Cruising the Med, seeing Europe from the bridge of an LCT
... a young sailor grows up quickly during World War II
A conversation with the Editors.
Editors' note: It was just before Christmas and six of us, all SilverStringers, were sitting around my living room in Melrose having coffee and sandwiches. The occasion was an interview of three in our group who had served in the armed forces during World War II: Jim Driscoll, a sailor in the European Theater; Russ Priestley, an army test pilot, and Bob Ross, who served as a radioman aboard a destroyer in the Pacific.
All together, these three vets spent six years within shooting distance of the enemy, yet none of them pulled a trigger in the duration. Bombs and shells landed nearby regularly, and in one case, a kamikaze plane barely missed the bridge, brushing the bow of Ross's destroyer with its lethal load.
Ironically, a fourth veteran of this action, whose story appears in this special section, is the sister of Driscoll. We urge readers to see the story on Kay Driscoll Bistany, a shock-team nurse who was right behind the lines all through Italy and France. Kay has an outstanding story.
And while each of those three had previously supplied stories for publication in the current series on World War II, the editors thought they could bring out more of what it was like during those war years in a direct interview.
Present are Driscoll, Priestley and Ross, and editors Kay McCarte, Virginia Hanley and Don Norris. This is the third of four parts, concentrating on the story of Jim Driscoll, who spent most of his wartime career as an 18-year old NCO aboard a Navy LCT -- a hulking flat-bottomed boat whose mission was to tranfer cargo and people from ship to shore, before, during and after the invasions of Europe. The conversation was tape recorded and edited for continuity:
The interview with Jim --
DN: What amazes me is that you have this map in your article and it goes from Oran all the way along about 800 miles along the coast of North Africa. Did you drive the LCT that distance?
Jim: Yes, but I'll qualify that a little bit. We went from Oran to Bizerte, which is in Algeria, I guess, it's the northern tip city closest to Sicily. When we left Bizerte to go to Palermo, Sicily, we had to be towed. That's rougher water and it's pretty open water, but from Palermo, Sicily from then on we were on our own, under our own power.
Bob: What kind of ship towed you?
Jim: It was a regular tug and it was one of the toughest rides we ever had because the LCT is built in three pieces and welded with flat bottom and it buckles like that (Jim uses his hands to indicate that his ship bends midship).
Russ: Built by a committee!
Jim: Yeah, and, of course, the front doesn't have a bow. It has a ramp so that you don't cut through waves, you bash 'em, or they bash you, might be a better way to describe it. This tug was moving and, boy, it was the closest I got to being seasick in all the time I was on the ocean. Was that a ride!
DN: How long was that ride? From Bizerte to --
Jim: To Palermo, which is the northern tip of Sicily, I have no idea.
DN: A couple of days?
Jim: Oh, no. I would say daylight, like from 6 in the morning and we were there before supper.
DN: And what did you find at Palermo? Was the invasion already complete?
Jim: Yeah. This is, let's say April of 1944, by that time the allies had taken Sicily, they had landed in Salerno, which was the first landing on the European shore in Italy and they were up in Anzio by this time. We were at Palermo, and I had one funny story.
Because they had very few personnel - the Navy Base was very small - when it came time for shore patrol, they used to go to the different ships that were in the harbor and recruit. Just by luck I was recruited to be a member of the Shore Patrol, which means that you put the SP Band on, they give you a billy club and we went down into the center of Palermo. We'd never been there before, only spent about a week there anyhow, and we were just walking up and down the street and all of a sudden there was shooting and we said, "What in God's name is this?" So we scooted away, we had no weapons, and what it was, was the Mafia! They had their own little war there and we happened to be in the area when they started firing at each other. So, that was one little experience.
Also Palermo had a USO, where the servicemen could go. I guess most of them were Navy, but there were a few Marines.
Jim: So they put the two of us who were the Shore Patrol guys in there for the rest of the day and, of course, what could we do, they kept offering us drinks, so we had a few beers, we didn't get drunk or anything. At the end of the day, at 8 or 9 o'clock, it was nighttime, we were brought back to our ship -- which, really I use the word ship but it was a craft, along with other Shore Patrol fellows who were volunteers for the day, plus some guys who were in the brig, and they were going back to their ship and they threw them in with us. One of them was 6 foot 6, half stiff, sits right next to me, mean as can be and he kept elbowing me, yelling, you know, and I said, "Gee, I got to take a stand here somewhere." I was sorry they didn't give me that billy club to come home with. Well, didn't the truck stop dead, and the driver came out and said, "Listen you, you're going to be right out, back in jail, if you don't keep your mouth shut." The driver was 6 foot 7. This other guy was a pipsqueak when you came right down to it, but I tell you I had sore sides for a while. That was the one experience I can remember in Palermo.
DN: Why was he hitting you, because you had the SP Band on?
Jim: Nooo! He was just mean and he was half drunk and had a hangover and was hitting the person on the other side of him, too.
DN: So, let's see, what were your living conditions on this craft? It seems to me that it's awfully small - how many guys in the crew?
Jim: Basically, ten, sometimes we had as many as fourteen, one or two officers. When we got into combat situations we had two officers, but usually just one. Marvelous living conditions because with so few people, a small craft, being next to shore all the time, we were able to get food, If we ever needed fresh vegetables, we could go to an LST or, the kind of a ship you were on, Bob, and they would give us anything, all kinds of food -- we had our own cook, our own kitchen area --
Bob: And they did their own baking and everything.
Jim: That's right.
DN: On an LCT you had your own --
Jim: We had our own cook and kitchen area, and we were a favorite of the soldiers. We dealt quite a bit with the soldiers because we were always right on shore or going back out to a supply ship to bring whatever equipment in. Many times they were with us, because if there was a jeep or vehicle, they were the ones who drove it in or off, and, of course, they loved to come to see us.
Bob: You took their jeep on board when you went over?
Jim: I should put it another way -- most of the time they were being taken off a supply ship and the jeep would be on our craft in order to bring it in to shore. We were the last line of getting materials onto the land.
Bob: You ate good.
DN: Well, didn't you on the destroyer.
Bob: Oh, yeah. Rotten lamb and when we got green bugs crawling all over, we ate the bugs, it didn't make no difference, and oatmeal with maggots in it - you know how those little things in oatmeal, they cooked the oatmeal and you sat there and ate. When you were lucky enough to get fresh vegetables --
DN: You should have stayed in the European Theater while you had a chance.
Jim: Yeah, there were nice people there.
DN: You went from Palermo to --
Jim: Right to Naples as sort of a catch-all place, while we got our instructions, got new equipment and so forth, and from there we went to Anzio.
DN: At Naples, this was allied territory at that time?
DN: And then you went to Anzio and the battle was -- what?
Jim: The invasion of Anzio started in January, 21st or 22nd, 1944. This was probably - and I'm guessing about this - around the end of April or the first of May. When they first invaded Anzio, they had no real trouble. They went about 15 miles and stopped and about a month later the Germans came back at them and almost blew them off the beach. They stopped them, the Allies stopped them. We came in right after that - it was kind of settled by the time we got there.
DN: Were you guys taking any fire from any aircraft?
Jim: It was interesting - the Germans were like this - exactly at the same time every morning and at the same time every night they would come through and strafe the beach. You knew they were coming.
Jim: I have no idea - I'm assuming that. There was also artillery coming most of the time over us out to the larger ships that were in the harbor, so we could see it, but we were never a part of it.
Jim: They came in fairly low. After a while we started putting balloons up off of the ships, off of the landing crafts, so that they couldn't get too low. As a matter of fact, we had 20 millimeter antiaircraft guns on the landing craft and, to my knowledge, we never got a plane, but we got three or four balloons. (Laughter, ribald comments).
Bob: Did you have any 40 Millimeters, too?
Jim: No, I think the LSTs had the 40s.
Bob: We used to have 20s, they're too little, we got rid of them. The 40 millimeter is about as big as my hand.
DN: Oh, so you guys were firing 20 millimeter machine guns.
Jim: Yes. But as I say -- in all honesty, it was a joke.
DN: You were too far away?
Jim: They were so fast - as I say, we did catch a couple of balloons.
DN: Where was your boat at the time this strafing was taking place?
Jim: Usually right on the beach.
DN: So they were shooting at you.
Jim: Well, they were more or less shooting, I would say, another 50 yards in.
DN: Where the supplies had been unloaded.
Jim: Yes, they were trying to get ammunition, too. If they could do that they could blow it up. A couple of times that did occur. We were never in serious trouble there.
DN: So nobody on your boat got hurt?
Bob: The Germans sound like the Japanese, you could count on when they were going to come over. Everyday at sunup and everyday at sunset they were there.
DN: I think I would load my gun about 4 o'clock in the afternoon and sit there and wait.
Bob: You got a job to do, too. Let me ask you, when you got to GQ - I guess you went to GQ -
Jim: If by that you mean General Quarters, - they yelled it - that's how small the craft was.
DN: Did you ever fire that 20 millimeter?
Jim: Oh, yeah!
DN: Were you the guy that was shooting balloons?
Jim: No, No. I was shooting later on, when we got into the Southern France story - I'll tell about that later. But I did want to tell you another little interesting story about the difference between the soldiers and the navy men.
As I mentioned, many times they would be gathered around our craft we'd be having coffee, etc. If there was an airraid, they would take off back to their bivouack, and if we were on land, we would shoot back to the craft, even though one or the other may have been more dangerous. You had an instinct to go back to your own. There was one night - we had to be sort of on guard because there was always the warning about paratroopers, so that we had to take turns staying out on guard right where the ramp dropped - and one night I'm standing there, just sort of walking back and forth and trying to keep limber, all of a sudden I got a tap on the shoulder. Well, honest to God, I was just paralyzed, and I looked up and here was this huge, black Senegalese soldier and where he came from I don't know. He says, "Got a match, sailor"? That's all he wanted.
JH: But he spoke English?
Jim: Oh, Yeah, a very handsome guy.
DN: So you were carrying a what? a 45 with you on guard duty?
Jim: Yeah. I never got near it.
Bob: Who did you take your orders from?
Jim: Well, we only had, as I say, we're talking about14 enlisted men and one or two officers.
DN: A Lieutenant JG
Bob: Oh, OK, so you worked off of an LST or something? You were part of a group.
Jim: LCT - that's a smaller one.
Bob: Who was your parent, and LSD or you didn't have one.
DN: It sounds to me like you were an independent group, is that right?
Jim: We were to an extent but he's right, we were getting orders from somebody - I mean the Lieutenant was getting orders from someone, like on the LST, but I can't remember.
Kay: You did what you were told, what he told you to do.
Bob: We were the peons, it was none of our business.
Jim: The most amazing thing is the whole concept of these amphibious crafts, starting with the LST, the LCT, the LCI, which was primarily a landing craft for infantry - they were geared to that, they had two ramps on each side for the infantry to debark right on to land, they hoped, and the LCT was for medium sized vehicles, small tanks, all types or armored trucks and infantry, too, and the LST which is probably the most remarkable vehicle as a landing ship tank - huge - and it had again - it didn't have a flat bottom like an LCT, it had an oval bottom. I went across both ways, both going to Europe and back, on an LST - unbelievable. That ship, actually, when you're going ahead it would shift, like this, you could almost lean over and dip water - that's how - imagine being on a huge ship --
DN: How the hell did you stay on board?
Jim: Well, there were many very interesting stories about that. First of all, many of us used to tie ourselves into the bunk at night --
Bob: Yeah, even on the can.
Jim: -- and the eating hall, it was called the mess hall - in order to get to the mess hall you had to go down a set of stairs.
Jim: Ladder. And, with the ship going like this, you can imagine, you're going sideways down, and you're actually going forward and back. When the ladder gets wet those guys were flying up against the wall coming down the stairs if you weren't careful. And then I'm sure on the destroyer the same, the mess hall became a mess, food was all over the place -
Bob: You couldn't eat - we had soup for days, the tables were secured - you would go down and the old soup urn, you know the one they cooked all the soup in, all we had was soup so you go by and you grab a cup and you'd go out and stand and you'd hang on here and you'd eat breakfast that was soup, every meal was soup because you couldn't sit down to eat.
Jim: But think about the amphibious element - this was the first war that they were required because in all other wars you at least had a foothold on land, like in Europe we had France or Italy. In this war we had to get to it by way of water to get on to the different nations, so it was a whole different ballgame, so these were unique vehicles, they really were.
DN: Let's see, you went from Anzio over to Corsica to train for an invasion of Elba?
Jim: Yes, we trained on Corsica, on the western part of the island.
DN: And then what did you do? You said you had international troops. What do you mean by international, what countries were involved.
Jim: Well, first of all, we had English sailors and Irish and then there were, strangely enough, some Senegalese, from Africa. I don't know why but they were in the service in many areas. Then there was a group they called gooks - you hate to use the name because you don't know who you're insulting, but they were from North Africa, they were like nomads, and to me they seemed to be mercenaries - they had no real loyalty to anybody. The interesting thing about them is they took their women with them and the women came in on an LST -- where they came from I don't know-- and we unloaded them -- and how did they unload? in a cargo net! Here they are -- I can still see them coming down with legs sticking out - that's the way they unloaded them from the LST down to us and we brought them on shore where they had a penned in area and that's where the women went. There were guards around there. Now why there were guards, believe me, I don't know. Obviously, the only ones who went in there were the mercenaries, but they weren't the most attractive women for us, you know.
DN: Were there no French in this group?
Jim: Yes, there were also French and some of them did speak English, some of them had been in France and had gone to North Africa and had lost the war there. They were coming back and that's why I remember a little incident we had on the island of Elba, which could have been a real incident.
Well, the troops were a mixed group - They also had some, what is the group they call who go in early - scuba - Seals - they pretty much took over the harbor very quickly. When we went in to Elba from Corsica, it took only an hour to get there, and we were there by daybreak and the island was almost completely taken over by the troops that went in at 3 in the morning - only thing we heard was some small gun fire, small arms.
We unloaded what was on our craft. I just generally remember it was some armored trucks, ammunition and some soldiers, and so forth, and there were some buildings that were burning. I think we went back once to Bastia, which is on the east side of Corsica to pick up more supplies and brought them back, but by that time it was afternoon and we started bringing the prisoners on to our craft.
DN: What was on Elba that they wanted?
Jim: This was a very sophisticated communications and radar station for the Germans. Because they had the island, they were able to sweep through and see all the area around there - if there was any troop movement or anything like that, they were able to see it. So we wanted to get rid of that before we actually had the invasion of Southern France.
But this is the interesting thing. The soldiers brought back the prisoners. Now these prisoners were not your elite type of Germans you hear about. These are men in their 40s and 50s, technicians, and they are just scared to death, of course, and they are just pushing onto the craft.
DN: How many?
Jim: I would say 20 to 25, and these mercenaries started pushing them around; they started to get hyped up and pushing them and batting them and then a couple of them used their bayonets and actually just jabbed the guys - they didn't go right through, just being mean, you know. We had an officer who was a school teacher, a real nice gentleman, the fellow who was in charge. We were on top of the bridge and we were watching this and I can see this is kind of a tricky situation, so the officer started to unbuckle his holster and I thought, Oh, Jeez, we've got something going. Just at that point, it couldn't have been a more timely thing, the guy in charge of all these soldiers was out on land and he came on and saw what they were doing and he shut them right off. But, as I said in the article I wrote, I thought about that many times that if this officer, the school teacher, who had never used that gun before, I know that, if he had ever taken that gun out, I don't know what in God's name would have happened. These guys were nuts, believe me. They had no loyalty to us, they didn't even know us, we were a vehicle for whatever they were doing, so that was one of those touchy situations we got away with.
DN: And then where did you go after that?
Jim: Well, it wasn't long after that - that must have been in July, because August 15th, I know, was the invasion of Southern France, I remember that date, 1944 This showed in its most dramatic way that the war had shifted because I mentioned in the article that we left from Anzio. It may have been Naples because we had to have all the supplies - I'm' not sure, but it was in the general vicinity. It took us all night to cross in to the Southern France area which is, you know how Southern France is, fairly wide, and you've got Monaco on this side and then you've got the Riviera and Marseille. We went dead straight into the Riviera in three different groups and each one of them was a famous resort town. I can only remember San Tropez.
JH and DN: Nice and Cannes.
Jim: Those were the three places they picked. It was the most remarkable thing. I had been steering all night and I went to bed for a while. When I woke up it was just about daybreak and to get up in the morning and look around and see, first of all it was quiet - it was absolutely quiet, there had been some shooting earlier, but the water was like glass, the sky was completely blue and as far as you could see around, there were crafts and ships of different sizes - all the way back as far as your eye could see to the big cruisers and battleships.
DN: And where were you when you woke up?
Jim: We were no more than two miles away from the shore - the Riviera.
DN: Did you get your bathing suit out?
Jim: Not at that moment, but it was a proof, number one, of the difference between the invasion from England, where the water was such a big factor. In the Channel there was such turbulent water, where they could take an LCT and virtually throw it up on the beach with the tides, sideways. That''s how tough some of the tides were that the LCTs had to cope with. For the LCIs, for some reason, it was even harder, because they were trying to keep the craft straight to the land, and, of course, they had all kinds of obstructions in the Channel, in Normandy, and we had none. We went right in to clear beach.
DN: And you had Germans lined up along the boulevard?
Jim: The Germans, by that time, except for a few scattered areas, were gone. They left all of their equipment right there and took to the hills.
Bob: Some of these beaches you went to, did they have the pylons and everything out there to prevent you from going in?
Jim: No, they didn't. None of the beaches we were at - No.
Bob: They had a lot of underwater obstructions some places, didn't they?
Jim: Mostly in the Normandy areas.
DN: And down here on the Riviera, when you guys hit the beach, you found the soldiers' gear there - didn't you say they pulled out a month earlier, or two months earlier, for the invasion of Normandy?
Jim: See, this is the time they had too many fronts to fight, they couldn't keep them all because the Americans, once they hit France from the south part, just swept right through. They virtually could go as fast as they could walk.
DN: And your sister was with them?
Jim: She was on the beach to the right of me and I never saw her, of course. Her story is in the Kay Driscoll Bistany story. (Included in this WWII series).
DN: She was there on D-Day?
Jim: I think she said D plus 3.
DN: So when you landed you didn't get to sun yourself on the beach?
Jim: I don't recall ever going into the town, we were so busy going back and forth. We kept continuously unloading supplies from the different ships.
DN: What did you do for the next year?
Jim: We went to Marseille and continued to unload supplies. Marseille is a harbor and you had to go through the breakwall out to the larger ships and then get back in through there. It was kind of tricky because the water was pretty rough beyond the breakwater. The only thing I remember about Marseille - we were there about a month - is that we had quite a bit of problems with the natives - the French people.
DN: You mentioned that before. Are you talking about Mafia again?
Jim: No. That may have been part of it but, from our viewpoint, it was recommended to us that we not go into town because that would probably be the Mafia --
Jim: And some of the servicemen did go into Marseille and a few of them had trouble - liked they got killed and that sort of thing. The other thing about the French - they were hired to unload our craft, put the supplies on trucks and so forth. They complained so much, even though they were getting paid, they went on strike. That's the actual truth. They wouldn't work until they got such and such and I don't know how that ever worked out.
But another thing was that further inland, up in the hills, the trucks bringing supplies to the front were being hijacked. Those weren't Italians, they were French. The only other part I'd add to this was that sometime in November we left Marseille and, on our own power went back to Oran, which was quite a trip as far as open water was concerned. What we didn't know, and it didn't make any difference, a ship with a deeper draft couldn't have done it because they had mine fields there, but we were so shallow it didn't make any difference.
Bob: They knew it was a mine field and they still sent you there
Jim: Yes, but they say they knew that we didn't draft enough water.
DN: Where were the mine fields, in Oran?
Jim: No, between Corsica and the islands off Spain.
Bob: Did you have to shoot the mine if any were floating?
Jim: I don't remember that happening, but it kind of rings a bell, but I can't remember.
Bob: When you said mine field, we used to have a man on the forecastle with a weapon and if he saw a mine he would shoot it.
DN: What did he shoot them with, a 40?
Bob: A rifle. Well, he'd start out and then they'd turn about and then they'd shoot it with a 20mm.
Jim: Speaking of 20 mms, going in for the landing in Southern France, there was sort of a jetty that was sticking out and there was a nest of some type of artillery there, I don't know if it was 40 mm, or what but we tried to shoot back at it. We couldn't get the 20 mm gun down low enough, everything was going over. We were afraid of shooting some of our own so we stopped.
Then we went back to Oran. We were put back onto an LST and went home and I don't remember it. I don't remember the trip back. Even the trip from Marseille to Oran is almost gone.
DN: You came back before the war was over?
Jim: Oh, yes. There was a war going on the other side, you know.
Bob: Do you remember when you came through the -
Jim: The Strait of Gibraltar? The only thing I can remember is March, April of '45 --
Bob: But you were on full alert when you went through there.
Jim: Oh yes, we had some bombings - we lost a couple of ships coming through and, again, I have to tell one more 20 mm story. We were on top of an LSD - we have the 20mm guns so when they had the alarm our gunners, quote/unquote, were sent up there to shoot again and the kid, he was about 18 years old, I remember he was so scared --
DN: How old were you?
Jim: I was 18, an old man, he was to afraid to shoot the gun - he froze, absolutely froze.
DN: Really - and what was his target, an airplane?
Jim: There was an air raid coming over at all the ships. I guess we lost a couple in a kind of screen. The LCT was on top of the LST. And he was on top there, looking at that sky and he just couldn't pull the trigger.
DN: So, when this air raid was going on, what was you duty?
Jim: At that time I was one of the group that was steering the LST, which was quite an experience because I didn't do it before we got on board, so that was an experience.
Russ: The Steering Committee.
Jim: And going back, maybe I did, too. I don't remember.
Jim: I think we had two of the Higgins boats on the sides of ours, so no wonder it tipped. And then, just to finish my story, when I came back and had a leave around Christmas time, we went back to Norfolk and we trained new recruits coming in and I did that for 3 or 4 months and then I was on my way to Japan, in that direction when the war ended.
Jim: We never got beyond -- I think we went down to Jacksonville - we never got beyond that.
Bob: What were you going to do at Jacksonville?
Jim: I don't know for sure whether we were going to go through the same thing again - being put on top of an LST and go through the Panama Canal.
February 3, 1999