My father went onboard the battleship USS Texas, on April 4, 1944 at Pier 51, North River, New York as a US Marine. He was assigned to the team that manned one of the two four-barrel 40mm anti-aircraft guns—called quad-40s—that were situated at the fantail of the ship: the 8 black barrels in the picture above and at the lower left of the image below. Three days later, Texas got underway to head to Europe and the war. He writes, “Going to sea for the first time on a battleship headed for “the war,” when you are only 18, is not something one forgets. What I had dreamed became a reality.”
Below is another installment of my father’s remembrance of his experiences of World War II, specifically of D-Day, June 6, 1944. He wrote this remembrance years later, but years ago, too.
We weighed anchor and departed Scotland on April 29 bound for Ireland. Six hours later we were in Belfast Lough. Preparation began in earnest for the big invasion we knew was coming. We went on extensive maneuvers and fired our anti-aircraft guns at targets for the first time…
We were told General Eisenhower was going to pay us a visit. We took this to mean the big invasion was imminent. On May 19, the crew was turned out long before the General arrived; it was a classic example of “hurry up and wait.” Ike was popular with all servicemen, but that day he pushed it…we waited in a steady drizzle, fallen out with rifles, belts, and bayonets, fully expecting a personal inspection by the Supreme Commander. Waiting in the rain provoked some unflattering remarks, until his launch was sighted...in the excitement, all was forgiven. But to our disappointment, he did not inspect us personally and strode on by with his entourage to a platform set up on the fantail of the ship…right next to my quad-40s. Ike was truly a soldier’s soldier. He looked and acted the part, natural and unassuming. His prepared remarks sounded unprepared; he was genuine; he was sincere; you believed him. His talk lasted only three minutes, and he ended by telling us, “Knock that damned Hitler out of the war!” He made you want to fight, to make him and the folks back home proud.
We continued maneuvers with both the British and the French every day, until the morning of June 3 when we left Ireland and headed for Normandy. The weather continued miserable, causing the postponement of the invasion for 24 hours. We changed course to proceed in the opposite direction for 12 hours and then reversed course again…ships of all Allied nations surrounded us. It was a great comfort being with them, safety in numbers, I suppose.
We arrived at Omaha Beach before dawn, Utah Beach to our right and the British target Gold Beach to our left. When we dropped anchor, I felt vulnerable: I never realized we would be anchored during an invasion…the old ship didn’t move very fast even when the hook was up and I wanted to be ready for a quick get-away!
Lying off Normandy in the darkness, I thought of the people ashore. It was not unlike lying off Atlantic City. Were they looking out and seeing all this power about to explode on them? Or innocently sleeping? I recall the quiet until 0315 when the bombers came over and dropped their load on the beaches. About an hour-and-a-half later, we weighed anchor and moved toward our firing position. Mine-sweepers were at work—I don’t remember having given mines a thought—because the area was reputed to be the most heavily mined in the war. We commenced firing at 0550 and continued for 40 minutes. Then I watched the landing craft filled with soldiers pass by the fantail heading for Omaha Beach. I actually felt a kind of envy…in my young mind, “hitting the beach” was a test of your manhood, right up there with jumping out of a plane.
We anti-aircraft crews had nothing to do but watch that day; German planes were nowhere to be seen. All guns were manned, but only the main and secondary batteries fired. After the initial bombardment, we took on targets of opportunity. One such target was a church tower that, we were told, the Germans were using as an observation post. We all watched as the steeple was blown off the church, taken out with one shot from a 5” battery. Another target—which we couldn’t see from aboard ship—was a German gun that was firing on the beaches as well as at the ships. Everyone was told to watch in hopes of spotting its muzzle-flash…finally it was located behind a burning building—the flames had been concealing the flash—and it was quickly eliminated. But overall, our guns could do little for our men on the beaches because of the danger of hitting them.
On D+1 we took 27 prisoners aboard. The crew of the landing craft that brought them out to us wouldn’t release them until we lowered some swabs and buckets…the prisoners had gotten seasick and were made to clean up the mess. They were a motley looking group, hardly the “supermen” they advertised themselves to be. Then a strange thing happened while they were waiting to be taken onboard. Two German planes made an appearance and came in very low on the far side of the ship, out of view of the prisoners. Naturally, anti-aircraft guns commenced firing. About half the prisoners had been taken onboard just before the firing began, so those still in the landing craft thought we were executing those on deck…thinking a firing squad was waiting, they needed considerable prodding to climb aboard!
Another landing craft came alongside with 35 wounded Rangers and one dead Coast Guardsman. The sailor’s body lay face-down lashed to the boat. He was the first American dead that I saw up close. Oddly, I remember looking at his shoes and thinking, “When he tied those shoes this morning he never realized it would be the last time.” I remember one Ranger who had been shot or taken shrapnel that went through both cheeks without even loosening a tooth. Though wounded, the Rangers sat with us on the deck and were in good spirits. They had taken heavy casualties and were delighted to be alive. They were very appreciative of the work our bombardment had done. “You guys knocked the hell out of ‘em,” one said.
I watched these guys with a tinge of guilt. I still felt like I should have been one of the guys hitting the beach—that’s what I had expected when I joined the Marines. I mentioned this to Walter Ress, a corporal who was “older and wiser” than I. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You can wind up just as dead right where you are.” Before long, I learned how right he was.
Within two weeks during an attack on Cherbourg, France, Corporal Ress was proven correct. USS Texas would be hit by two German shells, wounding 13 and killing the helmsman, Christen Norman Christiansen, the only combat fatality aboard the Texas during the entire war.