And we should never florget. I wrote the folllowing several years ago.
Some of you may hjave seen it before.
"LITTLE BOATS" AND 6 JUN 1944
By Wilton W. Strickland
My brother, Lewis Clyde Strickland, then 21 and with 3 1/2 yrs in the US
Navy, was the senior noncommissioned officer (NCO)/leader of a 48-man
platoon of the 6th Naval Beach Battalion that went ashore on Omaha Beach,
France, at 0730 on the 6th of June, 1944, to clear obstacles, secure the
beach and control traffic to, from and on the beach. The unit was composed
of many specialties, including demolition, signalmen, radiomen, riflemen,
doctors, medical corpsmen (medics), bulldozer operators and others -
whatever necessary to manage the beach. They wore army combat uniforms and
trained with the Army for the invasion. The only thing visible to
distinguish them from army troops was an arc painted across the front of
their helmets. Most of the men in his platoon were teenagers just 17, 18
and 19 years old.
Several of the older men had been in the invasion of Sicily and a few, such
as Lewis, had been in the invasion of North Africa, where his ship had been
sunk just offshore in Oct '42. Though small in stature, Lewis was a giant
in courage, dedication to accomplishing the mission, determination and care
for the men in his platoon. He served as their mentor, their "mother,"
their "father," their leader. They affectionately called him, "Little
Boats," in honor of his Navy specialty, boatswain's or boson's mate. Ensign
Joe Vaghi, just out of college and new to the Navy when he became the
platoon's Officer-In-Command (OIC) in late '43, said of Little Boats in
2001, "He taught me everything I ever needed to know about the Navy."
Little Boats died of pneumonia in 1997.
The platoon had trained extensively for several months with army troops at
Camp Bradford, VA, Fort Pierce, FL, and Swansea, Wales. They were delivered
to Omaha beach on LCI(L) 88, (an infantry landing craft) operated by members
of the US Coast Guard, as were many of the vessels in the invasion fleet.
In 2001, I had the very distinct honor and pleasure of interviewing several
of Little Boats' men and several of the equally brave Coasties (US Coast
Guard) who delivered them to the beach on that fateful day of June 6, 1944,
the memory of which should make all Americans, British, Canadians and other
allies stand tall with pride. Most of the following is excerpted from those
One of the seventeen-year-old riflemen, Seaman John Hanley, remembers, "We
formed up on the main deck of the LCI at the top of the port (left) ramp.
Ensign Vaghi was # 1, and his assistants, Ensign Wright # 2, BM/1C "Little
Boats" Strickland was # 3, I was # 4, and several of the other young
riflemen were immediately behind me. As we approached the line of
departure, we could see smoke from the shelling rising from the beach.
About that time, an LCT coming out of the smoke off the beach on our port
side let off a barrage of rockets. The German 88's had him straddled; you
could see the shells hitting the water 8 to 10 feet behind 'im. She was at
battle speed - 8 or 9 knots, and that's the last I saw of the LCT - we
started passing 'im - we were coming up on the beach for the landing."
Ensign Vaghi adds, "On the beach were multiple rows of different types of
obstacles, some with mines on them - tank traps, landing craft traps and
amphibious truck (DUKW) traps. Later I learned that where we landed was the
widest opening on the beach. The Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT)
certainly did their jobs well. We lucked out by off-loading at low tide,
too. If we had gone in at mid or high tide amid all those obstacles and
mines, we would have been in serious trouble. Other landing craft, LCI(L)
#85, for example, took quite a beating - a direct hit on the bow and on the
starboard side, but we were lucky, we made our landing, and all of our
platoon got ashore."
Hanley: "Yeah, we were surrounded by those mines on poles, but the Skipper
found his way through an opening, or we were just lucky. As soon as I heard
and felt the LCI hit bottom, the ramps on both sides went down. Vaghi was
already going when the ramp hit the water. The seamen behind me were
yelling, "Go, Go, Go!" I was trying to keep up with Vaghi and Little Boats
as we flew down that ramp! It seemed like a long way down, too. When I saw
that Vaghi and Little Boats were in the water, I threw my pack over the side
and took just my rifle. When I hit the water, Ensign Vaghi and Little Boats
were still right ahead of me. Two or three other seamen were with me.
Little Boats and I were immediately in water up to our chins. There were
dead infantrymen in the water all around me, and dead and wounded all around
on the beach - lots of dead floating in the water. "
Vaghi: "The sea bottom was undulating - sort of like a washboard with the
ridges and valleys - called runnels - parallel to the beach caused by the
tide of about 3 knots. We were dropped off about 275 yards from the high
water mark. There was a 22-foot tide, and we hit at low tide; then the
water rose very quickly after we went in. When the landing craft would hit
the top of one of these runnels, men would jump off and drop into one of the
valleys between the ridges, so many were in over their heads - maybe 18 feet
deep. But we were lucky; the smaller, shorter guys, though, were in water
up to their chins."
Hanley: "Yeah, a lot of the troops ahead of us landed in the smoke, and
when the bow hit the top of one of those runnels, the ramps fell, and the
troops ran right off into deep water over their heads, some of 'em a half
mile or more from shore. We lost a lot of troops in the deep water,
weighted down by their packs and equipment."
Seaman Hanley continues: "We found an obstacle fairly quickly; one of those
traps - crossed rail obstacles meant to destroy landing craft - we saw one
directly ahead of us. We had to get across that water first, though. I was
only about 5'-7", but I only had to make a few strokes before I got my feet
on the bottom. Vaghi was ahead of me and clearing the water by the time I
got on my feet. Six or seven of us ran to that first obstacle for cover,
but it really wasn't much cover at all. The machine gun fire was intense;
you could see the tracers and the sand kicking up all around us; the Germans
had zeroed in on us."
Hanley: "From the port ramp, we were able to get on out of the water fairly
quickly, but they had some troubles on the starboard ramp. They caught 88
mm and machine gun fire that destroyed the ramp and several men on it.
Well, Vaghi, Little Boats, about three others and I got behind that first
obstacle of crossed rails. Sure, it wasn't much cover, but we probably
would have gotten behind a blade of grass if we thought it would conceal us
a little bit. There was the strong smell of burning cordite and lots of
smoke. I noticed a buttoned-down tank maybe 50 yards in front of us. There
was a corporal of the 37th Combat Engineers directing this tank with a plow
on it across the beach trying to knock over these poles with mines on 'em.
The corporal looked out through the smoke waving and yelling to us - here he
was exposed, and he was yelling, "Come on! Come on!" He was exposed,
except for the smoke, in the middle of all that machine gun and 88 fire -
amazing and unbelievable! So we got up from behind that obstacle and got
strung out running; it must have been 75 yards or more to that tank.
Hanley: "We weren't behind the tank long, though, before Little Boats
yelled, 'We can't stay here, lets get outta here!' We scattered. When we
finally got to the dune line, we were soaking wet; a lot of the seamen,
friends of mine, were lying to each side of me. We were piled up with lots
of infantry troops all around us. There wasn't room for anybody else - we
were packed in there like sardines. We were taking lots of fire stuff on
that dune line. Up the slope about 30 feet in front of me, this infantry
colonel in a trench coat stood with his back to the machine gun fire and
addressed the troops. 'You men are not going to die on this beach! You are
gonna move forward, and you are gonna move forward, now! You are not gonna
stay here and die! Form up right now with your platoon leader, platoon
sergeant or squad leader.' So I saw this corporal forming a squad - he was
an older man - he amazed me - he was reading a Mandrake Comic Book.
Sergeants and corporals were forming up platoons and squads. They put
Bangalore torpedoes under the concertina wire; finally got a path cleared
through the wire and began to move forward."
Those teenagers jumped into the water as boys, and within a few minutes, by
the time they reached the beach, had become men of men. What those
teenagers did was truly amazing, but some never reached the beach. Many of
them died without firing a shot; others reacted to a life and death
situation by performing even more heroics.
Several of Little Boats' men got caught up with the Army's initial advance
beyond the dune line and were "drafted" or "commandeered" by the Army
colonel - it was hard for the 17-year-olds to argue when bullets were
flying, and the colonel was ordering the men to advance from behind the
dunes. The young sailors tried to protest with, "B-b-but, Sir, I'm in the
Navy, I'm supposed to stay on the beach!" The colonel's response was, "The
Hell you say! Everybody's going to advance! That means you, too! You get
your ass off this beach!!" In less than an hour, one of the young sailors,
seventeen-year-old Seaman Bob Giguere, from NH, suddenly "drafted" into the
infantry, had single-handedly destroyed a German pillbox by crawling on his
belly to directly beneath one of the gun slits and tossing an explosive
satchel through it. For his actions, he was awarded the Silver Star. A
couple of days later, in the nearby village of Colleville, an Army captain
asked the sailors, "Who are you?" They told the captain they were in the
Navy and were supposed to be on the beach. The captain promptly sent them
back to the beach, where Little Boats was surprised and very glad to see
them - 'thought they'd been killed. At the end of my interview with him on
Sep 11, '01, (the day of the WTC destruction) Seaman Giguere reached into
his shirt pocket and pulled out a photo while saying, "Here I am standing in
front of that same pillbox on June 6th of this year."
Another one of the teenagers, Radioman First Class John Gallagher, from CT,
was seriously wounded in the head and blinded by shrapnel when a German 88
mm shell hit the platoon's command post on the beach. A Life Magazine
photographer took a photo of him sitting with several other wounded men
awaiting evacuation. In the photo, his face and head are COMPLETELY covered
except a small tuft of hair sticking out the very top of the bandage. Part
of his lips are also visible.
His mother, family etc., were notified that he had been killed, but his
mother refused to believe it. Several weeks later, his mother saw the photo
in Life Magazine and recognized him by his posture and the small tuft of
hair. She tried to tell others in the family that the photo was John, and
nobody would believe her, but, indeed, it WAS John.
He spent many months in hospitals recovering his health and sight in one
eye - 'lost the other eye, but the doctors were unable to remove all of the
shrapnel from inside his head. After the war, he became an electronics
engineer and worked for IBM for years in New York and at Research Triangle
Park near Raleigh, NC. He told me in September, 2001, that in about 1995,
he was having lunch at a restaurant in Raleigh one day, when suddenly he
started bleeding from his mouth; 'felt something sharp in the roof of his
mouth. Another piece of the shrapnel had finally come out of his head, as
had happened several times since June of 1944. John died in 2004.
During the late afternoon of June 4, 1944, another one of Little Boats' men,
seventeen-year-old bulldozer operator, Seaman Clyde Whirty, was trying to
load a dozer onto an LCT or LST (small ship that could deposit tanks,
trucks, etc., directly onto a beach) at a port in southern England in
preparation for the Omaha Beech landing.
King George VI, Queen Mary and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret came along
wishing the troops well. The King asked Clyde, "What are you doing, Young
Man?" Clyde replied, "I'm cutting a couple of inches off the end of this
dozer blade with an acetylene torch so I can get it onto the ship." Queen
Mary then gave him an American flag and wished him well.
On the morning of June 6, Clyde drove the dozer onto Omaha Beach with the
flag flying on top of it. He quickly came under heavy enemy fire, and after
a few minutes, was hit by a German 88 mm shell, which destroyed the dozer
and caused minor wounds to Clyde, including a concussion. Medics rescued
him and took him, unconscious, to an aid station to await evacuation. While
waiting, he awakened and was "mad as Hell" that "they" had gotten him so
quickly and determined that he wasn't ready to quit. He left the aid
station, found his disabled dozer, recovered his flag and made his way onto
another LCT or LST stuck on the beach. There he found another dozer,
mounted his flag on it and, for the second time that day, drove onto the
beach. Again, he started drawing heavy enemy fire immediately, but he
continued to work clearing obstacles, etc., while still under heavy fire.
After a while, an officer came along and told him he should take the flag
down, 'cause it was drawing so much fire. Defiantly, Clyde left the flag
up, though, and continued to work the beach. Finally, another 88 shell
caught the dozer, destroying it and seriously wounding Clyde. Medics again
rescued him and evacuated him to England - without his flag.
Nearly sixty years later, another member of his unit heard about Clyde's
flag at a unit reunion and realized that the flag he had taken from a
destroyed dozer on Omaha Beach in June of '44 was Clyde's. Some of his
buddies got together and wrote to Queen Mother Mary not long before she died
and asked her if she remembered giving a flag to the young American who was
cutting a dozer blade with a welding torch on June 4, 1944. She replied
that she DID, indeed, remember and had often wondered what had happened to
him. She expressed her pleasure at knowing he had survived and had led a
long, productive life. At the next reunion, his buddies presented him the
flag and the letter from Queen Mary.
Seaman Hanley continues: "Within a couple of hours we were formed up and
operating quite well. We were well-organized by 1100 - 1130 or so, and
Ensign Vaghi and Little Boats had setup a command post (CP) just below the
dune line. Our medical team had also setup an aid station near the CP. The
infantry squads - Army guys, had engaged the enemy above the dune line and
were getting them cleared out.
Vaghi: "Our communications section, especially, went into operation quite
quickly with shore-to-ship communications - I think we established the
first, though we were quite disorganized getting in. Some of the other
Beach Battalion platoons had gotten beaten up pretty badly coming in - lost
a lot more men than we did. I think ours was the only platoon to stay
together fairly well and get things working so quickly."
Hanley: "We soon began to gather up wounded and arranging to evacuate them.
We were getting guys out of the water and all along the beach who had been
hit two hours or more before on the initial assault. We had a few
stretchers that our medical team had brought in to the beach, but there were
so many wounded, we needed more stretchers and blankets for shock cases.
Several of us got aboard this LCT that was stuck on the beach and found more
stretchers and blankets up above the wheelhouse. We started throwing them
down into the well of the ship after the primary stuff had been unloaded.
So we ran back to the aid station with the blankets and stretchers.
Somebody said, 'Some wounded are lying down the beach about 50 yards. We
need to get 'em here to the aid station so we can care for them.'"
"About that time, I noticed this barge, a Rhino Ferry, cocked up on the
stern, with some artillery pieces, armored vehicles, deuce-and-a-half trucks
and two or three jeeps on it. I thought, 'Hey, we could use a jeep.' I got
onto the barge and into one of the jeeps - got the engine started. When I
tried to drive off the barge, though, I got stuck with the front wheels down
in the sand just off the ramp. I thought, 'What the Hell is holding me up?'
I got out of the jeep and looked down just inside the left front wheel, and
there was a mine down in there right by the wheel! The mine was exposed,
but my wheel was just to the left of it. I saw that I could stay clear of
it, so I put it in four wheel drive and got it out of there."
"I drove up to where they had some of the wounded. We put three of 'em up
on my jeep, and I took off down the beach toward the CP. I got about 50
yards down the beach when suddenly, an 88 mm shell exploded right in front
of me. I must have gotten excited and hit the brakes. Norman Paul was one
of the wounded up on the hood - I could hear him moaning as he flew off the
hood like a sled - just went tumbling off the stretcher face down in the
sand. I could hear 'im crying. I started telling him, 'We're gonna get you
up.' He kept crying. Lieutenant Clyburn, C Company commander, came along
and asked, 'What's going on here?' I said, 'I'm taking the wounded down to
the platoon CP, and he won't get back on the jeep.' He got down by Paul and
said to him, 'We gotta get you back on the jeep to get you to the CP for
some treatment and get you evacuated.' So we got him back on the jeep, and
he kept yelling, 'I'm not getting back on there, that guy's crazy!' So we
got several of the wounded to the CP, where Little Boats and Vaghi were
trying to get a landing craft to come in to evacuate 'em. Finally a young
blonde-headed kid from Maine confiscated an amphibious truck (DUKW), and he
used that to take wounded out to an LCI. I didn't have the jeep long -
somebody, maybe Little Boats, took it away. Little Boats was at the CP,
organizing and deploying the men. By now, it was about 1400 (2 PM) - the
tide was coming in, and we got some of the wounded out. We continued to
take rounds all day long, and there was a short air attack about 1500, when
a German fighter came down the beach straffing. Little Boats ran out and
fired his Tommy gun at 'im."
"Oh, I almost forgot: I was hit on the night of June 9th during another air
attack. We had no protection there on the beach - we were just wide open to
the sky. Suddenly this airplane was on top of us. 'Made a pass down the
beach at about 8 or 9 PM, then he was gone. I was working with my friend,
Anthony Lombardo, down at the water. I said to Anthony, 'Let's find a
foxhole or trench!' So we ran and jumped into this trench on top of a guy
already in there - a combat engineer with the 37th Combat Engineers. He
yelled, 'I dug this hole, it's mine; you guys get out of here!' So we got
out. Then there was another attack. Lombardo and I found another trench
and jumped in it pulling a piece of plywood over our heads. We could hear
the aircraft guns spitting. I was wearing German boots, 'cause mine had
caught fire the first day when we were hit by one of those 122 shells. Our
arms and legs were all tangled up with each other's. I felt something hit
my left leg. My foot, my boot, was all up in Lombardo's face. A shell had
gone through my tibia and out through the muscle. I yelled, 'I'm hit! I'm
hit!' Ensign Vaghi heard me and came running over. He called a medic who
tried to treat me a little bit. Vaghi saw an LCVP nearby in the water. He
yelled to the cox'un to evacuate me to a ship off shore. The cox'un at
first tried to tell Vaghi that he wasn't supposed to take anybody. Vaghi
told him, 'You're taking this man out to a ship right now!' So they got me
onto a stretcher and put me on that LCVP. The reluctant cox'un found an LCT
nearby and pulled up beside it. Crewmen lowered a basket on two lines down
to the LCVP - the basket should have been on one line instead of two - one
on each end. They started raising me up to the ship; guys on the ship were
firing 20 mm's and 40 mm's above me at something - don't know what - but
making lots of noise. They didn't pull in the basket lines evenly; suddenly
my feet were straight up in the air, and I was hanging upside-down looking
down at that LCVP. I was holding onto that basket for dear life - was
almost dumped into the water! They finally got me onboard anyway, and a
Chief Pharmacist Mate (Medic) came up to me and said, 'How ya doin',
Soldier?' I said, 'I'm not a soldier, I'm in the United States Navy!'
Vaghi: "We were on the beach 'til the 29th of June. On D-Day, the
battalion lost 4 officers and 18 enlisted men killed and 12 officers and 55
enlisted men wounded; that day was, indeed, our longest day."
The Navy beach battalions have gotten little credit for their heroic actions
until very recently. I realize now that the men we occasionally see in
photos and movies of the Normandy invasion forces, wearing helmets with an
arc painted across the front, were my brother's men - US Navy men. We
usually see them helping wounded, driving bulldozers, etc. There's no way
that we can ever thank them and others of that "finest of generations" for
saving the world from Hitler and Tojo and their henchmen. Very young
American men (teenagers) of that time could not volunteer fast enough to get
into the fight. In one small town, three or four 18-year-olds even
committed suicide after being refused entry into service.
I was just shy of 8 years old when another brother, Jerry Linwood, as a Navy
medic, helped to deliver LtCol Doolittle, his men and 16 B-25's on the
aircraft carrier, USS Hornet, to within striking distance of Japan. I
turned 10 four days after "Little Boats" and others of that finest of
generations stormed onto France. I was not quite 11 when another brother,
Carson, an Army infantry rifleman, walked and rode a halftrack (a large
armored, truck-like vehicle driven by tank-like tracks instead of rear
wheels) into Germany in '45, about the same time Lewis (Little Boats), as
Chief-of-the-Boat, delivered troops and supplies during the invasion of
Okinawa, his third beach assault of the war.
I was highly honored and deeply humbled in September, 2001, by being asked
to present the Presidential Unit Citation to members of Little Boats' unit
who had not yet received it - 57 years overdue because of Army/Navy
bureaucracy and inter-service haggling over which service should process the
award. I'm somewhat appalled, too, that it took 57 years and a 67-year-old
retired officer of the US Air Force to officially tell them, "Thank you."
The citation reads, "At 0735 hours on the morning of 6 June, 1944, the first
elements of the 6th Naval Beach Battalion reached the beach. Underwater
obstacles and enemy artillery damaged or sank most of their landing craft,
losing valuable equipment and forcing personnel to swim for shore under
hostile fire. Assault troops were pinned to the beach by murderous fire from
enemy rifle, mortar, machine gun and artillery emplacements. Officers and
men of the battalion worked along the side of gap assault teams in clearing
obstacles so supplies and troops could cross the tidal flat of the beach.
Other elements helped build up a firing line and set up control stations on
the beach to direct the landing crafts. Safe lines of approach were marked
and ship-to-shore communication was established. Movement on the beach was
made hazardous by enemy fire and mines which had become detached from
obstacles and buried in the sand. During the night, the beach was strafed by
enemy aircraft and the imposed blackout hampered the battalion's activities.
The extraordinary gallantry, heroism and determination displayed in
overcoming unusual difficulties and hazardous conditions and the esprit de
corps displayed by the 6th Naval Beach Battalion contributed materially to
the capture of Omaha Beach and reflect highest credit on personnel of this
organization and the Armed Forces of the United States."
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