Cross-Channel Trip | A report from Normandy

Three days after the first Allied landing in France, I was in the wardroom of an LCIL (Landing Craft, Infantry, Large) that was bobbing in the lee of the French cruiser Montcalm off the Normandy coast. The word “large” in landing-craft designation is purely relative; the wardroom of the one I was on is seven by seven feet and contains two officers’ bunks and a table with four places at it. She carries a complement of four officers, but since one of them must always be on watch there is room for a guest at the wardroom table, which is how I fitted in. The Montcalm was loosing salvos, each of which rocked our ship; she was firing at a German pocket of resistance a couple of miles from the shoreline. The suave voice of a B.B.C. announcer came over the wardroom radio: “Next in our series of impressions from the front will be a recording of an artillery barrage.” The French ship loosed off again, drowning out the recording. It was this same announcer, I think—I’m not sure, because all B.B.C. announcers sound alike—who said, a little while later, “We are now in a position to say the landings came off with surprising ease. The Air Force and the big guns of the Navy smashed coastal defenses, and the Army occupied them.” Lieutenant Henry Rigg, United States Coast Guard Reserve, the skipper of our landing craft, looked at Long, her engineering officer, and they both began to laugh. Kavanaugh, the ship’s communications officer, said, “Now what do you think of that?” I called briefly upon God. Aboard the LCIL, D Day hadn’t seemed like that to us. There is nothing like a broadcasting studio in London to give a chap perspective.

I went aboard our LCIL on Thursday evening, June 1st. The little ship was one of a long double file that lay along the dock in a certain British port. She was fast to the dock, with another LCIL lashed to her on the other side. An LCIL is a hundred and fifty-five feet long and about three hundred deadweight tons. A destroyer is a big ship indeed by comparison; even an LST (Landing Ship, Tanks) looms over an LCIL like a monster. The LCIL has a flat bottom and draws only five feet of water, so she can go right up on a beach. Her hull is a box for carrying men; she can sleep two hundred soldiers belowdecks or can carry five hundred on a short ferrying trip, when men stand both below and topside. An LCIL has a stern anchor which she drops just before she goes aground and two forward ramps which she runs out as she touches bottom. As troops go down the ramps, the ship naturally lightens, and she rises a few inches in the water; she then winches herself off by the stern anchor, in much the same way a monkey pulls himself back on a limb by his tail. Troop space is about all there is to an LCIL, except for a compact engine room and a few indispensable sundries like navigation instruments and anti-aircraft guns. LCILs are the smallest ocean-crossing landing craft, and all those now in the European theatre arrived under their own power. The crews probably would have found it more comfortable sailing on the Santa María. Most LCILs are operated by the Navy, but several score of them have Coast Guard crews. Ours was one of the latter. The name “Coast Guard” has always reminded me of little cutters plying out to ocean liners from the barge office at the Battery in New York, and the association gave me a definite pleasure. Before boarding the landing craft, I had been briefed, along with twenty other correspondents, on the flagship of Rear Admiral John L. Hall, Jr., who commanded the task force of which our craft formed a minute part, so I knew where we were going and approximately when. Since that morning I had been sealed off from the civilian world, in the marshalling area, and when I went aboard our landing craft I knew that I would not be permitted even to set foot on the dock except in the company of a commissioned officer.

It was warm and the air felt soporific when I arrived. The scene somehow reminded me more of the Sheepshead Bay channel, with its fishing boats, than of the jumping-off place for an invasion. A young naval officer who had brought me ashore from the flagship took me over the landing craft’s gangplank and introduced me to Lieutenant Rigg. Rigg, familiarly known as Bunny, was a big man, thirty-three years old, with clear, light-blue eyes and a fleshy, good-tempered face. He was a yacht broker in civilian life and often wrote articles about boats. Rigg welcomed me aboard as if we were going for a cruise to Block Island, and invited me into the wardroom to have a cup of coffee. There was standing room only, because Rigg’s three junior officers and a Navy commander were already drinking coffee at the table. The junior officers—Long, Kavanaugh, and Williams—were all lieutenants (j.g.). Long, a small, jolly man with an upturned nose, was a Coast Guard regular with twenty years’ service, mostly as a chief petty officer. He came from Baltimore. Kavanaugh, tall and straight-featured, was from Crary, North Dakota, and Williams, a very polite, blond boy, came from White Deer, Texas. Kavanaugh and Williams were both in their extremely early twenties. The three-striper, a handsome, slender man with prematurely white hair and black eyebrows, was introduced to me by Rigg as the C.O. of a naval beach battalion which would go in to organize boat traffic on a stretch of beach as soon as the first waves of Infantry had taken it over. He was going to travel to the invasion coast aboard our landing craft, and since he disliked life ashore in the marshalling area, he had come aboard ship early. The commander, who had a drawl hard to match north of Georgia, was in fact a Washingtonian. He was an Annapolis man, he soon told me, but had left the Navy for several years to practice law in the District of Columbia and then returned to it for the war. His battalion was divided for the crossing among six LCILs, which would go in in pairs on adjacent beaches, so naturally he had much more detailed dope on the coming operation than normally would come to, say, the skipper of a landing craft, and this was to make conversations in the tiny wardroom more interesting than they otherwise would have been.

Even before I had finished my second cup of coffee, I realized that I had been assigned to a prize LCIL; our ship was to beach at H Hour plus sixty-five, which means one hour and five minutes after the first assault soldier gets ashore. “This ship and No. X will be the first LCILs on the beach,” Rigg said complacently. “The first men will go in in small boats, because of mines and underwater obstacles, and Navy demolition men with them will blow us a lane through element C—that’s sunken concrete and iron obstacles. They will also sweep the lane of mines, we hope. We just have to stay in the lane.”

“These things move pretty fast and they make a fairly small target bow on,” Long added cheerfully.

The others had eaten, but I had not, so Williams went out to tell the cook to get me up some chow. While it was being prepared, I went out on deck to look around.

Our landing craft, built in 1942, is one of the first class of LCILs, which have a rectangular superstructure and a narrow strip of open deck on each side of it. Painted on one side of the superstructure I noted a neat Italian flag, with the legend “Italy” underneath so that there would be no mistake, and beside the flag a blue shield with white vertical stripes and the word “Sicily.” There was also a swastika and the outline of an airplane, which could only mean that the ship had shot down a German plane in a landing either in Sicily or Italy. Under Britain’s double summer time, it was still light, and there were several groups of sailors on deck, most of them rubbing “impregnating grease” into shoes to make them impervious to mustard gas. There had been a great last-minute furore about the possibility that the Germans might use gas against the invasion, and everybody had been fitted with impregnated gear and two kinds of protective ointment. Our ship’s rails were topped with rows of drying shoes.

“This is the first time I ever tried to get a pair of shoes pregnant, sir” one of the sailors called out sociably as I was watching him.

“No doubt you tried it on about everything else, I guess,” another sailor yelled as he, too, worked on his shoes.

I could see I would not be troubled by any of that formality which has occasionally oppressed me aboard flagships. Most of the sailors had their names stencilled in white on the backs of their jumpers, so there was no need for introductions. One sailor I encountered was in the middle of a complaint about a shore officer who had “eaten him out” because of the way he was dressed on the dock, and he continued after I arrived. “They treat us like children,” he said. “You’d think we was the peajacket navy instead of the ambiguous farce.” The first term is one that landing-craft sailors apply to those on big ships, who keep so dry that they can afford to dress the part. “The ambiguous farce” is their pet name for the amphibious forces. A chief petty officer, who wore a khaki cap with his blue coveralls, said, “You don’t want to mind them, sir. This isn’t a regular ship and doesn’t ever pretend to be. But it’s a good working ship. You ought to see our engine room.”

A little sailor with a Levantine face asked me where I came from. When I told him New York, he said, “Me too. Hundred Twenty-second and First.” The name stencilled on his back was Landini. “I made up a song about this deal,” he said, breaking into a kind of Off to Buffalo. “I’m going over to France and I’m shaking in my pants.” Through the open door of the galley I could watch the cook, a fattish man with wavy hair and a narrow mustache, getting my supper ready. His name was Fassy, and he was the commissary steward. He appeared to have a prejudice against utensils; he slapped frankfurters and beans down on the hot stove top, rolled them around, and flipped them onto the plate with a spatula. I thought the routine looked familiar and I found out later that in his civilian days Fassy had worked in Shanty restaurants in New York.

While I was standing there, a young seaman stencilled Sitnitsky popped his head into the galley to ask for some soap powder so he could wash his clothes. Fassy poured some out of a vast carton into a pail of hot water the boy held. “ ‘Not recommended for delicate fabrics,’  ” the steward read from the carton, then roared, “So don’t use it on your dainty lingerie!”

While under attack of heavy machine gun fire from the German coastal defense forces, American soldiers wade ashore off the ramp of a U.S. Coast Guard landing craft, during the Allied landing operations at Normandy, France on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Since the frankfurters and beans were ready, I returned to the wardroom. There the board of strategy was again in session. The beach we were headed for was near the American line, only a mile or two from Port-en-Bessin, where the British area began. Eighteen years before I had walked along the tops of the same cliffs the Americans would be fighting under. In those days I had thought of it as holiday country, not sufficiently spectacular to attract le grand tourisme but beautiful in a reasonable, Norman way. This illogically made the whole operation seem less sinister to me. Two pillboxes showed plainly on photographs we had, and, in addition, there were two houses that looked suspiciously like shells built around other pillboxes. Our intelligence people had furnished us with extraordinarily detailed charts of gradients in the beach and correlated tide tables. The charts later proved to be extraordinarily accurate, too.

“What worries me about landing is the bomb holes the Air Forces may leave in the beach before we hit,” the commander was saying when I entered. “The chart may show three feet of water, but the men may step into a ten-foot hole anywhere. I’d rather the Air Forces left the beach alone and just let the naval guns knock out the beach defenses. They’re accurate.”

The general plan, I knew, was for planes and big guns of the fleet to put on an intensive bombardment before the landing. A couple of weeks earlier I had heard a Marine colonel on the planning staff tell how the guns would hammer the pillboxes, leaving only a few stunned defenders for the Infantry to gather up on their way through to positions inland.

“We’re lucky,” the commander said. “This beach looks like a soft one.”

His opinion, in conjunction with frankfurters and beans, made me happy.

We didn’t get our passengers aboard until Saturday. On Friday I spent my time in alternate stretches of talk with the men on deck and the officers in the wardroom. Back in Sicily, the ship had been unable to get off after grounding at Licata, a boatswain’s mate named Pendleton told me. “She got hit so bad we had to leave her,” he said, “and for three days we had to live in foxholes just like Infantrymen. Didn’t feel safe a minute. We was sure glad to get back on the ship. Guess she had all her bad luck that trip.”

Pendleton, a large, fair-haired fellow who was known to his shipmates as the Little Admiral, came from Neodesha, Kansas. “They never heard of the Coast Guard out there,” he said. “Nobody but me. I knew I would have to go in some kind of service and I was reading in a Kansas City paper one day that the Coast Guard would send a station wagon to your house to get you if it was within a day’s drive of their recruiting station. So I wrote ’em. Never did like to walk.”

Sitnitsky was washing underclothes at a sink aft of the galley once when I came upon him. When he saw me, he said, “The fois’ ting I’m gonna do when I get home is buy my mudder a Washington machine. I never realize what the old lady was up against.”

Our neighbor LCIL, tied alongside us, got her soldier passengers late Friday night. The tide was low and the plank leading down to our ship from the dock was at a steep angle as men came aboard grumbling and filed across our deck to the other LCIL. “Didjever see a goddam gangplank in the right place?” one man called over his shoulder as he eased himself down with his load. I could identify a part of a mortar on his back, in addition to a full pack. “All aboard for the second Oran,” another soldier yelled, and a third man, passing by the emblems painted on the bridge, as he crossed our ship, yelled, “Sicily! They been there, too.” So I knew these men were part of the First Division, which landed at Oran in Africa in 1942 and later fought in Sicily. I think I would have known anyway by the beefing. The First Division is always beefing about something, which adds to its effectiveness as a fighting unit.

The next day the soldiers were spread all over the LCIL next door, most of them reading paper-cover, armed-services editions of books. They were just going on one more trip, and they didn’t seem excited about it. I overheard a bit of technical conversation when I leaned over the rail to visit with a few of them. “Me, I like a bar [Browning automatic rifle],” a sergeant was saying to a private. “You can punch a lot of tickets with one of them.”

The private, a rangy middleweight with a small, close-cropped head and a rectangular profile, said, “I’m going into this one with a pickaxe and a block of TNT. It’s an interesting assignment. I’m going to work on each pillbox individually,” he added, carefully pronouncing each syllable.

When I spoke to them, the sergeant said, “Huh! A correspondent! Why don’t they give the First Division some credit?”

“I guess you don’t read much if you say that, Sarge,” a tall blond boy with a Southern accent said. “There’s a whole book of funnies called ‘Terry Allen and the First Division at El Guettar.’ ”

All three men were part of an Infantry regiment. The soldier who was going to work on pillboxes asked if I was from New York, and said that he was from the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. “I am only sorry my brother-in-law is not here,” he said. “My brother-in-law is an M.P. He is six inches bigger than me. He gets an assignment in New York. I would like to see him here. He would be apprehensive.” He went on to say that the company he was with had been captured near the end of the African campaign, when, after being cut off by the Germans, it had expended all its ammunition. He had been a prisoner in Tunis for a few hours, until the British arrived and set him free. “There are some nice broads in Tunis,” he said. “I had a hell of a time.” He nodded toward the book he was holding. “These little books are a great thing,” he said. “They take you away. I remember when my battalion was cut off on top of a hill at EI Guettar, I read a whole book in one day. It was called ‘Knight Without Armor.’ This one I am reading now is called ‘Candide.’ It is kind of unusual, but I like it. I think the fellow who wrote it, Voltaire, used the same gag too often, though. The characters are always getting killed and then turning out not to have been killed after all, and they tell their friends what happened to them in the meantime. I like the character in it called Pangloss.”

Fassy was lounging near the rail and I called him over to meet a brother Brooklynite. “Brooklyn is a beautiful place to live in,” Fassy said. “I have bush Number Three at Prospect Park.”

“I used to have bush Number Four,” the soldier said.

“You remind me of a fellow named Sidney Wetzelbaum,” Fassy said. “Are you by any chance related?”

I left them talking.

Our own passengers came aboard later in the day. There were two groups—a platoon of the commander’s beach battalion and a platoon of amphibious engineers. The beach-battalion men were sailors dressed like soldiers, except that they wore black jerseys under their field jackets; among them were a medical unit and a hydrographic unit. The engineers included an M.P. detachment, a chemical-warfare unit, and some demolition men. A beach battalion is a part of the Navy that goes ashore; amphibious engineers are a part of the Army that seldom has its feet dry. Together they form a link between the land and sea forces. These two detachments had rehearsed together in landing exercises, during which they had travelled aboard our LCIL. Unlike the Coastguardsmen or the Infantry on the next boat, they had never been in the real thing before and were not so offhand about it. Among them were a fair number of men in their thirties. I noticed one chief petty officer with the Navy crowd who looked about fifty. It was hard to realize that these older men had important and potentially dangerous assignments which called for a good deal of specialized skill; they seemed to me more out of place than the Infantry kids. Some sailors carried carbines and most of the engineers had rifles packed in oilskin cases. There were about a hundred and forty men in all. The old chief, Joe Smith, who was the first of the lot I got to know, said he had been on battleships in the last war and had been recalled from the fleet reserves at the beginning of this. He took considerable comfort from the fact that several aged battleships would lay down a barrage for us before we went in. You could see that he was glad to be aboard a ship again, even if it was a small one and he would be on it for only a couple of days. He was a stout, red-faced, merry man whose home town was Spring Lake, New Jersey. “I’m a tomato squeezer,” he told me. “I’m just a country boy.”

Cases of rations had been stacked against the superstructure for the passengers’ use. The galley wasn’t big enough to provide complete hot meals for them but it did provide coffee, and their own cook warmed up canned stew and corned beef for them for one meal. The rest of the time they seemed simply to rummage among the cans until they found something they liked and then ate it. They ate pretty steadily, because there wasn’t much else for them to do.

Our landing craft had four sleeping compartments belowdecks. The two forward ones, which were given over to passengers, contained about eighty bunks apiece. Most of the crew slept in the third compartment, amidships, and a number of petty officers and noncoms slept in the fourth, the smallest one, aft. I had been sleeping in this last one myself since coming aboard, because there was only one extra bunk for an officer and the commander had that. Four officers who came aboard with the troops joined me in this compartment. There were two sittings at the wardroom table for meals, but we managed to wedge eight men in there at one time for a poker game.

here was no sign of a move Saturday night, and on Sunday morning everybody aboard began asking when we were going to shove off. The morning sun was strong and the crew mingled with the beach-battalion men and the soldiers on deck. It was the same on board every other LCIL in the long double row. The port didn’t look like Sheepshead Bay now, for every narrow boat was covered with men in drab-green field jackets, many of them wearing tin hats, because the easiest way not to lose a tin hat in a crowd is to wear it. The small ships and helmets pointed up the analogy to a crusade and made the term seem less threadbare than it usually does. We were waiting for weather, as many times the crusaders, too, had waited, but nobody thought of praying for it, not even the chaplain who came aboard in mid-morning to conduct services. He was a captain attached to the amphibious engineers, a husky man I had noticed throwing a football around on the dock the previous day. He took his text from Romans: “If God be for us, who can be against us?” He didn’t seem to want the men to get the idea that we were depending entirely on faith, however. “Give us that dynamic, that drive, which, coupled with our matchless super-modern weapons, will ensure victory,” he prayed. After that, he read aloud General Eisenhower’s message to the Allied Expeditionary Force.

After the services, printed copies of Eisenhower’s message were distributed to all hands on board. Members of our ship’s crew went about getting autographs of their shipmates on their “Eisenhowers,” which they apparently intended to keep as souvenirs of the invasion. Among the fellows who came to me for my signature was the ship’s coxswain, a long-legged, serious-looking young man, from a little town in Mississippi, who had talked to me several times before because he wanted to be a newspaperman after the war. He had had one year at Tulane, in New Orleans, before joining up with the Coast Guard, and he hoped he could finish up later. The coxswain, I knew, would be the first man out of the ship when she grounded, even though he was a member of the crew. It was his task to run a guideline ashore in front of the disembarking soldiers. Then, when he had arrived in water only a foot or two deep, he would pull on the line and bring an anchor floating in after him, the anchor being a light one tied in a life jacket so that it would float. He would then fix the anchor—without the life jacket, of course—and return to the ship. This procedure had been worked out after a number of soldiers had been drowned on landing exercises by stepping into unexpected depressions in the beach after they had left the landing craft. Soldiers, loaded down with gear, had simply disappeared. With a guideline to hold on to, they could have struggled past bad spots. I asked the boy what he was going to wear when he went into the water with the line and he said just swimming trunks and a tin hat. He said he was a fair swimmer.

The rumor got about that we would sail that evening, but late in the afternoon the skipper told me we weren’t going to. I learned that the first elements of the invasion fleet, the slowest ones, had gone out but had met rough weather in the Channel and had returned, because they couldn’t have arrived at their destination in time. Admiral Hall had told correspondents that there would be three successive days when tide conditions on the Norman beaches would be right and that if we missed them the expedition might have to be put off, so I knew that we now had one strike on us, with only two more chances.

That evening, in the wardroom, we had a long session of a wild, distant derivative of poker called “high low rollem.” Some young officers who had come aboard with the troops introduced it. We used what they called “funny money” for chips—five-franc notes printed in America and issued to the troops for use after they got ashore. It was the first time I had seen these notes, which reminded me of old-time cigar-store coupons. There was nothing on them to indicate who authorized them or would pay off on them—just “Emis en France” on one side and on the other side the tricolor and “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” In the game were three beach-battalion officers, a medical lieutenant (j.g.) named Davey, from Philadelphia, and two ensigns—a big, ham-handed college football player from Danbury, Connecticut, named Vaghi, and a blocky, placid youngster from Chicago named Reich. The commander of the engineer detachment, the only Army officer aboard, was a first lieutenant named Miller, a sallow, apparently nervous boy who had started to grow an ambitious black beard.

Next morning the first copy of the Stars and Stripes to arrive on board gave us something new to talk about. It carried the story of the premature invasion report by the Associated Press in America. In an atmosphere heavy with unavowed anxiety, the story hit a sour note. “Maybe they let out more than Stars and Stripes says,” somebody in the wardroom said. “Maybe they not only announced the invasion but told where we had landed. I mean, where we planned to land. Maybe the whole deal will be called off now.” The commander, who had spent so much time pondering element C, said, “Add obstacles—element A.P.” A report got about among the more pessimistic crew members that the Germans had been tipped off and would be ready for us. The Allied high command evidently did not read the Stars and Stripes, however, for Rigg, after going ashore for a brief conference, returned with the information that we were shoving off at five o’clock. I said to myself, in the great cliché of the second World War, “This is it,” and so, I suppose, did every other man in our fleet of little ships when he heard the news...

A report from Normandy.
A. J. Liebling
June 06, 1944