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Conference provides chance for veterans to share stories

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By John Barnhart

Saturday’s ceremony at the National D-Day Memorial was preceded by a two day conference, called Overlord Echoes, held at Liberty University. Like Saturday’s ceremony, D-Day veterans were present.

   

Don’t forget the

Coast Guard

    Jack Read has heard all the jokes about his branch of service — Knee Deep Navy, Shallow Water Sailors. A vigorous 87-year-old, Read wants the United States Coast Guard to have the respect he feels it deserves.

    The Coast Guard was present on D-Day. A number of the vessels, both large and small, had Coast Guard crews. Read was also present at D-Day. He was chief engineer aboard an 83-foot, wooden hulled cutter off Juno Beach.

    “They used us for anything and everything,” he said.

    His cutter, numbered CG-43 for the day, didn’t get used for much. Part of this, Read said, is because the British didn’t know how to use them. Read said the Brits kept the cutters close to the transports, where they really couldn’t do anything. Part of it was because the situation was a lot worse off Omaha Beach.

    The cutters were intended to fish people out of the water and could each hold up to 100. On D-Day these cutters accomplished that job, rescuing 1,437 men and one woman.

    “The Omaha guys picked up the majority,” Read said.

    Of the 60 cutters assigned to Operation Overlord, only two were lost and these were due to a storm, rather than enemy fire.

    “We were too small to bother with,” Read said.

    Read ended up in the Coast Guard after he and three friends, a week or so after Pearl Harbor, went to a recruiting center. They were going to join the Marines because they liked the uniforms. The Marines, however, did not want Read. At that point, they were only taking men with 20/20 vision and his vision was 20/30.

    The Army had recruiters at the next table.

    “I thought, ‘I’m not sleeping in the mud’,” Read said.

    Then, he saw the Coast Guard recruiters. Read liked the water and already knew that he didn’t get seasick. He signed up.

    They contacted him during the first week of January and told him to report at 5 a.m. on January 10. He and other new recruits were put on a ferry and went to Ellis Island which the Coast Guard had taken over for a training facility. This was not what Read had expected. He was a Brooklyn native and he could see Brooklyn from there.

    Bunks were stacked five high and he took the top one. Climbing up didn’t bother him and it put him close to a steam pipe, ensuring that he had a warm bed.

    After eight weeks of training, he was put on a detail that went out with pilot boats to board foreign freighters and seal their radios. The pilot boat would pull alongside the freighter, a rope ladder was dropped over the side of the freighter and the pilot and two teenagers climbed up. The pilot boat was bobbing, and Read said that you had better not miss when you grabbed for that ladder. The fact that he’s alive today is testimony to the fact that he didn’t miss, and didn’t fall off in spite of having to do this in ice, rain and snow.

    The young men were armed with .45 caliber pistols and two magazines, but this was primarily for show. Early on, ammunition production was being consumed by other branches of the service. The magazines were empty. Later, they were given one full magazine, but it didn’t really matter.

    “I had never fired a .45 until I got out of the service,” said Read

    That summer, he had the opportunity to go to engine school and took it. Successful completion meant that he would go up by three rates. When he completed the school, he became a second class motor machinist mate. This is the equivalent of a sergeant in the Army.

    He was also assigned to one of the 83-foot wooden cutters that Wheeler Shipyard was building. Read said that Wheeler built 220 of those. They were 17-feet wide, had a 6-foot draft and were powered by  two 1,200 horsepower eight-cylinder Sterling Viking gasoline engines. To make sure the men entrusted with caring for these engines were intimately familiar with them, the Coast Guard sent them to work on the assembly line where they were being built.

    The cutters were originally designed for antisubmarine warfare (ASW). They had sonar, eight depth charges and, later, a type of anti submarine rocket. The rails for these rocket launched bombs were in the forward part of the boat. Unlike depth charges, these bombs didn’t go off unless they hit something.

    They were designed to hunt subs in coastal waters. Read noted that a number of merchant ships were sunk just off the coast early in the war. Coastal cities initially refused to turn off their city lights and freighters, silhouetted by city lights at night, made easy prey for German submarines. Read said that this finally ended when the federal government forced the cities to go dark at night.

    Read got his cutter in July 1943 and the boat carried out antisubmarine patrols. They never found any and Read said that it’s probably just as well that they never encountered a U-boat on the surface. These cutters only had a 20mm gun and two .30 cal. machine guns. U-boats could often have 88mm or 105mm deck guns.

    Later, as Operation Overlord loomed, 60 cutters were designated as rescue boats and Read’s cutter was one of them. The ASW weapons were removed and they got landing nets. They carried 2,000 gallons of gasoline for fuel, but they weren’t capable of a transatlantic crossing. This was no problem, however. Read said that special cradles were built on liberty ships and the cutters were hoisted onto these for the trip.

    “Technically, we were a boat,” said Read, pointing out that in nautical terms, any watercraft that can be lifted onto a ship is a boat.

    He was promoted to chief petty officer, the equivalent of an Army sergeant first class when they got to England and became the cutter’s chief engineer. He, in turn, had two first class motor machinists and a non-rated man working for him.

    “I had good help, so I looked good,” Read commented.

    After D-Day, the cutters did night dispatch work, carrying dispatches across the channel. Read’s closest call of the war came during one of these. A convoy, that had earlier in the evening been attacked by German torpedo boats, spotted the luminescence of the cutter’s wake and opened fire until Read’s boat was able to identify itself.

    They ended the war using their sonar to ping for large bottom mines. Read said that they were ideal for this. They had a wooden hull, so they wouldn’t trigger magnetic mines. They were too small to  trigger pressure sensitive mines or make enough noise to set off an acoustic mine. Their shallow draft reduced their vulnerability to floating mines. They would locate the explosive monsters lurking on the bottom and the Navy would later come along and destroy them. The cutter also had the advantage of being small enough to maneuver around sunken ships blocking harbor entrances.

    It was during this time that they acquired some war souvenirs. They found some German small arms stores and picked up some Mauser rifles that had never been issued. They also helped themselves to a box of “potato masher” grenades. Read got his Mauser home but, unfortunately, the guys ended up having to leave their grenades behind.

Gliding in

    Not all airborne troops parachuted into Normandy. A number, like Jim Bryant of the 82nd Airborne came in on gliders.

    Bryant’s unit came in on 30 American Waco gliders and 30 British Horsa gliders. He said the Wacos were better, and later American airborne operations used only the Wacos. But, on D-Day, there weren’t enough of them. The 20 Wacos carried supplies and the 30 Horsa’s were troop carriers.

    Bryant was awakened at 2 a.m. and his unit loaded onto their gliders at 6:30. They were lined up on the runway, ready to go, and Bryant got a bit of information about his glider he found disconcerting.

    “I learned it was loaded with five-gallon cans of gas,” he said.

    The gliders were attached to C-47s, the military version of the DC-3, by 300-foot tow ropes. As the plane rolled down the runway, the tow rope would pull taut and the glider would become airborne. At this point, in many cases, the telephone wire wrapped around the tow rope and providing the glider with communications with the C-47’s pilot broke, ending any communications between the tow plane and the glider.

    Once the formation got organized, they crossed the English channel at an altitude of between 800 and 1,000 feet to their drop zone, 12 kilometers inland from Utah Beach.

    The Germans had anticipated this sort of thing. Many fields were flooded and a number of others had been filled with wooden poles topped with mines nicknamed “Rommel’s asparagus.”

    “We had to land wherever we could,” Bryant said.

    It was a rough landing. His came in between two trees, shearing off both wings. Others didn’t fare as well. One crashed into a hedgerow and another flipped, both resulting in fatalities.

   

Better listen to the sergeant

    Mills Hobbs came ashore on Omaha Beach with the 115th regiment. His unit embarked in Landing Craft, Infantry. The LCIs are larger than the craft that carried the Bedford Boys to shore and carried 220 men. Troops debarked via ramps on both sides of the bow. Hobbs got off in 3 feet of water.

    Hobbs was carrying 20 pounds of TNT in satchel charges. His job was to destroy a pillbox, a small bunker. When he reached his target, he discovered that it had already been knocked out, so he disarmed his charges and quickly got rid of that TNT.

    Surviving sometimes meant just not being in the wrong place at the wrong time. On D-Day, a shell landed 25 yards from him, killing and wounding several men. He and that shell would have arrived at the same place at the same time if a sergeant hadn’t ordered him to stay put and went ahead with another group of men.

    Sometimes it involved listening to good advice. Hobbs made staff sergeant during the hedgerow fighting. At one point, his platoon got a new platoon leader, a replacement. Hobbs, by then the platoon sergeant, noted the second lieutenant’s shiny gold bars and suggested that the man take them off, putting one on the collar of his shirt so the Germans would know he is an officer if he’s captured. Hobbs pointed out that he wore his staff sergeant’s chevrons on his shirt sleeve, but not on his field jacket.

    The new officer wouldn’t listen to Hobbs. He said he had worked hard for those bars and he was going to wear them where they were visible. Fifteen minutes later, a German sniper spotted those shiny bars, and killed him.

   

Steel confidence, literally

    Some sailors weren’t particularly worried about German shore batteries.

    “We had 13-inches of steel armor on both sides of us,” said Anthony Balch.

    Balch joined the Royal Navy just before his 16th birthday. On D-Day, he was just a few months past his 17th birthday and a boy telegraphist aboard the HMS Warspite.

    The Warspite, a Queen Elizabeth class battleship was commissioned in 1915 and was a veteran of the Battle of Jutland in 1916. During this battle, her steering gear jammed and although repaired, Balch said she was always plagued with steering problems.

    She was also damaged in the Mediterranean during World War II and Balch said damage to her underwater hull at one point was remedied by filling the bilge in that section with concrete.

    During D-Day, and for a three day period, Warspite’s job was to cause serious problems for the Germans in Normandy within the range of her eight 15-inch guns. These guns had a maximum range of approximately 16 nautical miles.

    Balch said the shells these guns fired were 5-feet, 3-inches long and weighed a ton. Warspite fired 350 of these during those three days.

    The ship’s gunners couldn’t actually see where these landed. Balch said spotting aircraft would radio back, allowing the gunners to make corrections.

    Warspite’s gunfire was accurate. Balch said that, during the Italian campaign, she hit a target at 23,000 yards. That’s a little more than 11 nautical miles.

    She then returned to England to reload. Balch said that when loading these massive shells, the crew rolled them along the ship’s deck.

    “The smartest thing was not to get your feet in the way,” Balch commented.

    Later, Warspite provided naval gunfire support for operations at Brest and Le Havre.

    She also hit a mine in 1944.

    Balch said they were steaming east through the English Channel. She was abreast of a place called Grimsby when she hit the mine.

    “It blew a hole in the stern the size of a London bus,” Balch said.

    Balch said that after the war, there were calls to make the Warspite a museum ship, but the British government ordered her scrapped. The old battleship remained defiant to the end. Balch said that initial efforts to tow the big battleship didn’t work well. Larger ships were brought in, and they finally got her moving. Warspite still didn’t go peacefully. She ended up breaking free and running hard aground. She was eventually cut up, but only with difficulty.

    Balch remained in the Royal Navy for 14 years. He eventually spent 30 years living in Hong Kong before moving to Canada, where he now resides, shortly before China took over the British colony.