on carburetors, and wiring and other critical parts were waterproofed so that the vehicles could operate under water. The soldiers had tied the jeeps to the engineer's skid of materials. The craft's ramp was wide enough to pull the whole lot off together. The engineers sat perched on the skid with 303cal carbines slung over their shoulders, the same weapon carried by the infantry, nervously cradled in the soldier's arms.
The infantry scouts, landing in eight jeeps, were to identify enemy positions, organize the troops on the ground, and inform ship borne headquarters personnel of the battle situation.
The engineers, armed with a large Cat tractor and portable road wire, were to break through, level the high shale wall, and lay steel tracks on the soft sand so that wheeled vehicles could navigate the beach.
The general plan was: a naval beach bombardment for 35 minutes, and an air force bombing of German positions at about the same time. Immediately following the bombing, tanks landing to engage enemy positions surviving the latter actions Then on their heels, landing simultaneously was the first waves of infantry to gain a foot hold in the sector, naval beach battalions to direct subsequent landing traffic, and underwater teams in to blow and mark safe paths through the obstacles for landing craft. After a half hour hiatus, infantry landings would resume at 10 minute intervals until 10:15 AM. By then it was believed that the beach defenses would be breached, and a front would be established on the coastal road. Following would be a flood of men and machines to build up enough strength to repel the inevitable counter attack.
What Really Happened at Fox Green and Easy Red
The first hours on Fox Green and Easy Red had all of the elements of a disaster. First, the thirty-five minute bombardment was not long enough to destroy all of the assigned targets. Intelligence had failed to identify many other strong points that were not even touched. Second, a heavy overcast caused the air force, afraid of killing allied troops, to drop their bombs three miles inland. Bombs not only destroy defenses, but bomb craters make excellent cover for attacking troops. Third, the DD tanks either sank in the choppy water, or were knocked off by enemy guns as soon as they came in range. Only one tank made it all the way to the high water mark on Fox Green of 34 launched, and only two made it on Easy Red. The UDTs working at daybreak were easy targets for German guns, and they suffered many casualties
Near Fox Green
Finally it was time to leave the departure line and head for the assigned landing spot. A lane through the obstacles had not been marked so that the approach was tentative. There was no apparent action beyond the beach. Not the planned advance of tanks and troops out flanking the defenders of the E-I exit. There was a thin line of troops lying at the waters edge, the remains of four infantry companies (720 men) plus the naval beach party that should have been there. Of the 34 DD tanks of the 741 Tank Battalion only one had made it all the way in, but was partially destroyed. There were bodies in the water, submerged or not depending on when they fell relative to the tide weighted down by their equipment. Others, who managed to shed that weight before they died, bobbed along with the tide buoyant from inflatable waist preservers.
Much to my surprise, the skipper shouted: "semaphore signal from the beach". Somehow, some of the navy beach battalion had made it to the beach. I grabbed a pair of flags, and climbed to the top of the wheelhouse. Sure enough, there was a sailor crouching waving his flags. I signaled, "K", the letter that means go ahead. His message was: "Stay low, keep your head down". With the possibility of serious harm standing on the highest part of the LCT, I had some evil thoughts over that advice.
Getting up there had one advantage. I could see that the chance of reaching the beach through the obstacles was poor, but the chance of being slaughtered by the unchallenged firepower of the enemy was very high. Actually 100% as the 544 would be the only visible target on the beach. I was still on the wheelhouse top, lying on my stomach, looking up at the skipper who was standing on a bench inside the wheelhouse, with half of him sticking through a hatch in the top. I repeated the message, and said "not here skipper" better spot on the right.
I believe that he had the same idea. The 544 went into reverse, turned right headed to the other side of the exit.
I had another little thing that I wanted to do, and that was to take some pictures of the landing. I had bought an old bellows focusing second hand camera in the UK, and one roll of film. I had taken one shot of Fox Green, and another earlier, judging that there was enough light to get an exposure.
The 544 sailed parallel to the shore not too far off the beach. With all of those weapons in the hills, I had a vision of a carnival shooting gallery with the 544 as one of the ducks running by on a belt being picked off by an army of showoff marksmen. Yet not a shell came our way. It soon became obvious that the German's preferred killing zone was the high water line. There was plenty of cannon, mortar, and machine gun fire raining down on the virtually helpless troops huddled behind the shale wall.
544 on Easy Red
It was less than a mile to the other side of the Exit within the Easy Red sector. There were more troops there than at Fox Green, and a LCT (540) was on the beach. Comparatively, Easy Red looked like home. The order was given to turn left, and with throttles wide open, and on a racing flood tide, there would be no tentative safe path searching, the fate of the 544, of its crew and passengers rested in the benevolent bosom of dumb luck.
The stem anchor, our insurance against being stranded, was dropped, and in a short time the LCT smashed into a sand bar. We were beached at last. The bow ramp was dropped with a splash, and without a moment's hesitation the big Cat with its blade elevated roared off dragging skid, jeeps, and personnel behind. Well above the shale wall the Cat attracted every machine gunner in range. Bullets showered on the blade from every direction. That firing woke up the 544 gunners, and, although the location of the enemy was obscured due to concealment and smoke, they sprayed the foot of the hill with 20mm shells.
The craft was still around 50 yards from the high water mark. Directly in front of the ramp was a runnel, a deep pool caused by tide and current. Into it steamed the tractor. The skid was high enough so that the engineers stayed dry, but the infantry in jeeps was not. I watched each pair of jeeps go down the slope of the pool, occupants stretching their necks backwards in a vain attempt to keep breathing, then disappearing until reappearing at the other side.
To avoid running over the men ahead, the Cat driver turned left, and headed down the beach towards Fox Green. Just before this maneuver the jeeps cast off on the fly, and headed for shale wall shelter.
There was plenty else going on nearby at this time. The LCT 540 was withdrawing, her bow had been damaged so that the ramp apparently couldn't be raised. Later it was learned that her skipper had been killed, and others wounded. Off to the right the LCT 305 was in and tanks were coming off firing as they cleared the vessel. The LCT 305 was under heavy shellfire, probably by the 88mm to our right. The LCT 25 with a cargo of Half-Tracks (A Half-Track was an opened armored truck. Instead of rear wheels it had a tank tracks and conventional front wheels. It was armed with a 37mm cannon and twin 50cal machine guns) landed to our left. As the first vehicle was racing down the ramp it was hit and burst into flames. Instantaneously the rest of the craft and its contents blew up in a violent bust of exploding ammunition and flame. The 544 gunners continued firing into the hills, even though no targets were visible.
A few LCVPs were landing quickly unloading and withdrawing. They were prime targets mostly carrying infantry. One landed alongside the 544, and was targeted by unseen guns, the infantry left in a hurry, but some were hit. The LCVP coxswain didn't bother to wait for his deck hand to raise the ramp, or turn his craft around, with wood chips flying in the air as the bullets hit the hull, he gunned it out in reverse zigzagging wildly to avoid being hit.
The Destroyer Command Takes Over
If there was any army offensive action it wasn't apparent. Even the few tanks making it to the shale wall stopped, content with what seemed to be desultory random shots into the hills. Suddenly, like the cavalry in an old western movie, several US Navy destroyers came thundering towards the shore. As near as they probably dared to go in relatively shallow waters, they started to pound the hills and casements with their five inch guns. There were four arrayed behind the 544. One destroyer's, located almost directly behind the 544, shells came whistling overhead, tearing great chunks of concrete out of the slanted shield of casement walls, and then following the angle of the target they ricocheted high in the air. The noise wasn't deafening, more of a crack than a bang, but the concussion from the blast had ears ringing. They traversed the shoreline, back and forth, in a no holds barred, eyeball-to-eyeball street fight with the enemy forces concealed in the hill.
New Task for the 544
Our orders were to land, unload, and report by radio to our control vessel for another assignment. However, there were dead and wounded in the area. Of necessity some of the crew stayed on their stations, but whoever was free helped medics and other army personnel to bring wounded soldiers and no doubt sailors on to the LCT. The living quarters were soon filled, then the inside spaces, then every available free spot on he deck. There were only a few litters, and they were used over and over. The bearers would move the occupant on to the deck, and then hustle off for another trip.
There was no end to the supply of wounded. Each troop landing would inevitably result in a new supply. Finally the beach became so chaotic that landings were suspended. For a while the 544 was the only vessel on Easy Red except for the knocked out sister LCTs.
Around 11:3 Oam the tide showed signs of ebbing. It was time to leave. The 544 had survived almost four hours on Easy Red, reputed to be the most dangerous of the invasion. The last of the wounded were rushed aboard, ramp raised, and using the engines and the power of the winch the craft slowly backed off into deep water, and headed out towards the troop ship anchorage, a 12 mile trip. Empty, sailing with the tide induced current, and running flat out, the anchorage was reached in less than two hours.
On the way out, as they had done while on the beach, our cook and the army medic did all they could to aid the wounded. Supplies were meager, little blood plasma was available, and most of the aid was restricted to using waterproof wound packets of bandage gauze and a pouch of powdered sulfur disinfectant that soldiers and sailors carried. Nevertheless, its possible that even that simple form of first aid was a factor in saving some that may not have survived otherwise.
The 544 had a 12" carbon arc signal lamp so that it was possible to signal from some distance to the closest troop ship informing them of our situation, and to ask for assistance. The response was come along side. By the time the 544 was alongside the ship's four booms were deployed with twin wire cage litters rigged, ladders were out, and navy corpsmen were on the rail ready to board the 544. Well trained corpsmen, with MDs in attendance, and sufficient supplies available the ship's medical team went to work rapidly checking conditions, and starting proper treatment.
The crew was perfectly content to let the ship's personnel take over. New orders from control were to anchor in the vicinity, and to expect a new assignment at dawn. Although everyone was bone weary, all turned to clean the LCT for a fresh start in the morning. The outside deck was littered with discarder bandages, morphine capsules, bits of tissue, and clothing. Crew bunks, mattresses, and blankets were soaked with blood. These items were brought outside and thrown overboard. The fire pump was rigged, the ramp lowered, and the decks were flushed with seawater pushing everything into the sea. Finally personal items were moved to a dry location and the inside spaces were hosed down and mopped dry.
Watches were set, and the crew settled down for some welcome sleep. Some of the bunks had not been used in the evacuation of the wounded and they were rotated among on watch crew members and those off watch. The rest, using life jackets as pillows got as comfortable as possible.
Shots in the Night
Around midnight anti-aircraft firing started on the western edge of the anchorage, and grew as each ship picked up the presence of enemy aircraft. The 544 went to general quarters immediately. On a dark night, without radar, the 544's guns presented more danger to allied ships than to the Germans so that its guns remained silent. Gravity being what it is, dictates that what goes up must come down. All of those shells fired at planes, soon return to earth as fragments sounding much gentle rain falling on the vessel's hull. The downside from this idyllic vision is the deafening sound of firing guns, and the stifling odor of burnt cordite.
Not all of the shells explode in the air. Invariably some are defective, and return to earth as destructive missiles. One hit the 544, landing on a mesh platform steel bridge joining the two cabins on each side of the vessel, exploding on impact. The relief officer standing with his left side out of the wheelhouse, caught fragments of the shell from his calf to shoulder. The 544's de Facto cook/ EMT cleaned the relief officer's wounds, and though numerous, were not serious. With a shot of morphine for comfort, transferring him to a ship with medical facilities could wait until the dawn. There was much irony in being a victim of friendly fire 12 miles or so from the main battle. Especially since the spot where the 544 sat for almost four hours has been considered the most dangerous of any US battleground in WWII.
544 and the USS Susan B. Anthony
I had the watch at daybreak. The transport area was almost empty. Apparently some troop transports free of troops had returned to the UK to reload. Others with army reserves aboard had moved closer to shore to reduce the distance that their LCVPs would have to travel to shore. A transport signaled by blinker "to come alongside immediately". In response, I started to explain that the 544 had orders to remain at anchor, when the ship broke in with the message "We are sinking". I jumped off the top of the wheelhouse, ran into the crew quarters, kicked the engineers awake shouting: "get underway". The 544 never got underway so quickly. A fleet tug boat and a LCI was already along side embarking soldiers. The 544 maneuvered to make a sliding broadside turn to a position against the transport's hull. Cargo nets were dropped by the transport's crew, and soldiers scrambled down them onto the LCT. The ship in distress was the USS Susan B. Anthony carrying a reserve infantry division scheduled to land on Utah beach that afternoon. The ship had hit a mine, possibly one dropped in the air raid the night before. They were put aboard a troop ship on its way to the UK, presumably to be reequipped. The transport also agreed to take our wounded officer.
Back to Work for the 544
The 544 was ordered to pick up a load of 81mm mortar shells and deliver them to Fox Green. It was early evening by the time we loaded, and made the trip to Fox Green. We were not concerned about darkness as daylight persisted until 22:00 in those northern climes. Coming in on a rising tide we were confident that the LCT would be unloaded before ebb tide trapped us. The beach master told us that the shells were badly needed, as the Germans were counter attacking through the gap between British beaches and Omaha's Fox Green.
Half of the crew pitched to help unload, and the skipper sent the rest to two partially destroyed and abandoned LCIs to salvage enough bunks, blankets, and mattresses to replace those lost the day before. Salvaging personnel effects was not permitted, except for a washing machine and small jute box.
Most of the shells had been unloaded when shelling of the beach began. We were told to depart, stay out of range, and return in the nest morning.
The 544's War Ends
When the 544 departed Fox Green on the evening ofD-Day plus one anxiously watching German shells exploding on the beach it would be hard to convince the crew that they had seen the last of combat. Landing the next morning it was obvious that the American army was there to stay.
The beach, however, was a sad place. Strewn among the piles of debris were the dead. In clusters, singularly, burnt remains in burned out vehicles and landing craft, lying in shallow water weighted down by equipment, but all appearing to be moving forward towards the enemy. Graves registration teams were moving bodies into neat lines beyond the shale wall to save them from further mutilation.
Nevertheless, engineers, Seabees, stevedore troops, and beach masters were hard at work preparing the beach and the now liberated exits for the massive flow of men and material required to sustain the invasion.
The LCT was a cog in the supply system for the balance of its time in Normandy. Except for stormy days when it was too rough to work, activity went on for 24 hours a day seven days a week.
Finally, in September the vessel was ordered to return to England for comprehensive maintenance. That was a break for me and the other Mediterranean veterans. At the time the Navy's policy was to rotate personnel after 24 months of overseas duty for a thirty-day leave.
A Presidential Unit Award was recommended for the crew of the 544, but it was not acted on. Our skipper was recommended for the Silver Star, but it was not acted on. The cook received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal with a V device for valor in Combat, and the seaman who was first on the beach recovering wounded soldiers was awarded a Silver Star. The relief skipper was awarded a Purple Heart.
Bill's trip back to Normandy with his 3 son's 50 Years later
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