... from Melrose High to the invasion of Europe ...
Introduction: All of the Silverstringers were asked to write about some experience or memory they may have regarding World War II, whether or not they were in the military service. Many of us would never have written these stories without the request for a number of reasons. One of my personal hesitation is a loss of clear remembrance of names, dates, places and details after what is now over 55 years since I joined the U.S. Navy at the age of eighteen. On the other hand, I was involved in a small way in the Allied forces sea-to-land operations in the Italy-France theater which may be of interest to our readers.
It may also serve as a personal story for my children and a very large extended family and one daughter in particular, who will now know that I did not command an aircraft carrier. I told so many war stories - some true - to my six children while they were growing up that I might have left out minor details. (JFD)
The Landing At Napoleon's Island Of Elba
After graduating from Melrose High School in June 1942, I signed up for the Army Air Force shortly after my eighteenth birthday, November 20. After waiting until the first of the year to be called up, I finally decided to join the Navy - which I did in February 1943. After basic training and school, I was assigned to the Amphibious Corps and ended up on a Landing Craft Tank, or LCT. After receiving training at Solomon's Island, MD and Little Creek, VA, I was assigned to a new LCT 554 in February 1944. In March we sailed from Philadelphia to Oran, North Africa aboard a Landing Ship Tank (LST), which carried our landing craft secured on its main deck. From Oran, our crew of one officer and ten crew members proceeded to Naples, Italy under our own power, stopping over at Bizerte, Tunisia and Palermo, Sicily.
Thousands of the GI's who hit the beaches of Europe and the Pacific islands rode in on LSTs, LCIs and LCTs, built for this war. The 505, pictured here, was a prototype, author Jim Driscoll said, but exactly like the LCT he ran from ship to shore in the Italy-France area of operation. That Landing Craft-Tank was about 200 feet long, 60 feet wide and hauled everything from personnel to howitzers to Sherman tanks -- and including medical supplies, food and ammo.
At this time, which was around April, the army was fighting at the Anzio beachhead, having landed there on January 22, 1944. Our unit was sent to Anzio to help unload supplies from Liberty ships out at sea and bring them into the beaches in the area. We were able to disperse the supplies and equipment quickly because our ramp could be dropped right on the sand. (Official documents indicate that over 500,000 tons of supplies were unloaded at this site by LST's and LCT's.) These tasks were carried out despite heavy air and artillery attacks, including fire from a railway gun named "Anzio Annie".
Exiled To Elba
In late June, our craft was pulled out of Anzio and sent south to Salerno (which was the site of the original landing in Italy) for special maneuvers and training. At this location, we practiced landing procedures with military troops from a variety of countries; England, Ireland, French ex-patriots, African Sengalese, etc.
Already a tested Navy veteran at age 19, Jim Driscoll finagled a brief shore leave to visit his older sister, Kay, somewhere in Italy, in July, 1944.
One personal highlight: my sister Kay, an Army captain in the 2nd Auxiliary Surgical Group was located near Rome, in Sparanesi. Somehow she found out where I was and we met for the first time in three years. Her story appears in the "Melrose Mirror" by Don Norris, under the caption "The Kay Driscoll Bistany Story".
Later in July 1944, the special multi-national team was ordered to sail to Ajaccio, Corsica on the west side of that island. The practices continued with more emphasis on sailing and landing in the dark. After about 2 weeks, we received our order: proceed to Bastia on the east Corsica coast and prepare for an amphibious operation. After spending a full day loading armored trucks, ammunition and other supplies, we formed a small convoy outside of the harbor. The following early morning we were on our way for the unique landing on the historic island of Elba. This area actually served as an extensive radar and communications installation for the Germans. It became critical that this facility be put out of commission before undertaking the invasion of Southern France.
As it turned out, the actual battle for Elba was short-lived. By the time we landed in early morning, an advance group of the multi-national troops had established a beachhead and were moving well inland. The only noise heard was from small arms fire; some of the buildings were also burning. By the end of the day, the soldiers were bringing back German prisoners, who were herded onto our ship's deck to be returned to Bastia.
Interestingly enough, the events that followed were very tense and in retrospect quite dangerous. The soldiers surrounding the prisoners were ex- patriots, presumably originally from France and did not speak English. Somewhat agitated and "hyper", they began to rough up the prisoners and prod them with bayonets, drawing blood in some cases. Our officer in charge, who was a former schoolteacher in his mid-thirties, tried to calm them down without much success. Fortunately, the captain in charge of the unit came on board at this exact moment and the crisis past. I was standing next to our commanding officer and knew he was considering pulling his pistol out of his holster and I often think about what could have happened. I knew for a fact that our leader had never fired a gun in his life.
Invasion Of Southern France - The Circle Completed
August 15, 1944 - Off The Coast Of Southern France
It was just 5:30 a.m. and I was just waking up after sleeping about four hours. We had been sailing all night from Anzio, Italy in a convoy of other similar landing crafts. We had no official word of where we were going, although we could guess. When I came out on deck, I looked about - not a cloud in the sky - the ocean was crystal clear and the water was very calm.
Our LCT was loaded with army trucks, jeeps and soldiers; everyone was alert, excited and looking around in every direction and overhead. As far as the eye could see, there were small landing crafts of various sizes and shapes, circling and waiting; plus LST's, LCI's and LCT's loaded with men and supplies probably no more than a mile or two from shore. Beyond these amphibious units were the larger naval vessels, ships designed for the major operations in modern warfare, which provided the firepower for such invasions; i.e. battleships, cruisers, destroyers. Suddenly, the noise became deafening as the shelling began from the naval armada. It was an awesome sight and feeling as you finally realized that the invasion of Southern France had truly begun. This was not only D-day, but also H-hour.
Within the next hour, our orders came to move forward. As quartermaster on the LCT, I was steering the craft and fully appreciated the calm waters with very little surf. We headed directly towards the shore at St. Tropez , one of the three landing sites, all along the beautiful Riviera. As we neared the beach, we could actually see the beautiful villas rising among trees less than a half mile from the landing site. Some were on fire, probably the result of strafings from the planes that made pre-dawn bombing runs along the targeted areas.
As we proceeded, there was very little opposition. A small jetty or pier jutted out on our right side and there was some firing from that direction. The LCT's had two 20 millimeter gun placements mounted, primarily for anti- aircraft purposes. An attempt was made to return the fire; however, our trajectory level was too high and the shooting was halted. The main concern was hitting our own troops who were trying to establish the beachhead. One of the great challenges in handling landing crafts (flat-bottomed and with no keel) is that they will hit rough surfs, sandbars or planted obstructions. We had none of these problems, and we were right on target in hitting the beach where we should and on time.
The rest of that day and the days that followed were a blur. It was a constant cycle of going back and forth 24 hours a day between the beach and cargo ships, picking up supplies that were usually deposited on the LCT's by cargo nets and delivering to the shore. The major items were vehicles of all sizes and shapes, ammunition, food and medical supplies. At first, everyone ate and slept on a catch-as-can basis; later the pace slackened and our daily patterns became more uniform. After a period of four or five weeks, we were sent to Marseilles, where we continued to unload cargo ships. By this time, the army forces were moving rapidly through France and the threat of bombings and shellings in this area were pretty remote. There was some trouble with the local natives - but that's another story for another time.