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29TH DIVISION - WWII STORIES

John FOWLER

Page 1

We worked and did these pre-invasion exercises like loading onto the ambulances and 6x6s and then we would go into a beach area and this was down near at Slapton Sands. We would load onto the different types of landing craft and then they would make a practice run to the beaches. Then, we would have to get off and go in like it was a real invasion. We knew that the invasion was coming, but no one knew when. There was a lot of activity as far as moving troops. We moved from one spot to the other staying in the immediate area of Plymouth and Bodman. In May when we broke camp and actually moved out of Bodman, we all were surprised because nobody could really put his finger on what was going to happen. Then, about May 25, we moved into an area up there pretty close to Falmouth, England, and we pretty well surmised that this invasion was pretty close.

We went into this one marshaling area, and we boarded these LCIs. This was the first time that I had ever seen an LCI. This is when we pretty well knew that this was going to be the time. But, still not exactly when. We were loaded on the LCIs and I found a Navy man from St. Louis on this LCI that I was on. He sort of told me what to expect, and he also told me that he would contact my mom and dad. After this exercise was over, he was due for a 30-day leave because he had been down in North Africa and over into Italy and so forth. This was their last trip and then they would be sent home for a 30-day furlough. When we entered into this area, it was around June 1. Then on June 3, they put out to sea with these things. As we learned later, this was the day that we were going to go into the marshaling area with the ships and get into position to go across the channel. That was on the night of June 4, and then, of course, they called it off for the 5th and we went back toward Falmouth but we never went in. We turned around on the evening of the 5th and went out again -- and this time it was for sure. Those transport ships carried about 175 people, and the one that I was on had 150 combat engineers on board and 25 Medicos. Of course, they were as shook up as we were, and they always pushed us toward the back of the line, for which I was thankful after I got out there into the ocean off the coast of France. It was a reality, and everybody was concerned about whether or not we would get into heavy fire as we went in. These LCIs were small, and they sort of stayed on top of the water. They had to get into close to shore to let us off, so consequently they were a pretty rough-riding ship. There wasn't all that much room. We were stacked four high in bunks in the hull. This was on June 6 when we went in. We were outside in the English Channel from about 2 o'clock in the morning of June 6 and, of course, nobody could sleep and really nobody wanted to. A couple of times, there were planes that came over and dropped flares, so we surmised that they were Germans to see if they could see what was going on down there.

They couldn't see, because the U.S. Navy and I guess the Air Force had put down a heavy, heavy smoke screen to where nobody could see anything. As it got closer to dawn, I would say about 4 o'clock, all of the ships and the boats that were taking the soldiers in got in what they called a Piccadilly Circus, which means they were just going around and around in a great large circle. That is when the officers read this letter that Eisenhower had sent out about the invasion and wishing all of us Godspeed and all the luck in the world and to do our jobs as well as we could. When daylight came, that is when we could see the immensity of the battleships and the other invasion ships that were there. There were plenty. Then, as it was planned, the ships and boats would break the circle when their time came and head toward the beach. We were scheduled to be in there on D-Day at H-Hour. We went in as planned, but our LCI hit a sandbar and it stopped us. The captain on the LCI made an announcement to us: "Fellows, you're too far from shore for us to let these ramps down, and you go in from here." But then he told us that if we would all do exactly what he told us to do, we would get this LCI off the big sandbar and he then would get us in.

We had to run as he told us. We all got on one side of the ship and then ran as quickly as we could to the other side, and when we got there then we would turn around and run back the other way. They had large winches on the back of these things with an anchor out there, and he put the engines in reverse. It took several tries, but we got off of there. He backed out and made a large circle and then went in a different spot. He got us within about 300-400 yards from shore. The water was deep enough that when you went down the ramp (I could see the engineers as they went down the ramp) they were getting in I guess a little better than shoulder deep. Of course, you had to swim some, and a lot of them were loaded pretty heavy and they were having a terrible time. They had put the Mae Wests on around their belts, and they should have been up underneath their arms more. We didn't have any drowning casualties that I know of in the immediate landing, but in my case the captain of the ship saw a little Higgins boat, the LCVP, a landing craft for a vehicle and personnel. It is a smaller boat, and this fellow had dropped his load and was on his way back out. The captain of the ship stopped him by using his bullhorn and told him to come alongside.

He didn't act as if he was going to do it, and the captain told him, "Mister, you turn around now. If you don't turn around now, I'm going to blow you out of the water." With this, all of the guns that were on the LCI swung over toward his boat, and this fellow immediately turned around and came alongside. When he did, I jumped into it, because I knew that he would get us in closer and I don't like cold water. At any rate, I went in and he took us right up in there. I guess I was in within 30 yards of the sandbar or the berm at the water's edge. We ran directly in and then got over that and into a ditch. We fortunately never had any problem. Twenty-five of us had come in and did pretty well. A lieutenant was leading us, and he rendezvoused us there at the edge of a little woods which I couldn't find the last time I went back over to Europe. We at that time were a pretty good distance from where we were supposed to have landed. We were supposed to be down there right close to the little town of Vierville Sur Mer. The first division was to our left, and when we got into shore we were right at the edge of the 1st Division's territory, which would have been the Dog Red area of Omaha Beach.

We carried a lot of soldiers down that day who were hit and wounded. At that time we were carrying more 1st Division casualties than we were the 29th Division people. They were in the thick of things down there at Vierville Sur Mer, and one company, Company A, lost all but about 15 people. They got hit very hard. They were right there in what they call the Vierville Draw. I guess we took the brunt of the casualties at that time. We had a hard time trying to get anybody to come in to shore to get our casualties and take them back out to the hospital ship, because the word was given that everything was coming in and nothing was going out. We worked all that afternoon on our casualties. We were taking the casualties down the beach and putting them under sort of a sand cliff that was right on the water's edge. There was protection there from any shrapnel or shells or stuff like that coming in from the inland part of France at that point.

Copyright: Laurent Lefebvre