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29TH DIVISION - WWII STORIES

Robert JOHNSON

Page 1

LCI (L)-94 had a crew of 4 officers and about 30 enlisted. Lieutenant Gene Gislason was the commanding officer. His nickname was Popeye, as noted in the D-Day text by Steven Ambrose.  Lieutenant Gislason was born in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin in 1916. His maritime career began on the Great Lakes and he graduated from the New York State Merchant Marine Academy in 1938. As a holder of a chief mates license for ocean going vessels and a first class pilots license for the Great Lakes ships, Lieutenant Gislason was qualified to sail any ship in the world any place in the world. His first Coast Guard assignment in World War II was as a navigator aboard the cutter Argo in 1942. Due to his experience, skill and leadership ability, he was selected to skipper LCI(L)-94 during many amphibious landings including Omaha Beach.

The Executive Officer was Lt.(jg) Albert Green. In addition to the crew, there were thirty six men of the 29th MPs, one hundred and one soldiers of the 112th Combat Engineers and 42 members of B Company, 104th MED BN on 94. The B Company unit was lead by Lieutenant Charles Giese. Dad, George Hopchak, Richard Baldwin, Albert Cheoaitis, Mitchell Persin and others were in B Company aboard 94 and their job was initially to give first aid and evacuate the first casualties at Omaha Beach to a point above the high water mark.

The invasion force consisted of approximately 175,000 men, 5,300 ships and 11,000 planes and required a full moon with a low tide for the landings to expose as many mined obstacles as possible. This would allow the landing craft to maneuver around many of the mined obstacles and the engineers would come ashore and destroy as many of the obstacles as possible while they were exposed at low tide.

The early days of June, 1944 had bad weather, with low clouds, high winds and heavy rain. The invasion force was ready to go at 4:15 AM on June 4. However, due to the bad weather the invasion was put on hold and some ships had to be recalled, while others that had begun to cross the English Channel were held at sea at the location of their advancement.

At 9:30 PM on 4 June the decision was made to make June 6th D-Day. The weather would still be marginal, but it was improving and it was feared the element of surprise would be lost with further delays. It is truly amazing that the large, complex invasion plan was kept secret to that point.The plan called for massive Naval and Air Force bombing of the coastal defenses prior to the landings on Omaha and other beaches. Airborne troops were dropped behind the German lines to confuse the enemy, secure key areas and attack the Germans from multiple fronts.

The LCI’s stayed anchored in the harbor until June 5. At 5:00 PM on June 5th LCI(L)-94 along with the massive fleet lifted anchor and headed for Omaha Beach. Aboard 94 the men spent the night prior to June 6 in their own way. Some double checked equipment, others talked, gambled, slept or in the case of Lieutenant Giese, took a shower.

Lieutenant Gislason briefed the crew on the location of the pill boxes, machine guns, mines, entanglements and other obstacles they expected in their sector. He said they should expect mines, enemy submarines and planes along with “new enemy weapons”. All names were checked for correct serial numbers and beneficiaries. Then the skipper wished his crew good luck and they manned their stations. At 4:00 AM the crew had on full gear with impregnated clothing, life jackets, helmets and gas masks. Motor Machinist’s Mate, First Class Clifford Lewis was manning a gun and he noticed they were surrounded by hundreds of invasion ships. Spitfire and P-38s flew overhead. Then they gradually moved ahead of the main body of ships. After the long bumpy ride in the flat bottom LCI they neared the coast of France. Many soldiers were very seasick from the turbulent voyage. General Quarters was given at 7:15 and the ship came under heavy German fire. Shrapnel and machine gun fire clattered against the ship and smoke poured from other burning vessels they passed as they drove to the beach. The skipper was a veteran of the merchant marine and amphibious landings at North Africa, Sicily and Salerno. As fate would have it, I may not be here if it were not for the fact that dad was on the LCI guided by Lieutenant Gislason.

LCIs 91, 92 and 94 all approached Omaha Beach together within 1000 yards of each other. The intended beach sector for LCI(L)-94 was Dog Red, close to Easy Green.

In the sector of Omaha the three LCIs were entering, the U.S. Air Force bombers had bombed too far inland and the U.S. Navy guns had fired too far from shore to neutralize any of the coastal defenses. The multitude of mined obstacles were still largely intact. At 7:40 LCI(L)-92 was hit on the stern by German “88” artillery fire. Then she was hit amidships and exploded. Survivors were thrown into the surf that was covered with burning oil. German gunners raked them with machine gun fire. LCI(L)-91 was in the same sector and, as it approached the beach, it was hit with rifle and machine gun fire while attempting to maneuver through the obstacles. It struck a teller mine and then was hit with “88”rounds. About 8:10 a terrifying blast lifted 91. A sheet of flame shot forward from the forward hold. Forty one soldiers in the forward troop compartment were trapped in a fiery furnace and most were killed instantly.

Lieutenant Gislason superbly steered 94 around numerous mined obstacles. He had initially headed west toward Vierville. The intended beach sector was called Dog Red, close to easy Green. It became clear to the skipper that the same fate awaited 94 as happened to 91 and 92 if they kept that same heading, so he turned east to between Saint Laurent and Colleville sur Mer on the boarder of Dog Red and Easy Green where the Colleville Cemetery currently is located. Mr. Green told me they came so close to one obstacle with a mine on top of it that he could have reached out and touched the mine.

At 7:45 the crew of 94 were called to their beaching stations and at 7:47 they crunched on the beach. There were load explosions and the ship shook.Dad and the other soldiers on 94 came ashore in shoulder high water that had even deeper swells. My brother, Rob, said dad told him he swam part of the way to shore, sometimes underwater.

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