White Caps, Watch Caps and Dress Blues

Becoming an Old Salt on the LST 279

       We were already 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 it’s 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 eskew, the bow ramp did not sit squarely on the concrete incline. It’s 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 it’s convoy and began it’s 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 thier 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.

----- WELCOMEBOB@aol.com

LINKS

Biography of Bob Benvenuto, LST 279, USN

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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