USS LST 279, USN
I have often been asked what was it that prompted me to join the Navy and my answer is always the same. I loved the uniform, and wanted to serve my country wearing it, and at the same time, take advantage of,- and the opportunity - to further my interests in aviation mechanics. The reality of that decision follows. The realization of the truth came years later.
Three months into my seventeenth year, having gotten my parents permission and some misguided advice from a number of friends already in the service, I enlisted in the Navy (V6 USNR) That was December, 1943. The aptitude tests I had taken before signing up ,inferred that after boot camp at Sampson, NY. I would be assigned to the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Fla. for aviation machinist school. I was a senior at the Manhattan High School of Aviation Trades (NY) and this seemed like the opportunity of a young life. . As a matter of fact, I was so anxious that I waived graduation to take advantage of the deal. Boot camp was accelerated to only four weeks, followed by a short leave, then back to OGU. Once there, I waited for my assignment to Pensacola. Meanwhile, each day new lists of assignments were posted. Finally, after two weeks, my name came up for transfer. It had been selected randomly (every other name on the roster) for what was called Spur 86 headed for New York. I went to the guidance counselor for a deferral, but to no avail. I was told that that group was in fact going to Little Creek, VA for amphibious training and that once there, I could request consideration for aviation machinists school. What happened next is almost unbelievable, but I am living proof that it is true.
Spur 86 and several other drafts, (a total of about 1600 men), were billeted on pier 92 in the Hudson River awaiting transportation to Virginia. For two weeks, we waited aimlessly. There was no one in charge and no one seemed to know what we were doing there, when we would leave or what was to become of us. The Queen Mary docked at the adjacent pier to begin loading troops bound for Europe. In the days that followed, we were issued khaki combat gear including boots, helmet, heavy outerwear, gas masks and survival equipment, then one afternoon, without prior notice, without even a check of the roster, and without an opportunity to say goodbye to our friends, our entire group was marched unto the Queen Mary with an army regiment. It was Palm Sunday, 1944. That evening we were underway and 4 days later arrived in Scotland. For 3 more days we lingered on the ship as she lay at anchor in the Firth Of Ford, awaiting direction that would explain our being there. When, finally we disembarked, we were taken to an un-used CeeBee camp in Roseneath. Our seabags did not follow us. We had no change of clothing, not to mention a place to sleep, other than on raw, rusty springs without bedding, and as we were to find out in the next couple of hours, no provision to feed us. A Red Cross truck came by the next morning and passed out K-rations. Two or three days later, our seabags were delivered and we began to organize ourselves into groups of 16 or so based on the number of bunks in a quonset hut. Still, there was no Naval officer or anyone else in charge. We had no regular mess. The Red Cross, or the Army, came once a day to feed us (C-rations). Finally, after two weeks of unsupervised free time officers came upon the scene and asked for a hundred volunteers for a decidedly dangerous, but heroic detail, promising all who volunteered a quick return to the States and in most cases, meritorious and promotional rewards. (The fate of those volunteers and especially of a dear boot camp friend of mine, is quite another story). Eventually Naval bureaucracy caught up with us and each day new lists were posted assigning us alphabetically to specific groups and told to stand by for further direction. We didnt know it then, but our group, sixteen of us, was assigned to an LST and when all the group selections were made, we were boarded on a train to Southhampton, England, where we were to meet our assigned ships,- again, without provision for mess other than a K-ration to tide us over. The trip took two days ! We arrived in the early AM and were herded into a large fenced in field, there to await transfer to our ships. The problem was that the ships could not come into the hards until night fall because of security reasons and we, of necessity, had to remain in the field without cover until then. It was cold and damp. it rained and drizzled and somewhere beyond sight but within hearing, anti aircraft guns popped and bombers droned. There were no meals and the day seemed to last forever,- - for us, truly - the Longest Day.֨ At one AM we were driven to the harbor and watched as a big lumbering, clumsy looking ship made its way in the darkness onto the hard concrete ramp. As it approached, its bow opened up and a massive loading ramp came down. It was quite a sight, I had never seen anything like it before nor had I had any idea of what it was. I was amazed! At two AM we went on board exhausted, relieved that at last we were where we were supposed to be. And surprise of all surprises, awaiting us, in spite of the hour, were hot showers and a turkey dinner. The Captain welcomed us aboard and explained that he was aware of our ordeal and sorry for the delay in bringing the ship in. He had ordered the cooks to prepare the special dinner and directed the chief engineer to open the fresh water showers just for us. To make our welcome complete he advised and allowed us to sleep in till mid day. And so it was, that we became shipmates of, and part of the crew of the LST 279. The concern and compassion of the captain (Lt. James T. Beard) had created a bond that night between his new crewmen, ships company and his ship, that lasted through-out the entire European tour of duty.
Years later, matured and mellowed, the realization of reality became apparent. The unexplained and outwardly hap-hazzard schedule of events in those months before June 6th, was probably part of an overall deception conjured up to insure secrecy and the success of operation "Overlord", otherwise known as D Day. With that in mind, I can readily justify the inconveniences, (minor on my part). and believe the results more than justified the means.
The LST 279 was a Landing Ship Tank, a vessel designed to bring troops to landing beaches and unload them without the benefit of a harbor or dock. LST's were uniquely designed to load equipment both on the tank deck and the open main deck along with the troops assigned to the equipment they carried,. As many as 100 or 150 additional troops would be berthed in Troop compartments along the port side of the ship. . These were usually infantry and service companies. The tank crews and transportation crews slept in or under their service vehicles. The vehicles would be loaded and unloaded through an opening in the front of the ship, which had two doors and a ramp which was lowered to allow the vehicles to drive right into the Tank Deck. The main deck was accessed by an elevator on which vehicles could be moved between decks.
The vehicles and troops, once loaded, would be brought to the invasion beach and the LST would then wait its turn to go ashore. When the ship beaches, it goes in as the tide is receding and drops its stern anchor on the way. The stern anchor is a large anchor and cable attached to a huge winch under a gun tub at the very rear of the vessel. Paying out the anchor cable as it goes, the ship then proceeds straight onto the beach until it goes aground with the nose of the ship at or near the water's edge. The vehicles then unload by driving down the ramp and onto the beach. It would take some hours to unload both the Tank Deck and Main Deck vehicles. Once the ship is unloaded, she must wait for high tide to return. At the first sign of flotation, the stern anchor is hauled in and, with the aid of the engines in reverse, the anchor winch pulls the ship off the beach to an area it can safely turn around. For training, the LST 279 practiced this procedure many times after I joined her.
Less than a month after joining the LST 279, we had our first taste of combat. In early May we participated in beach invasion maneuvers on the west, south coast of England. Two LSTs were sunk by the German Eboats and/or submarines during that exercise. On our way back to Weymouth - Portland we were surrounded by English corvettes dropping depth charges to the right and left of us. This lasted about an hour but whether they got the sub or not, we never knew. A month after that, we were to be in the vanguard of the Normandy invasion.
However, a week or so before D Day, we bent a screw during a practice loading drill that set us aside from actual loading while we awaited a replacement. Meanwhile, on the evening of the 4th of June all the ships in the harbor of Southhampton and the Isle of Wight (except us) had gotten under way and as they left, a priest came aboard the 279 to celebrate a mass. I couldn't help but be glad we weren't going but surprise of all surprises, the next morning the ships were back in the harbor. A crane and crew of divers came to us and replaced our damaged screw. We then loaded up that late afternoon. When our charges were loaded, units of a Canadian armored regiment, we took our place in the flotilla headed for Juno Beach.
The Canadians were a very disciplined group. In the short times I had to observe them, they worked on their vehicles, organized their gear, wrote letters and gathered in little groups behind their trucks. On the tank deck, below, they sat on their tanks and armored carriers. They were not allowed to smoke there and in spite of all the tensions, none of them did, as far as I could tell. During the night, many of these Canadian GIs took advantage of the ship's open showers, I was told, and after ships company had breakfast our captain opened the mess to them and served a full course 'C' ration bruncheon, the likes of which they had not had in weeks or months. I do remember how grateful they reacted and comments to the fact that they should have joined the Navy. How True ! That same expression was heard on every crossing, no matter what the outfit.
Most of that trip was at night while I was off watch, so I slept through it. At 8 AM I went back on watch, the sea was rough, the wind strong, but the temps not too bad. I remember that because I was uncomfortable with all my foul weather and battle gear on. All around us, in every direction, as far as one could see, were ships of every size and description crowding each other along the long lines of the convoys. Overhead, hundreds of airplanes flew in a steady, droning stream towards the French coast. The nearer we got to the coast, the slower we approached.
The LST 279 arrived off Juno Beach at about 9 AM, June 6th, or maybe a little earlier. We stood by off shore and waited orders to beach.We were right under the trajectory of the battleship Texas as it shelled the flanks of Gold beach to our left. Just to the right and left of us were a couple of LSMs converted to multiple rocket firing platforms. Being under the trajectory of the battleships' big guns, with the boom and the air disturbance of the shells whizzing overhead, was frightening. And the swoosh of the rockets and the smell of explosives was sickening. Out of all of the awesomeness of the day, these were the most frightening moments for me.
The only enemy fire directed at us came while we waited to beach. It was from 88's somewhere far behind the dunes. It was very ineffective, most of the shells landed in the water harmlessly with one or two exceptions, hitting a small boat or kicking up a geyser near enough to wet the side of the ship. Except for some near misses from the shelling from shore, all went smoothly for the 279. I remember very distinctly thinking how glad I was to be a ships' crew member rather than among the GIs preparing to go ashore or for that matter, a German defending his turf. We would be leaving the area when the tide returned, they were just beginning a nightmare. I thanked God it wasn't me.
At 11 AM we moved toward shore to beach and unload. My job, as Seaman 1st class during the beaching operation was to relay information back up to the bridge from the lowered ramp, mainly depth soundings as taken by a boatswain mate with a sounding rod as we approached our ultimate contact with the beach. During this operation, the rod slipped from the Botswain's grip and began floating out of reach. I volunteered to swim after it and successfully retrieved it so that our sounding reports would continue. It wasn't 'till the ship was high and dry that we noticed objects all around it that might have contributed to a really hazardous situation. Soldier's knapsacks full of hand grenades, boxes of ammunition lodged in the sand and pieces of small boats jutting all about us.
For the rest of the morning and early afternoon, we continued to relay exit information of our cargo of vehicles as they drove off the ramp. By 2PM we were unloaded. All that remained was to stand by for high tide to return so we could float off the beach.
While we waited for high tide to return many of us strolled up the beach to see first hand what was happening on the other side of 'the wall'. The wall was a man made dune with a concrete cap, altogether about 10 or 12 feet high. While standing on the cap we could see tanks and other armored vehicles pouring thru' the breaks in the wall and scouring about in all directions away from the beach. All we could see were tanks, trucks, jeeps and utility vehicles of all kinds. Hundreds of them !
As we were standing off shore, I had thought that the troops were just beginning a nightmare. The proof came in the form of dozens of wounded soldiers that were loaded on board before we started our return to England.When we pulled off the beach, we converted the rear of our tank deck into a medical evacuation facility to handle wounded whomever they were, including prisoners. On this first of our trips back to Weymouth England from the Normandy beaches, we carried back well over 150 wounded.
Our duty then became bringing supplies to the Normandy beachhead. Our normal load would be armored or service vehicles on the Tank and Main decks, plus their crews, and up to 100 to 150 other men, service or infantry companies usually, in the berthing compartments on the port side of the ship. For the most part, these troops remained on board for two days and a night. We would load early in the AM, take about 4 or 5 hours to load then sail out in the afternoon to meet our convoy. Once on the French coast we waited for the beachmaster to assign us a specific landing area. Sometimes we stood by for a couple of hours just to await the best tide to unload. Unloading took about 4 hrs. depending on what equiptment was on board. Supply trucks usually took longer as did personel carriers. They were on the main deck, and had to be 'elevatored' down to the bow doors. Tanks and armored vehicles on the tank deck (more than 20 of them) were unchained and drove off quickly, straight out the bow doors and main ramp.
Altho' LST 279 was based in Portland/Weymouth she was often assigned to pick up it's load and passengers elsewhere. It was not uncommon to go to Plymouth or Falmouth, Southhampton, London or some other south coast embarking point adding a few hours to the trip. In the first couple of summer months, we averaged two round trips about every 10 or 11 days.
Some LST's were later equipt with railroad tracks welded to the tank deck which of course carried locomotives and rolling stock.. They were unloaded on special 'hards' created in LeHarve solely for thier use.
Weather on the English channel was unpredictable, sometimes so stormy as to fear capsizing. and almost always making our 'passengers' and crew seasick and woozy. A loaded LST in that weather would snap and vibrate, smash down on the waves and cause us all to worry about the ship breaking in two. Occasionally we had smooth crossings, bright clear moonlit nights and sun drenched days that were ideal conditions for Eboat and Uboat attacks which we experienced more than once. LST crews in southern England were on 'Hazardous Duty" pay (50%) in addition to sea pay (20%), the same as submarine crews. (All that extra pay went a long way on 'Liberty". We became part of the slogan, "Over Paid, Over Sexed and Over Here") We were given the same higher per capita food allowance as well as some relaxations of Naval regulations like undress blues for quarters, breakfast and supper. Navy dungarees and cambray shirts with black watch caps was almost always the uniform of the day. We were known as the Dungaree Navy.
In spite of the hardships of serving aboard an LST, there were rewards to balance them out, like fresh fruits, eggs and milk at breakfast and frequent liberties in new and exciting ports, like fresh showers every day, clean sheets and bedding twice a week. 'snack bars' open 24 hours a day, in port and under way. and most importantly, a sense of camaraderie amongst your ship mates and the amenities of good relations among officers and crew.
Entering the third week of operations in the great Normandy invasion, activity on both sides of the Channel was frantic. We, the LST 279, had just gotten back to Weymouth from our fourth shuttle trip, this time from Utah beach, carrying a hundred or more wounded GIs and some German prisoners. Because of the urgency and the need of its passengers, we were ordered directly onto a loading ramp to unload, then to reload in preparation for an immediate return trip. Unfortunately we came into the hard slightly askew, the bow ramp did not sit squarely on the concrete incline. Its front edge being under water hid this condition and it went unnoticed. Consequently the ramp became slightly warped from the stress of a dozen or more Sherman tanks lumbering on board. When the ship was fully loaded the problem was discovered, but a decision was made to proceed normally even though we had difficulty in dogging down the ramp and achieving watertight integrity. Obviously, the need far outweighed the perceived risk. Weather, at the moment, was not a factor, time and tide were !
As night fell, the fully loaded 279 met its convoy and began its trip back across the channel. Near midnight, however, she encountered severe weather, the onset of a surprisingly large and unexpected storm (the same storm that threatened the entire Normandy beachhead). Water began seeping into the tank deck from the poorly secured ramp, too much and too fast for our pumps to handle. It swooshed back and forth with great force against the tanks as the ship heaved and rolled in the rough seas. First one holding chain snapped, then another and yet another. A tank came loose and smashed into the one alongside it, soon followed by another. The storm raged on, becoming even more intense. We were tossed about mercilessly. More snapping chains, more loose tanks Each swell brought us closer to the realization that the 279 was in eminent danger of capsizing. The crew was helpless, could do nothing but pray and prepare to abandon ship. The captain, however, had the seamanship sense to break from the convoy and head into the wind. Knowingly or not, we were headed back to England and by morning were in sight of land. We sailed along the coast in somewhat calmer seas to Plymouth, the main US Naval base in England, where our damage was assessed, then assigned to a dry dock for emergency repairs. Here, we remained for the better part of ten days, a welcome respite from the tensions of the times. For me, it meant among other things, an opportunity to continue dental treatments started in boot camp. I was sent to the dental section at the American Naval hospital. While looking for the clinic, I wandered through one of the wards and was surprised to see one of my boot camp buddies propped up in his bed with a brand new Purple Heart together with a Medal of Merit pinned to his pajamas. A faint smile crossed his face when he recognized me and I took that to be a jovial gesture because his first words to me were that he was going home. I joked about it and wished him good luck, wished it was me. It was then that I realized he had lost his left leg above the knee. I was stunned and at a loss for words as he told me the whole story. He was one of a 100 volunteers back in Scotland, that were hurriedly trained to ferret out land mines and beach obstacles.They were to clear the way for small boats and the GIs coming ashore behind them by crawling up on the beach in the pre dawn hours of the first day. Their markers undoubtedly saved many, many GIs. However, of the 100 volunteers, 85 were casualties, most worse than he. That very morning, a Navy captain had pinned on his medals and promised him a quick return to the States. And to think that I had been worrying about having a few temporary fillings replaced ! I was totally embarrassed but in my solitude, I thanked God for looking over me and prayed for His continued protection.
While in drydock, the Navy disbursement office arranged our payday to include several pay periods of back pay, quite a sum for most of us ! By English standards, wealthy ! We took advantage of this by flaunting the wide pound notes out the side of our narrow American wallets. Typically, sailors on liberty wore their wallets folded over their waistbands, in front, under their jumpers in such a way as to attract female attention. It almost always worked.
On the occasion of our first liberty after pay day, I and a shipmate made the acquaintance of two young ladies (under the above circumstances) as we strolled the streets hoping for an exciting afternoon and evening. Unknown to us, they had been the companions of a couple of English marines from HMS King George VI in drydock next to us and had, as we were to find out later, left them after having seen our bulging our wallets. Seeing the girls with us, the marines became abusive, deriding all Americans as being unwelcome and uncouth. A retort and an exchange of harsh words created quite a bit of animosity, so much so that the Shore Patrol was needed to quite things down. I and my ship mate decided it wasn't worth any more trouble, so back to our ship we went. Several hours later, a few of our crew, while returning from their liberty were accosted near the dry dock by those same marines and their buddies. Quite a melee ensued. About a dozen of our crewmates ran up the gangplank to their aid. When our captain tried to restrain them he was forcibly nudged aside by our then Executive officer, (a tough ex All American football player) who, by his actions, endeared himself to the whole crew. For the rest of the evening, we were all restricted to below decks. At morning roll call, to the surprise of all, the Exec. was nowhere to be seen. Orders of the day advised us that the Gunnery Officer had been assigned the responsibility of Executive Officer. The whereabouts of his predecessor was not made known to us. As we filed through the breakfast chow line, there, dangling on a string above the scrambled eggs was what appeared to be part of a pinky finger, boastfully put there by our 1st class cook. He claimed to have bitten it off one of the British marines and wanted the crew to know he considered it pay back for the mauling he and his buddies had received the night before.
Being in drydock, had as I mentioned previously, afforded us the bonus of a well needed rest before returning to the business of war. Before long, I had the pleasure to befriend an entire English family, who, in spite of their hardships and shortages were as generous and as compassionate to me as might have been my own family. Maybe because I was not yet really toughened by the realities of war; maybe because I was still only a 17 year old kid thousands of miles from the love of his own home and family, that I was able to bond with them, to care about and appreciate them till long after I returned as an old salt to my beloved Bronx, New York. That too, is a war story; not of violence but of promise and family values.
The spring of 1944 had been filled with training and exercises, followed by the excitement of the Normandy Invasion. Thru'out the summer, it was the tedious, monotonous routine of channel crossings, bouts with foul weather and the occasional diversion to some new destination or critical support mission. And so it was on this particular week-end in the middle of September that our ship, and several others, were each hand loaded to capacity with about 500 tons of ammunition needed by the 3rd Army in it's siege on Brest. We sailed southeast through the straights of the German held Channel Islands, down and around the Breton peninsula to Mont St. Michel. To confuse and divert German radar, allied aircraft spewed and wafted tons of shredded metal foil along the route as we made our way thru' the night. It worked! and in spite of the harrowing tensions and frayed nerves, we arrived and beached safely with the morning tide on the sand in the bay near the famous monastery. There, high and dry, and while army engineers unloaded thousands of shells and ammunition crates, most of the ship's crew was allowed 'tide liberty', a time off the ship until the ship was unloaded or the tide returned.
The shore of the Bay of Mont St Michel is a flat crescent shaped cove more than a mile and a half across. The tide line varies by as much as a half mile with each rise and fall. When an LST is beached at high tide, and the tide recedes, it is left stranded, 'high & dry', allowing for trucks to drive onto and quickly unload it. As the tide returns, the ship re floats itself and pulls away from the shore.
The 279 had beached to the left of center of the crescent. At the far right end of the beach was another little cove surrounded by an outcropping of rocks, an ideal place to swim and relax; a place you could forget about the war and for a little while, be a teenager again. I went there with a shipmate, and very much to our surprise encountered two young ladies, not quite sunbathing or swimming, but frolicking among the rocks. As it turned out, we made friends and spent a lot of time trying to communicate. Somehow we got across the suggestion of a picnic and my buddy went back to the ship for bread, cold cuts, beer and even cold chicken from the galley. It was a happy time, - the 19th of September, and my 18th birthday as well! - We made it a party, - we celebrated ! Quickly and joyously the hours passed by, and in spite of all, and our best, efforts to seduce them, we failed. The afternoon began to fade, and suddenly, almost without warning, the sound of the changing tide awakened us to the reality that we had to hurry back to the ship or be caught ashore. The tide would rush in almost as fast as one could run and we were at least a half a mile away. Without hesitation, we ran at full speed to beat the tide, just barely succeeding but not without first having to swim the last few yards, clothes on and all, to reach the the bow ramp. Once on board, I went up to the bridge and with a pair of powerful binoculars looked for the girls . There they were, having shed most of their clothes, frolicking once again, near naked, among the rocks. What did we do wrong ? I never knew. but what I do know is that it was my first birthday, ever, away from home and that I was still a 'virgin'. Maybe I was still a boy.
The days before Christmas, 1944, brought with them a nervous fear of sabotage to the LST flotillas in Weymouth/Portland.( Eng.) The Germans, we were told, had managed to float in or parachute undercover agents in American Army and Navy uniforms to create havoc and confusion to LST supply operations. We, of course, were put on 24 hour armed alert. (Actually, it was the first time I stood watch with a fully loaded side arm and shoulder slung rifle.) The emergency prompted the base commander to send out 4 fully loaded LSTs on very short notice, and without the usual Corvette or DE escorts. We sailed out in the late afternoon, 2x2, to cross the Channel. Normally,during condition 1 Mike, (when the ship is underway), my watch was in the conning tower as 'bridge talker' relaying information and instructions to the various watch and duty stations via sound powered phones. It gave me a fair idea of what was going on, and besides, being inside, it wasn't as cold and uncomfortable as on deck. The time passed quickly. Still, I felt relieved when my watch was over at midnight.- I went below to my bunk, and without removing my life jacket or outer clothing, I pulled off my shoes without untying the laces and laid down for a quick sleep. . It seemed like moments later I was awakened by the concussion and clang of what I at first thought was a collision and the sounds of the 'abandon ship' alarm. To get to my life raft on the quarter deck, I had to run thru' several crew compartments, however, I had a problem. It was difficult to put my shoes on, (the laces were still tied and I had to break them apart. To this day, I don't know how I did it. They just broke down the middle) As I ran and hopped through the compartment bulkhead openings, the shoes kept falling off; my Mae West hung loose; my helmet dangled on and off my head, and my gas mask swung back and forth across my chest. Behind me the waterproof compartment hatches were being slammed shut . I couldn't keep up, - my only way topside was thru' a small circular escape hatch at the top of a very narrow ladder in one of the compartments. It took a frighting couple of minutes to wriggle through it. . When I finally got to my assigned life raft , there was no one there. I felt all alone and lost in the dark until an officer's steward bumped into me and shouted that we were, in fact, at General quarters,- not to abandon ship but go to my GQ station. I made my way to a 20mm machine gun mounted to the main deck, just forward of the superstructure and waited, frozen in fear. The LST along side of us had been hit and set afire by a torpedo that passed under our ship as it rose over the crest of a wave. The ship in front of us was sinking. Each Christmas eve ever since, I hear again the anguished cries of men I could not see in the cold dark water, calling for life lines too short to reach, begging for help that never came and the grunts and vibrations of a ship straining at full power to escape a similar fate. Finally, the night turned to morning, and as we approached the harbor of Le Harve, (Fr.) in the golden glow of a rising sun, we could see all around us, seemingly from out of nowhere, a half dozen or so Destroyer Escorts herding us into the harbor. Of the 4 LSTs that left England, only two were in sight. The 279 and the 510 ! As luck would have it, the 510 tore her hull on a sunken ship as she entered the breakwater and sank, with, I heard, several casualties, mostly GIs trapped in their vehicles on the tank deck.
Our return to base in England was uneventful. In port, our captain had given us a "Holiday Routine" that included sleeping in, fresh eggs for breakfast, Christmas dinner with all the trimmings , - yes ! turkey, hams, fresh vegetables and real fruit! and for all who wished to pray, arranged for a Mass to be said on deck to honor our sister ships and comrades at sea. And of course, to thank the Lord for our own safe return. -
That day, the 27th of December,1944 I wrote a letter to my mother assuring her that even tho some things could not be said, I was OK, and doing well as an American sailor in England.- - No need to worry her any more than she had been since the day I left. Many of my friends in service had far more dangerous and unpleasant duty than I had and I wanted her to know that.
53 years later, that very same letter turned up in my brother's family history album. On it, I saw for the first time tear stains put there as she read between the lines and prayed for her then 17 year old son.
As is evident in this narration, we who joined the 279 in England had no training other than 4 weeks in boot camp, yet in the weeks before the invasion, we learned quickly and became a functional part of the crew, earning the respect and admiration of the old salts already there. I can honestly say, that as a crew, we were content. Relations between officers and men were good, amenities plentiful and rules relaxed for the comfort and well being of all. Although we considered ourselves to be in the "dungaree"; navy we were, never-the-less, a proud bunch.
Altogether, from June 6th '44 to early April,'45 we made, according to my unofficial diary, more than 65 crossings. We beached on all the invasion beaches several times over and as the French coastal ports were liberated, we went to the docks in Cherberg, Le Harve, up the Seine River to Rouen and to the southern coast of the Breton peninsula including the beach of Mont St Michel.
In the early spring of 1945 the LST 279 was in Falmouth, England being prepared for its ocean crossing back to the US. Several events occurred that to this day, are among the strongest and lasting memories of my tour of duty in the ETO. Some were serious, some frivolous, yet all made a big impression on the mind of this now seasoned sailor. Firstly and most sadly was the news that our President, Franklin D. Roosevelt had passed away. It was doubly sad because the war was virtually over and he did not live to see its end, the demise of Hitler and the surrender of the Third Reich. He deserved that more than any of us. Everywhere and on every US ship there were honors and tributes to the man, making each of us proud of our American heritage and of being led to certain victory by so great a leader. On the 279, we were called to quarters for the Exec to make the formal announcement. Our flag was lowered to half mast at the sound of taps on the PA system followed by a few moments of silence and a silent 21 gun salute. It was, truly, a very sad morning. At about this time, the German concentration camps were exposed. Suddenly there was a new and greater awareness for having fought the war, bringing to the fore front an end to the horrors of Nazi brutality and inhumanity to man. It added reason to the pride of being in the Navy , contributing however little, to the restoration of peace and the return of dignity to man.
As previously mentioned, some events were frivilous. This is one of them. It also begins in Falmouth. We were preparing for our return to the US, to be overhauled for a new tour of duty in the South Pacific when suddenly all work details were halted. The ship moved to a loading hard and began taking on all manner of mattresses, hospital beds, ambulances, medical equipment and supplies. It was to be our last trip to a French port on the English Channel. To say the least, we were stunned and disappointed to be selected for this assignment, it being so near to our scheduled sailing date.Of course all the gripping in the world did not help! When the ship was fully loaded, we were again surprised by a large contingent of army nurses coming aboard to make the trip with us. They were to remain on board for at least three days. The port side passenger compartments were given over to them and since they were unfamiliar with accommodations on an LST our captain detailed an officer and a few seamen to guide them around, how to use the showers, how to use the washing machines, how, when & where to line up for chow. They and the crew were instructed to keep their distance; not to socialize except during daylight hours on the open main deck when the smoking lamp was lit. Of course the crew was forbidden access to the passenger compartments for any reason other than an emergency. In spite of the restrictions, this had to be our most unique crossing of the English channel since D day. It goes without saying that some of the crew broke the rules and didn't get caught while others tried and thought better of it. I, personally was satisfied to share a few meetings on deck without breaking the rules. By the time the trip was over, I had made many friends and came to learn and appreciate the important contribution these Army nurses made all over England, and now continuing, on to France and Germany. When we returned to Falmouth, we resumed our preparations, however, because of the delay, we missed our position in the home bound convoy and was further delayed until the next flotilla of LSTs was assembled and scheduled to sail. Meanwhile, an LCT was loaded on our main deck, we waited and waited. On May 8th, the Germans surrendered and Falmouth went wild with joy. All of the 279 crew that could be spared were given special liberty till 8 AM the following day, I among them. This then is the beginning of what I call my New Raincoat Caper, positively my most enduring memory of VE Day.
For months I had aspired to obtain a full length regulation raincoat as an alternate to the regularly issued Pea coat. They were al most always unavailable, however on an earlier working party to the US Naval base in Plymouth, I was lucky enough to purchase one from ships stores. Even tho I seldom had the opportunity to wear it. I was extremely pleased with myself whenever I did. Such was the night of our special VE day liberty. Once in town, I and my accompanying ship mates engaged the company of several of the local girls to begin our celebration of the wars end. in the local pubs and restaurants. Still, it was only late afternoon but by then my companion suggested that we break from the group to go to a barn dance in the town of Truro, some 35/40 minutes away by railroad. No problem,- - she said there would be a train back around midnite, and another at 6 AM. Again, no problem. We danced till after midnite then left the building to explore other possibilities. Some 100 yards or so out back, in the weak glow of the moon, we came upon a huge, low hanging tree, an ideal place to consummate the evening. In anticipation, I spread my raincoat over the sod to lay upon it as we chatted and explored each others bodies and desires. What a way to end the war ! When it was over I reached for my raincoat but it seemed to be heavier for some reason,- didnt know why until I started to put it on. I had spread it, outside down, over a large blob of fresh cow dung. Without hesitation, I dropped the coat in disgust and headed back to the railroad station where I could sleep till the 6 AM train arrived. It never came, England went on a two day holiday canceling all regular schedules. Of course I didn't know this until a RR maintenance man came into the station and posted hand made signs all about the waiting room. My immediate thought was to wait till daybreak and hitch a ride on an American service vehicle heading toward Falmouth. It was hours before I succeeded, much too late to get back to the ship on time. When I finally came aboard, (about 10:30 AM) I was detained by the OD for an explanation to the Exec, who recommended me for a Captain's Mast. Next day, the Captain heard my case with compassion, and restricted me, off the record, to forfeiture of my next 3 liberties. A meager price indeed for such an exciting end to VE Day. Still, it was the first and only punishment handed to me in the nearly 3 years of duty on board the LST 279. In a few weeks, we sailed west out of the Channel, into and across the Atlantic to the States. Herein lies another story of life on the 279.
A day or two before sailing, a scraggly, weary detachment of Royal Dutch marines that appeared not to have slept for days were dropped off at the foot of our gangway. . They came aboard and settled in the portside passenger quarters. At the insistence of their commander, they were assigned mess duty and clean up chores. Whether because they didnt speak English or of their obedience to strict discipline, they did not socialize with the crew. We sometimes just stood by and watched and made jokes about what they were doing and wondered why they were going to the states in the first place. Meanwhile ships company personel that were relieved of the duties assigned to the marines were afforded the rare opportunity of gold bricking all the way to Norfolk, Surprisingly, It was a smooth and fair weather crossing. On approaching Chesapeake Bay, the entire convoy of 18 ships regrouped into 2 columns, each ship flying a coming home pennant from the main mast and signal flags on all of its yard arm lanyards. The crew lined up along the port and starboard sides of the main and bridge decks. Closer to port, a large Navy barge from which greatly amplified military marches were played was anchored between the columns, flying a large Welcome Home banner. Overhead, several Navy fighter planes swooped down the alley in a single line fly by, dipping their wings as they passed. We were, as we were to find out later, the first returning LSTs from Europe after VE day. I cannot imagine any sailor on board any of those ships on that day, that was not proud to be a part of the amphibious forces. As for myself, I never stood taller, never was prouder to have served in the US Navy.
Later in the day, the ship docked pierside and the Dutch Marines filed off and assembled on the pier. Very much to our surprise, at the sound of a whistle and voice commands, they quickly fell into order and began a series of precision drill and marching maneuvers, up and down the pier, that would easily surpass any West Point demonstration. They marched off to the admiration of all on board the ship and on the pier. It seemed in this case, that the joke was on us. One week later, we sailed to New Orleans, there to begin our 30 day home coming leave.and the start on 279 of being completely refitted for Pacific duty which, incidentally,. never happened. The war in the Pacific ended and for what ever the reason, after our shakedown cruise to Galveston, TX the ship was restored to a status equal to what it was when we got got back to the states. Unbelievable, but all the new armaments were replaced, the new water desalinization system was removed, the updated radar was also replaced, the camouflage paint job was covered over in battleship grey. By the end of the summer, we were in Green Cove Springs, Florida engaged in making our ship ready to join the Moth ball fleet. An honorable respite indeed for her service to our country. Even now, a half century later, I take pleasure in recalling these and many other of our shared experiences.
As for aviation machinists school, it never happened. I have no regrets, Im rather grateful that as it turned out, I came through the war without harm and equally important,. . as a man! The lessons I learned and the experiences I gained have stood me in good stead all my life. As I write and recall these days of of my early youth, I rekindle the pride I have always had for serving in the amphibious forces of the United States Navy. To this day, I am proud of having served.
----- Bob Benvenuto
Bob Benvenuto, Gangway Watch, USS Berkley County, LST 279
LST 279 and Christmas `44, Bob Benvenuto, LST 279, USN
USS LST 279 Deckload, English Channel, Fall, 1944
USS LST 279 Enroute to Normandy, English Channel, Fall, 1944
LST 279, High and Dry, Utah Beach, Normandy, Summer, 1944
USS LST 279 Stern Anchor, Weymouth, 1944
LST 279, Unloading, Utah Beach, Normandy, Summer, 1944
Some of the Crew on Deck, USS Berkley County, LST 279
USS Berkley County, LST 279 - in 1954
USS LST 279 - Captain's Inspection, 1945
USS LST 279 - Weymouth England, 1945
Wartime Birthday, Bob Benvenuto, LST 279, USN
White Caps, Watch Caps and Dress Blues, Bob Benvenuto, LST 279, USN
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