The Saga of the USS LCT 638
By: Joseph D. Graham
Dartmouth, England the 638 lost the Escort vessel in a dense fog and ran aground about 7 miles south of Dover. The British said that the 638 had come through their shore defenses and the crew went ashore until a British Minelayer came in at high tide and towed the 638 to Dover where it was put into drydock for repairs.
The USS LCT 638 was built by the Bison Shipbuilding Corp. in Buffalo, N.Y. and was delivered to the U.S. Navy on January 21, 1944. At the Brooklyn Navy Yard the 638 was loaded in three sections on the deck of a Liberty Ship for transport to England. It took 31 days to sail from there to Hull, England.
Some of the crew including Ens. Schwartz of the 638 had trained at Solomon's, Md. and all but Gus Wyatt (who accompanied the 638) were sent by troopship to a port in Scotland to eventually take control of the ship at Hull where the three sections of the vessel were delivered and assembled and where it was provisioned, demagnetized, swung for compass and readied for sea.
Various members of the crew were added at different times but the O-in-C and the crew (some not original members) were as follows:
O-in-C Ens. Eugene Schwartz
Richard L. Bean, QM 2c
Harmon C. Steck, BM 2c
J. C. Brumley, Cook ?
John Mikash, MoMM 3c
Frances A. Butkiewicz, GM 3 c
Melvin S. Downing, MoMM 3c
Bruno Andreatta, EM 3c
Gus Merlin Wyatt, MoMM 3c (Later Cox 3c)
George Pazderak, S 1c
Dallas Glen Thomas, S 1c
Jack Noah Wolkenstien, S 1c
Charles B. Hart, S 1c
Pedro Leon, S 1c
James S. Miller, S 1c
Joe Medrano, S 1c
Paul Jones, S 1c
? Neely, Signalman
(Bean, Steck and Brumley had been on an LCT that was sunk at Salerno.)
Leaving Hull, England with a British Escort Vessel en route to
When repairs were completed the 638 proceeded to Dartmouth, England to join LCT Flotilla 19 which was based in Dartmouth under the command of Lt. Cmdr. L. B. Pruitt arriving on April 30, 1944.
On May 2, 1944 Ens. Joseph D. Graham was assigned as O-in-C of the 638 and Ens. Eugene Schwartz was designated as Relief Officer. We received orders to sail for Plymouth but were unable to raise the anchor due to a malfunction of the anchor wench but sailed the next day, unloaded the LCM that had been on the deck and returned to Dartmouth on May 9. From then until May 16 needed repairs and alterations were made. On May 16 received orders to sail to Plymouth for loading for the Invasion. At Plymouth we were loaded with 180 tons of ammunition, mostly crated, varying from small arms to large bombs for aircraft. Also took on provisions, fresh water and diesel fuel. Large lettered signs with the word "AMMUNITION" were placed on both sides of the vessel.
On May 27 we sailed for Portland but put into Dartmouth for the night due to bad weather. Continued on to Portland next day. The Germans had dropped floating mines here the night before with some damage and did so again tonight with less damage.
On May 29 we loaded more rations and fresh water and were briefed on our part in the invasion. On June 2 we beached and took on an Army truck loaded with small arms ammunition and two Army Personnel. The truck was placed in the bow where room had been left for it in front of the boxed Ammunition.
On June 3 we had our final briefing for the Invasion.
On June 4 we set sail for the Normandy Coast at 0400 hours along with
the entire Invasion Fleet and at 0800 hours were turned back due to a delay ordered by Gen. Eisenhower. At 0400 on June 5 set sail again for the Invasion sailing all day and all night in convoy with the entire LCT Flotilla 19 and on June 6 were eight miles off the French Coast at 0600 hours. We were too far out to see much of what was going on but the Invasion of Europe begins.
Officers and crew alike did not know what to expect but all were alert and watchful. Ensign C. E. Lilly (who was later to become O-in-C of the 638 but was O-in-C of the LCT 637 on the invasion date) described that morning about as well as any description I have heard in a story he wrote for his children about his war experiences and I quote.. "During the day as we waited our turn to beach we were orbiting offshore fairly close in and under sporadic fire from shore. From that perspective, everything seemed to me to have an unreal quality. From where we were there was none of the sound or fury that characterize the Hollywood war movie. Everything outside the arena of battle was curiously peaceful. The sky was blue with scattered clouds, just like any normal day. Gulls circled around seemingly undisturbed. Ashore we could see farm houses and cattle grazing - everything seemed to be in order. Yet in front of us, on the beach were explosions, fires, the crackle of guns. Close inspection with glasses turned up bodies of dead and wounded."
Per the invasion plans the LCT 638 a unit of Force 0-1 left the line of departure headed for Easy Red Beach at H-hour plus 1 through supposedly mine swept waters. About 3000 yards off the beach we were stopped by the Beachmaster Control Craft and told to lay to until further orders because the beach was not secure enough. They said if we went in and got hit we would blow up the whole beach and everything on it so we laid to awaiting further orders.
With field glasses we can see some of the action on the beach. It appears that the Germans have the beach in a crossfire with their 88mm guns in concrete bunkers and are knocking off most everything on the beach but not firing at anything far offshore so we feel fairly safe staying where we are.
The Army Lt. and some of the crew feel that we should go a little farther out but the Skipper opted to stay put for a while in case we are needed but when a shell exploded a couple of hundred yards off our port side he decided to lay to farther out. With field glasses we can see various types of landing craft afire and apparently abandoned on the beach. A Destroyer is giving the Jerrys hell in their bunkers. Every time the 88s let go at something on the beach that tin can lets go a salvo at the bunkers. Then the 88s are quiet for a while. The destroyer must have been grounded for a time as she stayed in close to the beach and should be credited with holding the beach that day.
Towards evening we were given orders to anchor about three miles offshore for the night and away from the rest of the fleet so that if we got hit in an air raid we would not be a danger to other ships.
About 2300 hours the Jerrys came over and were met with the most tremendous anti-aircraft barrage imaginable. We did not use our 20mm guns so as not to draw the attention of the attackers. Being so far away from the rest of the fleet left us pretty vulnerable to air attack. No one could see the planes and they were just throwing up ammunition hoping to hit a plane in the dark. Several of our own barrage balloons were shot down and at first we thought they were planes shot down but when a plane was shot down we knew what it was.
We were anchored with our bow towards shore and when the plane hit the water about 100 yards off our stern it was traveling in a line parallel to the beach and was on fire. The pilot had bailed out and landed within about 25 yards of our starboard side. The wind blew the gasoline fire towards our stern and as we were starting our engines to try to avoid them it changed direction and the fire drifted off our port side. The waters were too choppy for our little dinghy and it was too risky to attempt a rescue. Shortly someone in an LCM appeared and killed the pilot with a Thompson submachine gun.
Sleep came in short naps during the night after witnessing the greatest invasion in history and all of its death and destruction that day.
On June 7 we beached at our designated landing area at 1000 hours but the beach is still too hot and we are ordered to retract as soon as the army truck and personnel are unloaded. There is still occasional sniper fire and we keep our heads below deck or inside the control house. The beach is littered with dead bodies, abandoned equipment and wrecked craft.
At 1300 hours we are ordered to beach again and since the Beach master advises that he has no Army personnel to unload our cargo we start unloading it ourselves and stacking it on the beach above the high tide per instructions of the Beach master. The beach is still littered with bodies and gear and debris of war but the Army now has a burial detail wrapping bodies in canvas bags and burying them temporarily on the beach.
We had unloaded about half of our cargo when the tide came in around midnight and allowed us to retract from the beach for the night. On the next high tide around noon the next day we beached again and unloaded the remaining cargo stacking it on the beach as before.
From June 8 until June 19th we ran ship to shore loads from large vessels standing offshore. We carried vehicles, personnel, equipment and ammunition. We estimated that we put 1200 tons of ammunition on the beach and believe we were designated an ammunition carrier, possibly because of Skipper Grahams civilian experience with the manufacture of high explosives.
On June 19 the weather really deteriorated and developed into a major storm. The blockship breakwater had been almost completed for the protection of small vessels such as ours but there was insufficient room for all the small craft to shelter in this area and on June 20 we were anchored just on the edge of it when a British LCT came too close and damaged our anchor cable pretty badly with its screws. The anchor cable finally parted and we stayed underway until the high tide started to recede and we then beached on a stretch where no other vessels had beached.
At low tide we found our anchor well out on the sand flats and with the aid of an Army bulldozer we brought it back to a point where we would have dropped it on a normal landing and we spliced the cable to it so that it would help us pull off the beach when the tide came back in. When the tide did come in and we refloated we attempted to retract with full back down power and winching the anchor but the surf was so high that the anchor just pulled in to the ship and the engines were insufficient to retract against the heavy surf. Many other vessels were washed ashore with the high tide and all were bashing and mangling each other in the heavy surf. This kind of jolting and jarring had many seasick who had never been seasick before. Soon we were out of food, living on C-rations and hording what little fresh water we had.
On June 23 the storm subsided and we inspected the ship for damage. There are great holes in both port and starboard sides, both sides of the bow are caved in and the starboard corner of the stern is badly mangled. Every watertight compartment on the starboard side has a hole in it. The bulkhead in the head, galley and crews quarters is stoved in and two of the three Diesel engines have sand in the cooling systems. We try running one of the generators on bilge water so we can cook but the galley is so badly damaged that the stove does not work. Lt. Cmdr. Pruit and Lt. Johnson inspect the ship but no decision is made as to what will be done. We built a bonfire on the beach and did some cooking on that and on June 24 the Motor Mechanics and Electrician got the stove repaired and we ran one of the generators on bilge water long enough to prepare meals. The LCT 640 had come on the beach alongside us during the storm and they were in worse shape than we were so they used our galley to prepare their meals.
On June 26 we drew some food and toilet supplies from an LST that beached with a load of Army personnel. The Army loaned us a jeep to carry these supplies. On July 1 a Lt (jg) from NOIC came aboard with orders to bivouac the crew at the CB Camp on the beach and that failure to do so would result in arrest. So we all took billets there but a watch had to be maintained on the ship so there was always someone aboard in shifts (watches).
On the afternoon of July 5 we were advised that we would be pulled off the beach along with the LCT 640 so we made fast the lines holding the two ships together. We had enough undamaged voids on both ships that we had no doubt that we would float. A U.S. Navy tug (an ART) pulled both ships off with one big heave at high tide and towed us out near the artificial breakwater and we anchored with our anchor holding both ships since the LCT 640 had lost their anchor. On the 7th we were towed to the block ships and tied to them as we were interfering with salvage work where we had anchored.
On July 8 a tug brought two heavily damaged Mark 5 LCTS and tied them alongside. They had no personnel aboard and during the night one of them sunk. Also, that night a buzz bomb hit somewhere in our vicinity but we never heard whether it did any damage.
On July 11 we received orders by radio that we were to be towed back to England and at 0845 two LCMS came alongside and towed just the 638 (not the 640) to the outer harbor alongside the LST 58 which was to tow us back to England. We had just a part of the crew aboard who had been standing watch at the time of being towed off the beach and to keep risking anymore lives in case of trouble the Skipper asked for two volunteers to stay aboard during the channel crossing. Volunteers were John Mikash and J. C. Brumley. The rest of the personnel were placed aboard the towing LST.
At 1200 hours we were rigged for towing and by 1800 hours the convoy was forming and our towing LST was in the port lead as Convoy Commodore of a two column convoy of 8 or 10 ships. We find that the towing cable is frayed but the Commodore will not hold off long enough for us to make repairs but did allow us to get an emergency cable secured and we were underway. We had no orders and no knowledge of what port we were being towed to.
At 2000 hours the towing bridle broke and the emergency cable snapped like a piece of thread. We were swung out into the middle of the convoy and fearing being rammed by one of the other ships we started the engines (full of sand or not) and by running them at full speed with Brumley at the helm and Mikash on the engines we were able to pull out between the two columns of ships and avoided any collision. We were unable to keep up with the convoy and they kept right on going and were soon out of sight.
As soon as we saw that we were clear of the convoy we throttled down the engines to cruising speed and continued towards the British Coast as best we could. The sea was running high and we would heave and yaw so that there was no way we could steer a straight coarse. We had a very bad list to starboard because of the number of punctured voids and with just three people aboard there was no way we could have manned pumps and kept going at the same time. So we never felt very secure.
Sometime around midnight we saw a light approaching at a fairly high rate of speed and had no idea whether it was Allied or German so we just kept going. The ship proved to be an English Escort vessel and they maneuvered in close enough so that we could use "loudhalers" (amplifiers) to converse and they asked if we needed assistance and we told them the condition of our vessel and its engines. They radioed a British Corvette (the K-142) which was somewhere in the vicinity to see what they could do for us. The Corvette arrived about one half hour later and said they would take us in tow.
Getting a line across from the Corvette to us in that heavy sea was no small feat. Mikash and Brumley did their own thing trying to maneuver as close to the Corvette as possible and the Skipper up on the bow caught the small line that the Corvette shot over and it took all three aboard to haul the 4" diameter hawser that had to be pulled from the corvette to our LCT.
We learned a good lesson in seamanship from the British because they towed us all the way into Portland Harbor with no breaks. The hawser would go taut and then slack with the swells like a rubber band.
On July 7 after the Corvette towed us into Portland Harbor and cast us adrift Mikash and Brumley maneuvered the ship to a harbor buoy alongside the LCT 211 (which was also in for repairs) and the Skipper handled the lines for mooring. Mikash and Brumley were just great at maneuvering the ship alone. No one stood on any ceremony. We just did what had to be done. The members of the crew who had been aboard the LST 58 returned to the ship later in the day and on July 18 those members who had been assigned to the CB Camp returned to the ship. They had come over on an LSD (Landing Ship Drydock) which had brought the LCT 640 over inside its drydocking facility.
On July 19 the US Navy Tugboat 638 towed the LCT 638 and the LCT 210 to Dartmouth and then on to Plymouth on the July 20. We moored at Commercial Wharf there at the Hoe where we stayed until August 6. On that date two LCMs came alongside and towed us to the drydock and the ship was slowly pulled up out of the water on rails and repairs were started. The crew were given 8 day leaves to London half the crew leaving in the first 8 days and the other half during the 2nd 8 days. Ensign Schwartz was transferred to the base in Plymouth leaving Ens.Graham the sole Officer.
Repairs were completed on August 25 and the ship was moved to the graving dock where topside painting and minor repairs were completed. On August 30 we moved to the Royal William Victualating Yard for deperming and on the August 31 to C buoy in Plymouth Sound for Ranging and the finding is that the deperming was not done properly so on September 3 we go back Royal William again for another deperming and on September 5 through the degaussing Range again and find that the compass checks out OK. Then to Turnchapel Hard to take on fuel and water and several Army trucks to be ferried to Cherbourg , France.
On September 6 we set sail for Cherbourg with Sub Chaser 1291 as escort vessel and guide and entered Cherbourg Harbor about 1400 hours on September 7. We beached at one of the hards and unloaded the trucks around 1900 and tied to a buoy in Petite Rade for the night. We left Cherbourg at 1100 hours on September 8 and arrived at Omaha Beach at 1630 reporting to the LCI 83 for further orders. From then until November 8 we unloaded everything imaginable from the steady stream of supply ships that shuttled from the UK and the USA. We landed troops (500 to 600 at a time), trailers, trucks, crated machinery, crated weapons, ammunition, weapons carriers, tanks, jeeps, barbed wire. camouflage nets, liquor, cigarettes, typewriters, engineering supplies, spare parts, steel pipe, hospital supplies and food.
On September 24 Ens. Charles E. Lilly reported aboard as Relief Officer.
On October 3 another huge storm stopped beach unloading and we laid to inside the artificial breakwater until the storm subsided and on October 7 we were ordered to Isigny. As we were leaving the breakwater we were stripped of our bow ramp as we encountered a huge wave and we returned to the breakwater. On October 8 we were used as a tug to pull the LCTs 540 and 648 off the beach and on October 15 we beached and had a new ramp installed. On October 17 our mast was torn off coming alongside the LSI Monoway.
When all operations ceased on Omaha Beach (November 8) we had a seized port engine, five punctured voids (from hitting wrecks which were everywhere and unmarked), no ramp hooks to keep the ramp from breaking loose in a heavy sea (as before), no hot water facilities and the Officers Quarters were leaking in a heavy sea. On November 15 we beached and replaced the seized engine with a new one and set sail for the UK in a convoy of LCTs. Had water in the fuel problems and had difficulty keeping up with the convoy. Seas were rough and we pulled into the Isle of Wight for the night and on into Portland Harbor next day. On the 17th proceeded to Salcomb, England which is to be our base and we start cleaning the ship and repainting above the waterline.
On November 30 Ens. Graham was relieved as O-in-C with orders to return to the States and Ensign C. E. Lilly was assigned O-in-C of the 638.
In early December 1945 LCT Flotilla 19 moved to Plymouth where repairs were made and where most were loaded on the decks of LSTs or Liberty Ships and returned to the States. LCT Flotilla 19 was disbanded at the end of December but the 638 was sent back to the French Coast in late December where it continued to unload units of Gen. Pattons Army and practiced bridging the Rhine River with LCTs unloading from the bow of one LCT to the rear of another. They never were actually used for this purpose and the 638 was returned to Plymouth, England in late February.
In March the 638 was dismantled into three sections and loaded aboard a Liberty ship with Gus Wyatt the only accompanying crew member. During the voyage the center section broke loose from its moorings on the deck of the Liberty Ship in foul weather and was moving back and forth creating a hazard to the ship and all aboard and it was decided to tilt and let it slide overboard into the ocean where it was sunk by shelling with the Liberty Ships 5 inch guns.
It can only be assumed that the remaining two sections were scrapped upon reaching the United States.
By: Joseph D. Graham
UPDATE: October 7, 2002
In a letter from Mr. Graham, he states that he found a photo of LCT 638 on the NavSource web site showing it beached on the Hungnam waterfront Korea, during the December 1950 evacuation. I also came across information from Jane's Fighting Ships 1970-1971 & 1972-1973 that she was in a group of LCU's 638,700, 779,1174,1225,1271, 1278 that where not stricken until 1958.
The 638's sister ship the 637 was known to have been in danang in 1967 during the Vietnam war as YFU 55 and as late as March 2000 she was said to now being used as a cargo boat in the Caribbean.
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