My Longest Day

By Joseph Alexander

 O in C LCT 856

LCT 856 being launched at the Darby Corp. Shipyard.


My memories have been simmering in my head for 56 years. Not that I have an unusual war story; the memories are just too emotional to bring to the fore. That is until I recently attended the dedication of the National D-Day Museum m New Orleans. The veterans were encouraged to tell their stones.


An Indianapolis boy attending Butler University when the war broke out, I volunteered to join the Navy. I was ordered to attend the Notre Dame Midshipman School and was commissioned an Ensign. We were called 90-Day wonders because they crammed us through a 4-year training program in 90 days. Then on to Little Creek on the Chesapeake Bay for more training.


I was assigned to be a skipper on a landing craft for tanks {LCT}. These are flat bottom crafts with ramps in the front to transport vehicles and personnel into the beach for an assault. I felt a prodigious pride in commanding one of these. They were 112 feet long, 32 feet wide, three engines, two generators, and two 20-millimeter anti-aircraft guns. The hull was constructed with 32 separate watertight compartments so the craft was virtually unsinkable. They had a range of only 700 miles so they were carried on larger ships across the Atlantic.


It took us 19 days to cross the Atlantic taking a northern route. The sea was so rough that sometimes the ship next to us in the convoy would disappear from sight. I was seasick every one of the 19 days.


We were launched in Plymouth, England. One day a British destroyer came into port and I received a verbal order to meet at the breakwater early the next morning. The escort vessel sailed among the several LCTs and with a loudspeaker instructed us to keep our radios turned off and to follow in single line the ship ahead of us. No sooner had we gotten underway than a heavy fog enveloped us. It was so thick that I had to station a man on the bow to keep a sharp lookout to help us follow. We were underway just a few minutes when the ship ahead of me sent a message that it lost the ship ahead of it. I wasn't too concerned. I was sure the British escort ship would miss our presence and return to look for us. I continued going east but after about an hour I realized we were lost.


I had no idea where we were or where we were going. I asked the quartermaster to break out the charts and we assumed a fix. We were a few miles east of our starting point, Plymouth. I saw on the map that a naval base was at the south end of the Portland Peninsula so we made that our destination. We approached land just before nightfall and we were challenged by the shore battery and a heavy cruiser. Fortunately we knew the answer to the challenge and we continued.


We did notice some debris in the water but gave it little thought. We were more concerned with the mines that the charts said were ahead of us. We gave them a wide berth and about 0100 entered the harbor.

There were many vessels and the place was so crowded I had to look for a place to tie up to. No craft would grant me permission. Later I learned that many of these boats had on them the top secret floating tanks and no one was allowed near them. We finally found a place to tie up and settled in for the night.


I was fast asleep when the boatswain opened my hatch and yelled, "Air raid and G d I'm not kidding." I got out of bed to chew him out because I thought he was still hung over from the night before. Suddenly a bomb exploded near us that knocked me off my feet. This was everybody's first encounter with the enemy. We manned our battle stations and when the searchlights got the airplane in its sights every ship opened fife. It was like a hundred Fourth of Julys in one night. The tracers from our shells lit up the sky. Our shells had to come back down and it was a wonder we didn't kill ourselves. The irony was that our 20-millimeter guns were not powerful enough to reach the airplane. It was too high. The big guns shot it down and we all got a feeling of satisfaction.



The next morning I went ashore. I reported at headquarters that I didn't know where I was supposed to be. I was talking to a yeoman when a commander overheard our conversation. He stepped out of his office and asked me where the other ships of the convoy were. I explained what had happened. He replied, "You mean to tell me that you crossed E-boat Alley unescorted." It was then that I realized that that was Lyme Bay, the area where just days before German E-boats sank two LSTs with the loss of 551 American lives.


The convoy that I left Plymouth with was his charge and he was the flotilla commander. This convoy was to take two days and make a stop at a port for the night. It was too dangerous for ships to be out there at dusk where they are vulnerable to the F-boat attacks. This conversation with the commander of our flotilla had a bearing on my assignment for the invasion.


On June 3 I attended a top-secret meeting where I saw pictures and a model of Omaha beach that we were to assault. I was told that the beach would be bombed from the air, that the Air Corps bombers were to make 5,000 sorties and devastate the enemy positions. The army engineers were to blow up a path 50 yards wide to clear out the underwater obstacles. My mission was to enter Fox Red at H plus 220. I was to be in the lead of a column of 10 other LCTs. My instructions were to memorize my point of entry to the beach. I was to memorize only by the contour of the land. I was told that all man-made objects would be destroyed. I went to my group commander and facetiously told him I was not qualified to be the lead ship and the honor should go to someone else. He told me that the order came from the commander himself He put me up front because he thought I was "all right." So, the fact that I got lost and crossed E-boat alley unescorted qualified me for the lead position.


We all went back to our ships and were restricted aboard. Because of this briefing, we now had top secret information, and no one was permitted to go ashore. I had a complete crew of 16 men but I was short one officer. A full complement called for two so an officer was assigned to me from the staff He had just recently gotten his commission, married, and shipped overseas in a matter of days. He was in England just one week when he was given temporary orders to be my executive.


The invasion was to begin on June 5 but postponed to the sixth. My LCT was loaded with jeeps, command cars, several soldiers and a 32-ton Sherman tank. The distance to Omaha Beach was 110 miles. Because I could only make 5 knots with the load, I had to leave 26 hours before my scheduled time to hit the beach. Crossing the channel was awesome, ships in front and back over the horizon as far as the eye could see. At night, we could only see a faint blue light of the ship ahead to follow and guide us. The sea was heavy but because of the excitement I didn't get seasick. Many in the crew felt sick so the staff officer stepped forward and volunteered to wash the dishes and secure the galley. This delighted the crew. Before daylight I remember seeing flares in the sky and thought they were our airplanes being shot down. My thoughts were "Hey you { Germans}, we are the Americans, lay down your guns and run.


We reached the rendezvous area on time and proceeded to the line of departure. We crossed the bow of the battleship Arkansas and could see her 14-inch shells that she was firing from her big guns. After each shell was fired it was necessary to eject the smoke that came from the powder. This smoke engulfed us and was so dense I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. At this point, we were now 2,000 yards offshore. I expected the other LCTs to fall in line to hit the beach. They weren't reacting as if they were preparing for the run so I used my megaphone to ask another skipper what was going on. His answer, "They're all scared to go in." This disgusted me so much I didn't even answer and ordered the helmsman to steer toward the beach and I ordered the engines at full speed.


I wasn't prepared for this.

We were now ready to do what we were there to do, what we were trained for, and ready to carry out our orders. I could see smoke and fire ahead of us. What startled me was that a house was still standing there. It was damaged but still standing. I choose to station myself on the conning tower for a good view. I was so confident that nothing was going to stop us. I felt the beach was secure from all I heard at the briefing. I expected to go in, unload, back off and continue my assignment. I never looked back.


So far, all was perfect, the timing and our position. A lieutenant. colonel that was in charge of the soldiers rushed up the ladder to the conning tower and said "You can '1 go in there. Look at our boys." I was vexed and ordered him off the conning tower. Now we were closer. I took a better look and I could see the soldiers were face down on the shingle of the beach. They were hugging the ground with only a slight sand dune to protect and hide them. I could see the soles of their shoes. As Ernie Pyle said, " Our boys are holding on with their fingernails."


It was easy to see that I couldn't discharge the jeeps and other vehicles since the beach was not secure. I decided to offload only the tank and back off with the other vulnerable equipment. Our approach was perfect when one of the crew called to ask permission to open fire. I asked, "To fire at what?"


He said, "They are firing at us from that house." Open Fire. One of my crew was standing and gawking. With my megaphone, I call out to him to lay low. The electrician, who was manning the anchor winch thought I said, "Let go." And down went the anchor. The anchor goes down to stabilize the craft and help us when we need to back off the beach. I wasn't ready to release the anchor just yet. Since it was down there was nothing I could do. I figured I could drag it, any way we were close enough to lower the ramp and let the tank off load. Just then, like a bolt of lighting, a shell hit the port gun wounding the gunner and loaders. The force of the blast wounded and knocked the electrician to the deck below. I dashed off the tower, ran across the cat walk, to assess the damage. In those few split seconds I looked down to the deck below and saw the electrician was chalk white. The gunner and others lay on the deck wounded.


I rushed back to the control tower and then in front of me another shell hit. This was another direct hit into the wheelhouse. The door flew open and the five men stationed at the controls came pouring out. All wounded. Blood everywhere. Another shell hit us on the port side. I dashed inside and like I had three arms and hands I thrust the engines into reverse, operated the wheel and tried to operate the radio all at the same time. I got the craft turned around and headed out to sea but couldn't make any headway. Another shell hit us on the starboard side. More wounded. I thought it was the anchor holding me back. I ran to the cable cutter to cut us loose. My peripheral vision saw two fires, one at mid ship and the other forward. No time for fires. Let somebody else put them out.


I had to keep us from drifting back to the beach. I went to the cable cutter above the anchor chock to sever the one-inch cable. With a sledgehammer, I started to pound the cable cutter with all my strength. More shells hit us -- the tracers gave evidence that some missed. Before I was able to cut the cable a seaman ran to me and told me the engine rooms were flooded. Someone took the hammer to finish the job. I ran below to get to the hatch that was the access to the generator room. I stepped over a decapitated body. Blood all over the deck and bulkheads. At the hatch to the auxiliary room, one of the motor macs was standing on the ladder and I asked him to go down and see what the situation was. He defied me and said, "People drown down there." I said, "Yes G d people drown." I was furious. For some reason, he did not have his helmet on and I grabbed him by the hair of his head and pulled him up and off the ladder. I went down and saw that the water was waist high in the generator room. I then saw a break in the bulkhead where water was pouring in from the engine room. I knew then that the water level was higher and the engines were under water.


Back up topside, again over the body and this time I noticed one of the young soldiers sitting in his jeep, his entire midsection shot away. I thought of his family-a pain struck my heart. Too late to stop the cable from being cut, we were now lifeless with no power and no way to stop us from floating back to the beach. I grabbed a seaman and went over the bulkhead on the port side where a spare anchor was stored. An 88 had embedded itself in the stalk of the anchor almost breaking it in half If I tied a rope to it and pushed it off the side, would it hold? Anyway, it was too heavy for the two of us so we gave up. The three-inch hose that was lashed to the outward side of the bulkhead was pulverized. The bulkhead had scores of pit marks. Did a machinegun do this?


The craft had now turned and left us exposed to the beach and for the first time, I felt I was in danger. I got to the lee side of the bulkhead in a hurry. We still had the problem of floating back into the beach. In my desperation I grabbed a throw line, a rope about the size of a clothes line with a knot called a monkey fist on it and stood on the bow hoping someone would take it and tow us out. Not a single craft was heading toward the beach. It was helter-skelter and mass confusion. Not one was willing or made an effort to help


We continued to drift with the current and our bottom finally settled to the east under the cliffs. The unsinkable sank on the beach. The cliff protected us from enemy fire but we had a new fear -- that grenades could be hurled at us from above our heads. One of our destroyers was firing toward the top of the cliff, dueling with an enemy tank that was above us. The five-inch shells shook the ground and made earth and rocks fall. The water at the ramp was about 3 feet deep so we were able to get the tank and vehicles ashore. The big problem was the wounded.


I ran west to where there was more of a chance to get help. The cliff at my back protected me from gunfire. I looked for anything to come m. One lone LCVP was coming towards me to offload its soldiers. When it got close enough for me to throw a baseball to it, it hit a mine and all aboard want flying through the air like rag dolls. Farther west, it was too menacing. Dejected, I ran back to my craft to try to make the wounded as comfortable as possible.


I then learned that the body I had been stepping over was the staff officer. All of us on board had coveralls on to protect us from a gas attack, sailors and soldiers looked alike. For that reason, I didn't recognize him. Still keeping a lookout for help, I saw a lone LCVP come into the beach about 75 yards east of us. I got to him, exhausted from running in knee deep water, before he could get away, I prevailed upon him to come to the seaside of my craft and take the crew to a hospital ship.


The base of the cliff was now jammed with wounded soldiers seeking protection. However, the tide was coming in and they would soon be under water. I waded ashore and explained to a medical doctor, who was administrating to them, that they would not be able to stay there. I showed him where the high water mark was and that the water would rise to it. He agreed to bring as many as we could get on the forward half of my craft. We put them down on the hard steel deck, shoulder to shoulder head to feet and there they spent the night. When the high tide came in the waves would splash over the bulkhead and many were wet all night. The lucky ones got to sleep in the forward part of the living quarters.


We didn't have much more than Band-Aids to doctor with and many spent the night with open wounds. Some whimpered, some cried, one asked for his mother, most were silent and somber. When some asked for drinking water, I had to step over bodies to bring it to them.


The morning brought some calm to our part of the beach, however the tide and current brought in and deposited the ones that didn't make it. The beach was so littered that it was impossible to walk freely. I could not take three steps without stepping over or around a precious dead American soldier.


On that morning, June 6 1944 the First U.S. Infantry Division needed all the help it could get. I like to think that my little LCT No.856 did its part. We got most of our cargo ashore, battered but at a tremendously high price. I like to think that we distracted the enemy. I like to think that the time the enemy spent on pounding us with their 88s was precious time our boys used to get a better hold on the beachhead. Soon after all this happened, the fighting turned in our favor. And, That DAY was my longest DAY.

Joseph Alexander


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