Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
Commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944. The people of Western Europe were addressed by the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, General Dwight Eisenhower in a broadcast with these words, "A landing was made this morning on the coast of France by troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force. This landing is part of a concerted United Nations plan for the liberation of Europe. I call upon all who love freedom to stand with us now. Together we shall achieve victory."
I was off Omaha Beach that day in a seagoing tug. When you hear tug, you think of a small type of boat, but it was 168 feet long, 40 feet wide and needed 17 feet of water just to float. We had a crew of 50 men and about six officers. We were designated a seagoing rescue tug. Our purpose was to pull off the beach any landing craft which had run up too high, run out of tide, run out of water, or just didn't have the effort left to back off on their own power. We would shoot them a cable and then pull them off the beach so that they could go back to the supply ships, reload or go back to England, and then go back in for another wave. We worked off of Omaha Beach. We were there on the morning of the invasion. I remember the dawn coming up and just sitting off the beach listening to the battleships that were pounding some of the shore installations. We had left the night before from Weymouth, England, and were in a convoy of ships that were just nose to tail. I never will see so many ships at one time again, it was just ships as far as you could see. On the mast we had an American flag that I'll never forget -- it was the size of two bedsheets. We were on a tug, which is still a relatively small boat, but that flag could have served as a sail it was so big.
When we arrived off the beach, we observed the transports starting to lower their "ducks," which are amphibious boats and trucks. They can be propelled in the water and then when they feel the land they hit on their wheels and can drive ashore. The seas were very heavy that morning and it was rough. Some of these boats as they were lowered down into the water were just swamped and would promptly sink and lose all hands. There were many soldiers who drowned before they even got onto the beach. We took our orders for the jobs we were doing, our service operations, from the command ship. The command ship was the U.S.S. Ancon. It was ranging along off shore and giving all of the service craft instructions on where to go and what to do. We had been very much involved in what was called Operation "Mulberry." That was a scheme that I understood was concocted by Winston Churchill himself. It was the idea of building artificial harbors practically in the ocean so that the enemy would be completely and totally surprised because they really expected that we would land in Calais or LeHavre or Cherbourg. General Rommel was near Calais with forces waiting for us to land there. He himself was at a birthday party at the time of the invasion. These "Mulberrries" were called for the purposes of code I guess, the Phoenix. They were huge cement blocks three or four times the size of a large house foundation with a cement floor and high walls and a platform on each end for anti-aircraft guns and a couple of wheels up at the top which could be used or operated to open up valves at the bottom to sink these wherever they wanted them to be sunk. These were manufactured in Folkstone, England which is just a little bit north of London on the Thames River. The seagoing tugs would tow these down to the harbor ports in southwest England and they were assembled there. Hitler never could figure out what they were going to be used for.
These were taken across by a straight tug. We were a rescue tug and we didn't have to tow one of those. They were towed across on the night of the invasion, and they were sunk in a semicircle a mile or so off the beach at Omaha and I believe the other one was at Utah. There were two of them and they were put at the American beaches. The Gold, Juno and Sword beaches were Canadian and British beaches. At those beaches the same effect was realized by sinking old coal ships in an arc and that very effectively stopped the wave action so that you can have a little bit of activity inside the shelter of these artificial harbors and could unload ships without fear of capsizing.
All of the harbors as I understand it worked very well. The one at Omaha was really rolling along and they had inside the artificial harbor a pontoon bridge that was made up of "Rhinos." They could unload a LST or landing ship way out in the sea and then they could just drive these trucks or tanks or motorized guns right onto the sand at the beach. These worked very well and then about two weeks after the invasion, the storm of the century, as they termed it, hit. It devastated all the harbor units. The one at Utah was completely destroyed and never used again. Omaha was partially salvaged but fortunately in those first two weeks that they had been working, they had so much material ashore that there was no serious problem with carrying on the invasion.
I should mention now that the biggest thing that we had going for us was that the American forces had complete and total air superiority when we went over there. I can remember only one night that we had an air raid. We had a shell hit the deck on our ship but nobody ever proved that it happened that particular night. I always carry in my mind all the GIs who climbed down ladders or nets onto these "ducks" in the water and promptly drowned. The equipment just went down like rocks. We had about six or eight on the fantail, which is the rear of the tug, and then the crew was ordered not to pull up any more because we had no place to put them.
The storm just about stopped input into the harbor units for about three or four days. After that we spent about 100 days on that beach which included the night of the invasion working, cleaning up after that particular storm. That storm did more damage than anything from enemy action. The first waves caught hell from enemy action, but once the German pillboxes, which were on the beach and were firing almost point blank at the troops landing, had been silenced, it became a huge ferry operation until that storm hit. We almost lost our ship. We were tangled with a cable or an anchor line and the ship started to broach, we started to be pulled into the beach and we thought we were going to tip over and end up there ourselves, but we had a diver go over and he cut the cable lose, and we were able to stay afloat and continue with the rescue and salvage operations.
So we were there for 100 days. We were there with the U.S.S. Pinto and the U.S.S. Arikara, which were also seagoing tugs, and those two tugs and our tug as well as the U.S.S. ATR-2 received a Presidential Unit Citation for the work we did off Omaha Beach.
Before the invasion they had UDTs, underwater demolition teams, destroying the tank traps and the boat traps that were on the beach. The Germans had used slave labor to build these obstructions just beneath the tide on the beaches. They were like pieces of railroad ties standing vertically almost like jagged teeth so that if a landing craft, which most of them had very thin skins, came up on it, it would just rip its bottom off. So those had to be cleared off before anything could happen. I believe that was done the night before.
Besides our job of pulling equipment off the beach, we were also destroying derelicts, anything that hit a mine and was floating around and became a menace to navigation. We finally gave the coup de tat to the U.S.S. Mt. Vernon, which was a troop transport ship that had hit a mine, and our ship fitters and divers blew it up so that she would sink right there. We opened the doors on a submerged LST, which was floating just nose up almost like a bottle out at sea and someone else would have hit it, so we had to destroy that. We had been in England from January of 1943 and worked the channel ports and brought down these "Mulberries or Phoenixes." We were tuned for that one day, and it worked.
It was supposed to be the day before, but that day was rainy and windy, and we were just sealed on the ship. It really didn't matter to us because we were on a small ship, we had our own quarters and our wonderful three meals a day. It was the GIs who were crowded into the LST and landing craft who had a very uncomfortable time.
It all worked for that day. I didn't go below decks for three days. I was afraid we would hit a mine and the ship had a wooden hull. We wouldn't have lasted longer than it takes to tell so I slept in a corner of the radio room, if you want to call it sleeping. Most of the time I put on my tin hat, and I went topside to see what was happening. Finally we felt we were pretty safe from any mines, and as I said we were on that beach right through the summer.
The ships that carried the troops onto the beach were just ferries. If they could be used for another trip, the price of another ferry was saved. So the whole idea was to get them in there, unload them, and pull them out so they could go back for another trip, and also leave a space open. Even though the beach was quite large, all of the tank traps and underwater obstructions hadn't been cleared by a long shot, so that we had lanes, certain lanes to work in, and they had to stay within those perimeters or if they floated out of them, they might lose the bottom of their ship. They had to keep these lanes clear and that kept us busy. I was a radio man and actually we had a new type of radio. I believe they call it a TBS and it was a 2 1/2 meter or 5 meter rig, and it almost worked line of sight. It was talk radio and they used no code because there wasn't time to encode anything. I was up on top of the boat house and from there I would relay instructions given to us from the Ancon. I just remember our code name was Boxer. So anything that came through for Boxer, I took down in notes. This was before the days of tape recorders. All the code books went out the window because there just wasn't time for anything like that in the radio shack.
I was scared out of my wits. Nobody expected to come back. A lot of the boys got crazy haircuts, sort of like what Indians had in the movies, a lot of hair right down the middle. Some of them had three dots and a dash, "V" for victory. Everybody wrote letters because nobody expected to get out of it. We didn't know what to expect.
I think as far as the American GI or sailor goes everything was predicated on getting home. Let's do this so we can get home. We're one day closer to getting home. I was 22 at the time. I think the Allies did a tremendous job. It was a good feeling. Suddenly I'm thinking of the book "The Good War" by Studs Terkel. I've read the whole thing, but I used to pick up the book and read one incident and think, yea, that's how it was.
I've been retired now for a few years and I've been doing a lot of reading about World War II. I think I've read just about everything that Morrison has written, and I've begun to realize that it wasn't just a bottomless pit, a lot of the other theaters were deprived of material to supply this one. Material was purposely kept off the Italian campaigns to give more ships for this, and the Pacific had to wait, but I'm getting political now.
You had a lot of good company. We had a sense of purpose and most of us matured very fast. We knew what was going on. My father used to send me a miniaturized version of Time magazine, compressed type and no photographs, and that's how I kept track of the rest of the war. I was in for 40 months, about 30 of those months I was in Europe. I was glad to get home, but I was glad I went and I would go again.
I came home in January of 1946. I saw it through. On June 24, 1945, my ship was sunk. We hit a wreck in the English channel going out of LeHavre. I volunteered to go into the Tyrol, into Innsbruck in the French zone of occupied Austria as a French interpreter, and I was there from July to December 1945. It was a very nice way to end a terrible war. I was lucky.
I kept in touch with a family that had been evicted from their home when I moved into Innsbruck. The French had a much more severe attitude toward whom they had vanquished, we were the chocolate bar Americans, but the French didn't feel that way, and they tossed this family out, but I promptly invited them back in and took one room and had friends for a long time. So I used to send them Care packages and then I had my own family and I was keeping the Care packages home.
I have kept in touch with a shipmate. I just talked to him two weeks ago and we're going to get together to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary. His name is Ivan "Curly" Gray. He lives in Weymouth and he calls me every June 6 and says "Pete, you know what today is?" and I know what today is. Curly played the accordion on the ship and he was great. They always threatened to throw him over with the accordion. But it's nice to keep in touch at least with one person. I belong to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and I get the magazine and I pour through the back for reunions. I'm just dying to see a reunion for the U.S.S. ATR-2 but I guess it's not going to be. I saw one for the U.S.S. ATR-1 and I thought, well maybe next month, but we haven't got together with anybody else. But you never forget.
All the media now is bringing back all those memories. I'm very sentimental and weepy and I'm proud of my country. They did a great job.
I watch TV and sometimes I see somebody who I say "Gee, that looks like so and so on the ship," and I know it couldn't be, but maybe it could be his grandson. It's a fact, you see a face and you can relate. You never forget.