April 18, 1945 Hoosier Vagabond

This was no rear-echelon scribe. Ernie Pyle was right out front with the infantry and the tankers, the Marines and the soldiers who fought and bled and died to put the murderous and totalitarian regimes of the 1940’s, on the garbage pile of history.

Earnest “Ernie” Taylor Pyle was born at the turn of the century, the only child of a tenant farmer and his wife, from the Vermilion County of rural Indiana. The boy disliked life on the farm, and looked for a life of adventure. Following high school graduation, Pyle enlisted in the US Naval Reserve, beginning training at the University of Illinois at Champaign–Urbana.

The Great War came to an end before he completed training, and Pyle enrolled at Indiana University.  He  wanted to write, it was in his blood, but IU offered no degree in journalism. He majored in economics and took every journalism course he could find, while writing for the student newspaper, the Indiana Daily Student.

539e30fa4ce853f5a8a0b0bc8beeb765During his junior year, Pyle and a few fraternity brothers dropped out for a year, to follow the IU baseball. The 1922 trip across the Pacific brought the group to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Manila and Japan, leaving the the young writer with a lifelong love of travel, and exploration.

Ernie Pyle met Geraldine Elizabeth “Jerry” Siebolds at a Halloween party in 1923, the year he moved to Washington to work for the Washington Daily News. Two years later, the couple were wed.

The year before the “Mother Road” became part of the national highway system, Ernie and Jerry Pyle quit their jobs to begin an epic, 9,000 mile trip across the United States.  In a Ford Model T, no less.

Though never himself a pilot, Pyle flew some 100,000 miles as a passenger between 1928-’32, writing one of the earliest and best-known aviation columns, in the nation. No less a figure than Amelia Earhart once said “Any aviator who didn’t know Pyle was a nobody.”

He wrote in an easy, conversational style, the way of the story teller.  Scripps-Howard newspapers editor-in-chief of G.B. (“Deac”) Parker found in his articles “a sort of Mark Twain quality and they knocked my eyes right out.”

Ernie Pyle went to work for himself in 1935, driving from South America to Canada with Jerry, “That Girl who rides with me,” writing human interest stories. His column appeared six days a week in Scripps-Howard newspapers, published under the name “Hoosier Vagabond”.

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The series continued until 1942, two years after Pyle began the most famous part of his career. The part for which he would give his life.

Ernie Pyle initially went to London in 1940 to cover the Battle of Britain, later becoming war correspondent for the Scripps-Howard newspapers.

Pyle’s travels read like a summary of the war itself: from North Africa to Europe, to the Asiatic-Pacific theater. Ernie Pyle traveled with the U.S. military during the North African Campaign, the Italian campaign, and the Sicily landing.  He went where they went, slept where they slept and ate what they ate.

He landed on an LST-353 with American troops on D-Day,  writing from Omaha Beach:

“The best way I can describe this vast armada and the frantic urgency of the traffic is to suggest that you visualize New York city on its busiest day of the year and then just enlarge that scene until it takes in all the ocean the human eye can reach clear around the horizon and over the horizon. There are dozens of times that many”.

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Pyle returned to the United States in the Fall of 1943 and again in 1944, badly in need of rest and recuperation from the stress of combat. This was no rear-echelon scribe. Ernie Pyle was right out front with the infantry and the tankers, the Marines and the soldiers who fought and bled and died to put the murderous and totalitarian regimes of the 1940’s, on the garbage pile of history.

l_if7lf662014101220AMWhat Bill Mauldin was with his cartoon characters “Willy and Joe”, Ernie Pyle was to the written word.  He was free to go anywhere and speak to anyone, from the commander-in-chief to the lowliest private soldier.  Harry Truman himself once said “No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told.  He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen.”

Exhausted, repeatedly hospitalized with “war neurosis” and subject to epic drinking binges, Ernie Pyle reluctantly accepted his final assignment in 1945, to cover the Battle of Okinawa. Somehow, he knew this would be his last. Before landing, Pyle wrote to his friend Paige Cavanaugh, and playwright Robert E. Sherwood, predicting his own death.

pyle1On April 17, 1945, the war correspondent landed with the U.S. Army’s 305th Infantry Regiment, 77th “Liberty Patch” Division on the island of Ie Shima.  The small island northwest of Okinawa had been captured by this time, but was by no means clear of enemy soldiers.

On this day in 1945, Ernie Pyle was killed by a Japanese sniper.  Traveling by jeep with Lieutenant Colonel Joseph B. Coolidge and three other officers of the 305th, the vehicle came under fire from a Japanese machine gunner. All five dove for cover, in a ditch. Let Colonel Coolidge take the story from here:

“A little later Pyle and I raised up to look around. Another burst hit the road over our heads … I looked at Ernie and saw he had been hit.”

The bullet entered the left temple, just below his helmet. Ernie Pyle was dead before his body hit the ground.

080203-ernie-pyle-hlg-1p.grid-6x2The best loved reporter of the second World War was buried wearing that helmet, between the remains of an infantry private and a combat engineer.

The men of the 77th Infantry Division erected a monument which stands to this day, inscribed with these words: “At this spot the 77th Infantry Division lost a buddy, Ernie Pyle, 18 April 1945.” Half a world away, General Eisenhower echoed those same sentiments: “The GIs in Europe––and that means all of us––have lost one of our best and most understanding friends.”

 

A Trivial Matter
Ernie Pyle rejected an offer to cover the D-Day landing from General Omar Bradley’s command ship, electing instead to wade ashore with the troops, on Omaha Beach.
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April 17, 1945 Kamikaze

What must it be like to be at sea, frantically defending yourself against a human bomb, hurtling toward you at 500 miles per hour.

By the end of 1944, a series of naval defeats had left the Imperial Japanese critically short of military aviators, and the experienced aircraft mechanics and ground crew necessary to keep them aloft.

On October 14, the Atlanta class light cruiser USS Reno was hit by a Japanese aircraft in what many believed to be a deliberate crash.  The following day, Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima personally lead an attack by 100 Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bombers against a carrier task force.  Arima was killed and part of one bomber hit the USS Franklin, the Essex-class carrier known as “Big Ben”.

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17-year-old Corporal Yukio Araki (holding the puppy) died the following day in a suicide attack near Okinawa. H/T Wikipedia

Japanese propagandists were quick to seize on Arima’s example.  Whether this was a deliberate “kamikaze” attack remains uncertain.  The tactic was anything but the following week, during the battle of Leyte Gulf.  Japanese aviators were deliberately flying their aircraft, into allied warships.

By the end of the war, this “divine wind” would destroy the lives of 3,862 kamikaze pilots, and over 7,000 American naval personnel.

American Marines invaded Iwo Jima in February 1945, the first allied landing on Japanese territory. It was a savage contest against a dug-in adversary, a 36-day battle costing the lives of 6,381 Americans and nearly 20,000 Japanese.

The table was set for the bloodiest battle of the Pacific war.

On April 1, Easter Sunday, 185,000 troops of the US Army and Marine Corps were pitted in the 85-day battle for Okinawa, against 130,000 defenders of the Japanese 32nd Army and civilian conscripts.  Both sides understood, the war would be won or lost in this place.

While Kamikaze attacks were near-commonplace following the October battle for Leyte Gulf, these one-way suicide missions became a major part of defense for the first time in the battle for Okinawa.  Some 1,500 Kamikaze aircraft participated in the battle for Okinawa, resulting in US 5th Fleet losses of 4,900 men killed or drowned, and another 4,800 wounded.  36 ships were sunk and another 368 damaged.  763 aircraft, were lost.

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Kamikaze, taking off

What must it be like to be at sea, frantically defending yourself against a flying bomb, hurtling toward you at 500 miles per hour.

On April 16, 1945, the Sumner-class destroyer USS Laffey was assigned to radar picket duty, thirty miles north of Okinawa. At 8:25 a.m., the radar operator reported a solid cluster of blips at 17,000 yards, too numerous to count and approaching fast.  165 kamikazes and 150 other enemy aircraft were coming in, from the north

The Aichi D3A “Val” dive bomber appeared near the destroyer at 8:30. This was a reconnaissance mission and, fired upon, the Val jettisoned her bombs, and departed. Four more D3As were soon to follow, tearing out of the sky in a steep dive toward USS Laffey. 20mm AA fire destroyed two while the other two crashed into the sea. Within seconds, a Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” dive bomber made a strafing run from the port beam while another approached on a bomb run, from the starboard side. These were also destroyed but, close enough to wound three gunners, with shrapnel. The flames had barely been brought under control when another Val crashed into the ship’s 40mm gun mounts, killing three sailors while another struck a glancing blow, spewing aviation fuel from a damaged engine.

kamikaze - USS Laffey

Immediately after, another D3A came in strafing from the stern, impacting a 5″ gun mount and disintegrating in a great column of fire as its bomb detonated a powder magazine. Another Val came in within seconds, crashing into the burning gun mount while yet another scored a direct hit, jamming Laffey’s rudder to port and killing several men. Within minutes, another Val and yet another Judy, had hit the port side.

It was all in the first fifteen minutes.

Soon, four FM2 Wildcats followed by twelve Vought F4U Corsair fighters from the escort carrier Shamrock Bay waded into the Kamikazes attacking Laffey, destroying several before being forced to return, low on fuel and out of ammunition.

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By the time it was over, some fifty Kamikazes were involved with the action. USS Laffey suffered six Kamikaze crashes, four direct bomb hits and strafing fire that killed 32 and wounded another 71. Lieutenant Frank Manson, assistant communications officer, asked Commander Frederick Becton if he thought they should abandon ship. Becton snapped “No! I’ll never abandon ship as long as a single gun will fire.” He didn’t hear the comment, from a nearby lookout: “And if I can find one man to fire it.”

For USS Laffey, the war was over.  She was taken under tow the following day, April 17, and anchored near Okinawa.  She would not emerge from dry dock, until September.

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Today, the WW2 destroyer is a museum ship, anchored at Patriots Point in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.  A bronze plaque inside the ship is inscribed with the Presidential Unit Citation, received for that day off the coast of Okinawa:

For extraordinary heroism in action as a Picket Ship on Radar Picket Station Number One during an attack by approximately thirty enemy Japanese planes, thirty miles northwest of the northern tip of Okinawa, April 16, 1945. Fighting her guns valiantly against waves of hostile suicide planes plunging toward her from all directions, the U.S.S. LAFFEY sent up relentless barrages of antiaircraft fire during an extremely heavy and concentrated air attack. Repeatedly finding her targets, she shot down eight enemy planes clear of the ship and damaged six more before they crashed on board. Struck by two bombs, crash-dived by suicide planes and frequently strafed, she withstood the devastating blows unflinchingly and, despite severe damage and heavy casualties, continued to fight effectively until the last plane had been driven off. The courage, superb seamanship and indomitable determination of her officers and men enabled the LAFFEY to defeat the enemy against almost insurmountable odds, and her brilliant performance in this action, reflects the highest credit upon herself and the United States Naval Service.

For the President,
James Forrestal
Secretary of the Navy

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The Battle for Okinawa
“The Battle of Okinawa was an intense 82-day campaign involving more than 287,000 US and 130,000 Japanese troops. It was considered the bloodiest battle of the Pacific Theater, and more than 90,000 men died from both sides, along with almost 100,000 civilian casualties. During this conflict, Kamikazes inflicted the greatest damage ever sustained by the US Navy in a single battle, killing almost 5,000 men. All told, Kamikazes sank 34 ships and damaged hundreds of others during the entire war”. H/T Listverse.com

April 9, 1942 Angels of Bataan and Corregidor

77 Americans of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps and a handful of civilians were captured with the fall of Corregidor, becoming the largest group of female POWs, of the war.

Military forces of the Japanese Empire appeared unstoppable in the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, invading first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong, as well as American military bases in Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines.

The United States was grotesquely unprepared to fight a World War in 1942, and dedicated itself to beating Adolf Hitler.  General Douglas MacArthur abandoned the “Alamo of the Pacific” on March 11 saying “I shall return”, leaving 90,000 American and Filipino troops without food, supplies or support with which to fight off the Japanese offensive.

Death March

Some 75,000 American and Filipino troops surrendered on April 9, abandoning the Bataan peninsula to begin a 65-mile, five-day slog into captivity.  Starving and sick with any number of tropical diseases, Japanese guards were sadistic in the 100-degree tropical sun.  Marchers were beaten, decapitated or shot at random and bayoneted, if too weak to walk. Japanese tank drivers swerved out of the way to run over those who had fallen and were too slow in getting up. Some were burned alive.

Already crippled from tropical disease and starving from the long siege of Luzon, thousands perished in what came to be known as the Bataan Death March.

Margaret_Utinsky
Margaret Utinsky

The American nurse Margaret Elizabeth (Doolin) Rowley came to the Philippines the late 1920s, a twenty-something widow and single mother to her young son, Charles. There she met and fell in love with John “Jack” Utinsky, a former Army Captain working as a civil engineer. The couple was married in 1934, and settled down to a life in Manila.

As the likelihood of war came to the far east, the US military ordered American wives out of the Philippines. Utinsky refused and took an apartment in Manila, while Jack went to work on the Bataan peninsula.

Margaret was forced aboard the last ship to leave as Japanese troops occupied Manila on January 2, 1942, but sneaked off the ship and returned to her apartment. Years later, Margaret Utinsky wrote in her book, “Miss U”:

Miss_u_book_cover“To go into an internment camp seemed like the sensible thing to do, but for the life of me I could not see what use I would be to myself or to anyone else cooped up there. … For from the moment the inconceivable thing happened and the Japanese arrived, there was just one thought in my mind—to find Jack.”

The weeks came and went while Margaret remained undiscovered.  She ventured out in mid-March and sought help from the priests of Malate Convent, there using contacts to gain false identity papers as Rena Utinsky, a fictional nurse from the non-belligerent state of Lithuania.

On the eve of the American surrender, Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright ordered all military and civilian nurses off the Bataan peninsula, and onto the island of Corregidor.

77 Americans of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps and a handful of civilians were captured a month later with the fall of Corregidor, becoming the largest group of female POWs, of the war.

Angels of Bataan and Corregidor
“Known as the “Angels of Bataan and Corregidor,” the group of army nurse continues to hold the distinction of not losing a single member during their three years in internment”. H/T FoxNews.com

The group was sent to Santo Tomas prison camp in July, joining a group of Navy nurses who had been there, for six months.

Conditions were horrendous in these camps, with disease, starvation and cartoonish levels of violence from sadistic guards.  Up to and including summary execution.  Army nurse Mary Bernice Brown-Menzie entered into captivity weighing 130-pounds in 1942.  By the time of her liberation in February, 1945, she weighed 75.

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Mary Bernice Brown

Brown wrote in her diary of one prisoner who was tied up for three days and nights in the burning sun before being shot in the back, and left to die.  ““Whether he died instantly or wounded and bleeding lived on until he finally died, we will never know.  But this cruel, heartless and brutal treatment filled us all with deep grief and sorrow.”

Carlos and Tina Makabali Jose talk about their mother, Adelaida Garcia Makabali, a nurse in Bataan and Corregidor. H/T BataanLegacy.org
agarcia
Adelaida Garcia, H/T Fox News Channel

Margaret Utinsky used her false identity papers to secure a position with the Red Cross by this time, and went to Bataan looking for Jack.  Dismayed by conditions among survivors of the Death march, Utinsky began to do little things for the thousands of prisoners of Camp O’Donnell.  Money.  Quinine.  A little medicine.

Learning that Jack was dead, Utinsky became part of a small clandestine network, determined to do what they could for American POWs and Filipino resistance movements.  Code named “Miss U”,  she joined with 22-year-old Filipina hairdresser Naomi Flores (code name “looter”), American club owner Claire “High Pockets” Maybelle Snyder, a number of Filipino priests and a Spaniard named Ramon Amusategui.

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WW2 propaganda poster

Suspected of aiding POWs, Utinsky was arrested and brought to Fort Santiago prison. There she was sexually assaulted and tortured, for thirty-two days. When confronted with that ship’s passenger log showing her real name, she claimed she had lied in order to secure work as a nurse. Imagine being beaten, and then beaten again, and again. For thirty two days. When that failed to gain a confession, her jailers decapitated five Filipino prisoners, in front of her cell. Another night, an American POW was tied to the bars of her cell and beaten so savagely that chunks of his flesh, wound up in her hair. Even beating the man to death in front of her was not enough, and she was thrown into a dungeon.  For four days, without food or water.

Corns-bible
“This New Testament was given to US Army nurse 2nd Lt. Edith Corns by Army Chaplain Perry O. Wilcox on 16 April 1942, while both were stationed on Corregidor. Shortly thereafter, the island was surrendered. Corns spent the remainder of the war in the Santo Tomas prison camp until it was liberated by an intrepid raid in February 1945 during the Battle of Manila. She was able to hold onto the New Testament for comfort throughout her imprisonment”. H/T National WW2 Museum, of New Orleans

She was finally released, provided she sign a statement attesting to her “good treatment”.
Utinsky was six weeks in hospital, recovering from the ordeal. Doctors wanted to amputate a leg infected with gangrene but she refused. The place was teeming with Japanese spies. She feared what she might give up, while under the influence of gas. In the end, the gangrene was cut out, without benefit of anesthesia.

Amusategui was found out and executed.  Flores and Utinsky took refuge in the mountains, working with guerrilla groups for the remainder for the war.   By the time it was over, Utinsky had lost 45 pounds, 35 percent of her body weight, and lost an inch in height.  Her face was aged twenty-five years and her once auburn hair, turned white.

Back in the camps, POWs fashioned nurse’s uniforms made from khaki, under the leadership of Veteran Army Captain Maude Davison.   Despite themselves suffering from disease and starvation, each was expected to finish her shifts, providing what care they could for the “The Battling Bastards of Bataan.”

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Army Lieutenant Alice Zwicker of Maine tells of catching sparrows to eat during three years of captivity. You can read about her story in “The Life of a World War II Army Nurse in the War Zone and at Home”, by Walter MacDougall

It was the same for Navy nurses, led by Lieutenant Laura Cobb.  In 1943, these women  volunteered for transfer to Los Baños.  The work gave them purpose.  A reason to live.

Following the December 14, 1944 massacre at Palawan, United States Army Rangers and their Filipino allies staged a daring raid on Cabanatuan on January 27 and Camp O’Donnell, three days later.  Santo Tomas was liberated on February 3, 1945 along with nearby Bilibid Prison and Los Baños on February 23.

Emaciated, tormented by tropical disease and without a day’s survival training between them, every one of the 66 Army nurses, eleven Navy nurses and one Nurse Anesthetist:   Angels of Bataan and Corregidor lived to tell the tale and continued to perform their nurse’s duties, to the end.

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On the inside, most would have told you the men they cared for were the heroes of this story.  They never sought recognition.  After the war, many of those men credited their survival to the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor.  It was they who sought the recognition these women so richly deserved.

Today, none of the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor are believed to survive. Lieutenant Colonel Nancy Cantrell is an historian with the US Army Nurse’s Corps “They were a tough bunch,” Cantrell said in an interview with Soldier’s Magazine. “They had a mission. They were surviving for the boys … and each other. That does give you a bit of added strength.”

 

MAMA JULIE

Without order and work we will never survive.
This camp is guarded, you see, by Japanese
but we run it ourselves. And I was the one
(though many take credit) who labelled the quinine
Soda Bicarbonate so it wouldn’t be taken
and the one who said we’d care for the internees
imprisoned with us: Aussies, Brits, French —
other enemies of the Rising Sun, men, women,
children, all of them civilians. In khaki clothes
we’ve made by hand, we work our shifts.
No days off for heat waves or monsoon.
Only the bedridden are excused. These girls
are unprepared, call me Battle-Axe, but I know
how to whip them into shape. No whining.
No complaints We may be short on emetine
or anesthetic and have no reserves of insulin,
but what we do isn’t free choice. It’s a higher calling.

From ANGELS OF BATAAN, Susan Terris (Pudding House
Publications, 1999)

A Trivial Matter
Some 76,000 prisoners of war (66,000 Filipinos and 10,000 Americans) began the Bataan death march in April 1942. There are no precise numbers of those killed over those 65-miles. Estimates of the dead range from 2,500 Filipinos and 500 Americans, to 30 per cent of the entire force.

April 3, 1946 Death March

Arriving at Nagoya #7 prison camp, Tonelli was handed a piece of paper. Scribbled on it was a 58. He was prisoner number 58, the same number he had once worn on his football Jersey. “From that point on,” he said, “I knew I was going to make it”.

The game was November 27, 1937.  Late in the 4th quarter, Notre Dame was tied 6-6 with Southern California. The “Fighting Irish” needed a miracle. Notre Dame #58 Mario “Motts” Tonelli took the hand-off deep in Notre Dame territory and ran the ball 70 yards back before being tackled. Seconds later, the 5’11”, 195-pound fullback scored the game winning touchdown.

Tonelli (1)In some ways, Mario Tonelli himself was the miracle. Years earlier at the age of 6, he’d been burned over 80% of his body, when a trash compactor toppled over on him. Mario’s immigrant father Celi, a laborer from a northern Italian marble quarry, refused to believe the doctor who said his son would never walk again. Fixing four wheels to a door, the elder Tonelli taught his first American-born son to move about with his arms.

By 1935, Mario Tonelli was a football, basketball and track star at Chicago’s DePaul Academy.

After a year coaching at Providence College in 1939 and a year playing professional football for the Chicago Cardinals in 1940, Tonelli joined the Army in early 1941, assigned to the 200th Coast Artillery Regiment in Manila.

He’d hoped to fulfill his one years’ commitment and return to the Cardinals for the 1942 season, but it wasn’t meant to be.  The radio crackled to life at 2:30am local time on December 7, 1941. “Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is no drill!”

pearl-harbor-4
“A view of Pearl Harbor looking southwest from the hills towards the north. Taken during the Japanese raid, with anti-aircraft shell bursts overhead. Large column of smoke in lower center is from USS Arizona”. – H/T fstoppers.com

Military forces of Imperial Japan appeared unstoppable in the early months of World War Two, attacking first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore, and Hong Kong as well as US military bases in Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines.

The United States was grotesquely unprepared to fight a World War in 1942, and dedicated itself to beating Adolf Hitler first. General Douglas MacArthur abandoned the “Alamo of the Pacific” on March 11 saying “I shall return”, leaving 90,000 American and Filipino troops without food, supplies or support with which to fight off the Japanese offensive.

bataan-death-march-route-mapOn April 9, 75,000 surrendered the Bataan peninsula, beginning a 65 mile, five-day slog into captivity through the heat of the Philippine jungle. Japanese guards were sadistic. Some would beat the marchers at random, or bayonet those too weak to walk. Japanese tanks would swerve out of the way to run over anyone who had fallen and was too slow in getting up. Some were burned alive. Already crippled from tropical disease and starving from the long siege of Luzon, thousands perished in what came to be known as the Bataan Death March.

Exhausted, sunburned and aching with thirst, Tonelli still refused when a Japanese soldier demanded his Notre Dame class ring. As the guard reached for his sword, a nearby prisoner shouted “Give it to him. It’s not worth dying for”.

Minutes later, a Japanese officer appeared, speaking perfect English. “Did one of my men take something from you?” “Yes”, Tonelli replied. “My school ring”. “Here,” said the officer, pressing the ring into his hand. “Hide it somewhere. You may not get it back next time”. Tonelli was speechless. “I was educated in America”, the officer said. “At the University of Southern California. I know a little about the famous Notre Dame football team. In fact, I watched you beat USC in 1937. I know how much this ring means to you, so I wanted to get it back to you”.

prisoners-tied-up

Nearly 700 Americans and more than 10,000 Filipinos died on the Bataan death march. For the survivors, the ordeal was only beginning. For 2½ years Tonelli suffered starvation, disease and endless beatings in the squalid prison camps known as O’Donnell and Cabanatuan.  He was later transferred to Davo Penal Colony (“Dapecol”), in Panabo City.   Of an estimated 2,009 to enter Dapecol between October 1942- June 1944, only 805 survived the war.

Throughout the ordeal, Tonelli kept his ring.  Buried in a soap dish.  He’d take it out from time to time to remind himself.  Life used to be better than this. It gave him something to hope for.

Death March

The hellish 60-day journey aboard the filthy, cramped merchant vessel began in late 1944, destined for slave labor camps in mainland Japan. Tonelli was barely 100 pounds on arrival, his body ravaged by malaria and intestinal parasites. He was barely half the man who once played fullback at Notre Dame Stadium, Soldier Field and Comiskey Park.

Arriving at Nagoya #7 prison camp, Tonelli was handed a piece of paper. Scribbled on it was a 58. He was prisoner number 58, the same number he had once worn on his football Jersey. “From that point on,” he said, “I knew I was going to make it”.

mario-tonelli-ringAn American military tribunal conducted after the war held Lieutenant General Homma Masaharu, commander of the Japanese invasion forces in the Philippines, guilty of war crimes. He was executed by firing squad on April 3, 1946.

Mario Tonelli always hoped to meet the officer who’d returned his ring, but it wasn’t meant to be. He probably didn’t survive the war.  Mario “Motts” Tonelli passed away in 2003, at the age of eighty-six.  He still had that ring.

 

Afterward

In 1989, ROTC students at New Mexico State University held a memorial “Death March”.  Since 1992, the Army installation at the White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces has been host to the memorial. It’s two events, really, participants competing in “heavy” and “light” division wearing full uniform with rucksack or full running gear. Marchers in both divisions compete over a full marathon course of 26.2 miles of hilly desert terrain, or a shorter 14.2 mile course.

Two weeks ago, 8,631 registered participants gathered from fifty states and a dozen nations, to commemorate the Battle of Bataan and the death march, 77 years ago.

Five actual survivors were in attendance for the opening ceremony, wrapped in blankets to ward off the pre-dawn cold.  They were Harold Bergbower, age 98.  James Bollich, age 97.  Valdemar DeHerrera, age 99.  Paul Kerchum, age 99.  Ben Skardon, age 101.

Mister Skardon actually marched in the March 17, 2019 event, covering three miles at the head of Skardon’s Brigade”.

The day began with a symbolic roll call.  Most of the names were met with silence. Twelve more than the same event, last year.

765f8607-5f56-4cbe-9a41-0fe13f1745ac-HK8A7509
“At 101 years old, Ben Skardon, center, is the oldest living Bataan Death March survivor to attend the memorial event at White Sands Missile Range. This year, he led “Ben’s Brigade” in an 3-mile march through the course on Sunday, March 17, 2019. (Photo: Kaitlin Englund/For the Sun-News)” H/T Ruidoso News
A Trivial Matter
Japanese guards made prisoners roast for hours the scorching Filipino sun, a torture known as “the sun treatment.” With little food and no water, Filipino civilians tried to throw food at the marchers. Most who did this were killed on the spot, by Japanese soldiers.

 

March 30, 1945 We’re All Jews Here

“We’re not doing that.  We’re all turning out”.

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me”. – Martin Niemöller

last_great_act_of_defiance1Before the age of the internet meme,  office jokes and bits of folk wisdom were passed around and copied and copied again.  There was one, “The Last great of Defiance“, which will live for all time as my favorite.  The picture speaks for itself.  I had one on the wall, for years.

This is one of those stories.

The last great effort of German arms burst out of the frozen Ardennes forest on December 16, 1944, aiming for the vital port at Antwerp.

Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein“, (“Operation Watch on the Rhine”) was a tactical surprise for the Wehrmacht, as allied forces were driven back through the densely forested regions of France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Wartime news maps showed a great inward “bulge” in the lines, and the name stuck. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by American forces in World War 2, fought in the harshest winter conditions in recorded history and involving some 610,000 GIs.

malmed1Prisoners were swept up by the thousands, and faced an uncertain future.  In Malmedy, Belgium, seventy-five captured Americans were marched into an open field and machine gunned by members of the 1st SS Panzer Division (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler), a part of 6th Panzer Army.

On December 16, the all-black 333rd Field Artillery Battalion of the racially segregated US Army put up an heroic defense outside the town of Wereth, Belgium, using their 155mm guns to delay the German advance. Desperately outnumbered, the 333rd was overrun the following day, groups of men scattering to escape as best they could. Eleven soldiers made their way to the home of Mathias Langer, the Mayor of Wereth.

To shelter allied troops under German occupation was to risk summary execution. Despite the obvious risk to their own lives, Matthias and his wife Maria took these men in and attempted to hide them, in their home. When German troops arrived, the eleven surrendered rather than risk the lives of their benefactors.

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Movie poster for the 2011 film, “The Wereth Eleven”

The prisoners were marched out of sight and murdered, every one of them. The Wereth 11 were lost in the confusion of the Bulge, their bodies hidden under the snow until Spring melt. Their story was lost to history, for the next fifty years.

Nazi atrocities were not limited to Allied troops.  By some accounts, more civilians were killed during the Battle of the Bulge than the last four years.  When the fighting was over, more than 115 bodies were found in the towns of Ster and Parfondruy, alone.

For Master Sargent Roderick “Roddie” Edmonds, the war ended on December 19, swept up with hundreds of American troops and taken prisoner.  These were the lucky ones, escaping those first white-hot moments of capture to be sent to a German prisoner-of-war camp.  He was later transferred to another camp near Ziegenhain, Germany.  At 24, M/Sgt Roddie Edmonds was the senior non-commissioned officer at Stalag IX-A, responsible for 1,275 American POWs.

The Wehrmacht had harsh anti-Jew policies and kept Jewish POWs in strict segregation.  In the East, Russian Jewish POWs were sent directly to extermination camps.  The future was more uncertain for Jewish POWs, in the west.  Many were worked to death in slave labor camps.

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On January 27, the first day at Stalag IX-A, commandant Siegmann ordered Edmonds: All American Jews were to identify themselves, at the following day’s assembly.  The word went out to all five barracks:  “We’re not doing that.  We’re all turning out“.

The following morning, 1,275 POWs presented themselves.  Every. Single. Man.

Siegmann was perplexed.  “They can’t all be Jews!”  As senior NCO, Edmonds spoke for the group.  “We’re all Jews here“.  The Nazi commandant was apoplectic, pressing a Luger into Edmonds’ forehead.  This is your last chance.

Edmonds gave his name, rank and serial number, and then said:  ‘If you are going to shoot, you are going to have to shoot all of us because we know who you are and you’ll be tried for war crimes when we win this war.'”  Siegmann was incandescent, white with rage, but the moment had passed.  He was beaten.

The 1,275 American POWs held at Stalag IX-A were liberated this day in 1945, including some 200 Jews.

Roddie Edmonds was again recruited for the war in Korea.  He never told his family about any of it.

Chris Edmonds is the Pastor at Piney Grove Baptist Church in Maryville, Tennessee. Following his father’s death in 1985, Chris’ mother gave him his father’s  war diary, where he found a brief mention of this story.  Chris scoured the news for more information, around the time Richard Nixon was looking for his post-Presidential home.  As it happened, Nixon bought his posh, upper-east side home from Lester Tanner, a prominent New York Lawyer who mentioned in passing, he owed his life to Roddie Edmonds.

So it was, this story came to light.  In 2015, Edmonds was honored as “Righteous among the Nations”, the first American soldier, so honored.  It’s the highest honor bestowed by the state of Israel, on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazi death machine.  President Barack Obama recognized Edmonds heroism in a 2016 speech before the Israeli embassy.  The United States Congress bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal in 2017.  As I write this, Pastor Edmonds and the Jewish veterans saved by M/Sgt Edmonds are pushing for the Knoxville, Tennessee native to receive the Medal of Honor.

Pastor Edmonds says he always looked up to his father, the man had always been, his hero.  “I just didn’t know he had a cape in his closet“.

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March 2, 1942  The Great Escape

For POWs of officer rank, escape was the first duty.

Stalag Luft III was a German POW camp in the province of Lower Silesia, built to house captured Allied airmen.  The first “Kriegsgefangene” (POWs), arrived on March 21, 1942. The facility would grow to include 10,949 “kriegies”, comprising some 2,500 Royal Air force officers, 7,500 United States Army Air officers, and about 900 from other Allied air forces.

Barracks were built on pilings to discourage tunneling, creating 24” of open space beneath the buildings. Seismic listening devices were placed around the camp’s perimeter. In the German mind, the place was the next best thing, to airtight.

Kriegies didn’t see it that way, three of whom concocted a gymnastic vaulting horse out of wood from Red Cross packages.

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A Trojan horse was more like it. Every day, the horse would be lugged out to the perimeter. Above ground, prisoners’ gymnastic exercises masked the sound while underground, kriegies dug with bowls into the sand, using the horse itself to hide diggers, excavated soil and tools alike.  Iron rods were used to poke air holes to the surface.

Every evening for three months, plywood was placed back over the hole, and covered with the gray-brown dust of the prison yard.

On October 19, 1943, the three British officers made their escape.  Lieutenant Michael Codner and Flight Lieutenant Eric Williams reached the port of Stettin in the West Pomeranian capital of Poland, where they stowed away on a Danish ship. Flight Lieutenant Oliver Philpot boarded a train to Danzig, and stowed away on a ship bound for neutral Sweden. Eventually, all three made it back to England.

RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was shot down and forced to crash land on his first engagement in May 1940, but not before taking two Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters with him. Taken to the Dulag Luft near Frankfurt, Bushell formed an escape committee along with Fleet Air Arm pilot Jimmy Buckley, and Wing Commander Harry Day.

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Roger Bushell, (right), the Cambridge-educated son of British parents, was born and brought up in South Africa. Bushell was the inspiration for the film character “Bartlett”, played by Richard Attenborough

For POWs of officer rank, escape was the first duty. Roger Bushell escaped twice and almost made it, but each time his luck deserted him. By October, Bushell found himself in the north compound of Stalag Luft III, where British officers were held.

By the following spring, Bushell had concocted the most audacious escape plot in the history of World War Two. “Everyone here in this room is living on borrowed time”, he said. “By rights we should all be dead! The only reason that God allowed us this extra ration of life is so we can make life hell for the Hun… In North Compound we are concentrating our efforts on completing and escaping through one master tunnel. No private-enterprise tunnels allowed. Three bloody deep, bloody long tunnels will be dug – Tom, Dick and Harry. One will succeed!”

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The effort was unprecedented. Previous escape attempts had never involved more than twenty individuals. Bushell, soon to be known by the code name “Big X” was proposing to get out with two hundred.

Civilian clothes had to be fashioned for every man.  Identification and travel documents forged. “Tom” began in a darkened hallway corner. “Harry’s entrance was hidden under a stove, “Dick”‘s entrance was concealed in a drainage sump.

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The Red Cross distributed high calorie, dehydrated whole-milk powder called “Klim” (“Spell it backwards”) throughout German POW camps. Klim tins were fashioned into tools, candle holders and vent stacks.  Fat was skimmed off soups and molded into candles, using threads from old clothing for wicks.

Of fifteen hundred prisoners in the compound, six hundred were involved in the attempt.  200 “penguins” made 25,000 trips into the prison yard, sacks sewn from the legs of long underpants, disposing of soil.  The tunnels were some kind of engineering marvel.  30′ down to avoid seismic detection equipment, and only two-feet square, the three tunnels extended outward for the length of a football field and more.

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Prisoners rigged an electric lighting system and shored up the tunnel sides, using bedboards

Penguins were running out of places to put all that soil, around the time the camp was expanded to include “Dick’s” planned exit-point.  From that time forward, “Dick” was refilled from the other two.  “Tom” was discovered in September 1943, the 98th tunnel in the camp to be found out.

Flight Lieutenant Nathaniel Flekser reflected on his own experience: “How lucky I really was dawned on me when I later met RAF prisoners who were shot down while on bombing missions over Germany. They were attacked by angry civilians, brutally interrogated by the Gestapo, and packed into cattle cars. One crew was thrown into a furnace.” H/T warfarehistory.com

The escape was planned for the good weather of summer, but a Gestapo visit changed the timetable.  “Harry” was ready by March.   The “Great Escape” was scheduled for the next moonless night.  March 24-25, 1944.

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German soldier demonstrates trolley system used to transport soil for dispersal

Contrary to the Hollywood movie, no Americans were involved in the escape.  At that point, none were left in camp.

The great escape was doomed, nearly from the start.  First the door was frozen shut, then a partial collapse required repair.  The exit came up short of the tree line, further slowing the escape.  When guards spotted #77 coming out of the ground, it was all over.

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German crawls out of tunnel entrance, following discovery

German authorities were apoplectic on learning the scope of the project.  90 complete bunk beds had disappeared, along with 635 mattresses.  52 twenty-man tables were missing, as were 4,000 bed boards and an endless list of other objects. For the rest of the war, each bed was issued with only nine boards, and those were counted, regularly.

Gestapo members executed German workers who had not reported the disappearance of electrical wire.

In the end, only three of the 76 made it to freedom:  Norwegians Per Bergsland and Jens Muller made it back to England via Sweden.  Dutch pilot Bram van der Stok made it to Gibraltar.   Hitler personally ordered the execution of the other 73, 50 of which were actually carried out.

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General Arthur Nebe is believed to have personally selected the 50 for execution.  They were 22 Brits (including Bushell), 6 Canadians, 6 Poles, 4 Australians, 3 South Africans, 2 Norwegians, 2 New Zealanders, and one man each from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Greece, and Lithuania.  All but seven were RAF airmen.

Nebe himself was later implicated in the July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and executed on this day in 1945.  Roger “Big X” Bushell and his partner Bernard Scheidhauer were caught while awaiting a train at the Saarbrücken railway station.  They were murdered by members of the Gestapo on March 29, who were themselves tried and executed for war crimes, after the German surrender.

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Dick Churchill, last surviving veteran of the “Great Escape”, died on February 12, 2019.

New camp Kommandant Oberst Franz Braune was horrified that so many escapees had been shot. Braune allowed those kriegies who remained to build a memorial, to which he personally contributed. Stalag Luft III is gone today, but that stone memorial to “The Fifty”, still stands.

Dick Churchill was an HP.52 bomber pilot and RAF Squadron Leader.  One of the 76 who escaped, Churchill was recaptured three days later, hiding in a hay loft.  In a 2014 interview, Churchill said he was fairly certain he’d been spared execution, because his captors thought he might be related to Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The last surviving veteran of the daring escape which inspired the 1963 movie died at his home near Crediton, Devon, England, on February 12.  Five weeks ago.  Dick Churchill was ninety-nine years old.

 

A Trivial Matter
Rumors that Stalag Luft III’s American POWs were to be moved to another compound sped up work on Tom, raising German suspicions and leading to the tunnel’s discovery in September 1943. The tunnel was blown up using dynamite, causing a nearby guard tower to sink into the hole. The discovery was bad news for the Kriegies, but no end of amusement from watching how much work went into rebuilding that tower.

March 14, 1918 Concrete Fleet

Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war in 1917, the need for new ships, higher than ever.  Something had to be done.  One answer, was concrete.

The final third of the nineteenth century was a period of unprecedented technological advancement, an industrial revolution of international proportion. 

The war born of the second industrial revolution, would be like none before.

From the earliest days of the “War to end all Wars”, the Triple Entente powers imposed a surface blockade on the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, throttling the maritime supply of goods and crippling the capacity to make war. One academic study from 1928 put the death toll by starvation at 424,000, in Germany alone.

The Kaiser responded with a blockade of his own, a submarine attack on the supply chain to the British home islands. It was a devastating incursion against an island adversary dependent on prodigious levels of imports.

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Joseph Louis Lambot’s first prototype, built 1848

1915 saw the first German attacks on civilian shipping.  Total losses for that year alone came to 370 vessels against a loss of only 16 U-Boats.  Steel was in critically short supply by the time the US entered the war in 1917 with the need for new ships, higher than ever.  Something had to be done.  One answer, was concrete.

The idea of concrete boats was nothing new.  In the south of France, Joseph Louis Lambot experimented with steel-reinforced “ferrocement”, building his first dinghy in 1848.

By the outbreak of WW1, Lambot’s creation had sunk to the bottom of a lake, where it remained for 100 years, buried deep in anaerobic mud.  Today you may see the thing at the Museum of Brignoles, in the south of France.

Italian engineer Carlo Gabellini built barges and small ships of concrete in the 1890s.  British boat builders experimented with the stuff, in the first decade of the 20th century.  The Violette, built in Faversham in 1917, is now a mooring hulk in Kent, the oldest concrete vessel still afloat.

 

 

The Violette built in 1917, is the oldest concrete ship, still afloat.

The American government contracted with Norwegian boat builder N.K. Fougner to create a prototype, the 84-foot Namsenfjord launched in August, 1917.  The test was judged a success.  President Woodrow Wilson approved a twenty-four ship fleet, consisting of steamers and tankers to aid the war effort.  The first and largest of the concrete fleet, the SS Faith was launched on this day in 1918, thirty days ahead of schedule.

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“Constructed by the San Francisco Shipbuilding Company in 1918, the SS Faith was the first concrete ship built in the United States”. – H/T warfarehistorynetwork.com

The New York Times was ecstatic:

98260463‘”When the first steel vessels were built people said they would not float, or if they did they would be too heavy to be serviceable,” said W. Leslie Comyn, President of the concern which built the boat. “Now they say the same about concrete. But all the engineers we have taken over this boat, including many who said it was an impossible undertaking, now agree that it was a success”‘.

All that from a west coast meadow with two tool sheds, a production facility 1/20th the cost of a conventional steel shipyard.

The Great War ended eight months later with only half the concrete fleet, actually begun.  None were completed.  All were sold off to commercial shippers or for storage, or scrap.

For all its advantages as a building material, ferrocement has numerous drawbacks.  Concrete is a porous material, and chunks tend to spall off from rusting steel reinforcements.  We’ve all see that on bridge abutments.  Worst of all, the stuff is brittle.  On October 30, 1920, the SS Cape Fear collided with a cargo ship in Narragansett Bay Rhode Island and “shattered like a teacup”, killing 19 crewmen.

SS Palo Alto was a tanker-turned restaurant and dance club, before breaking up in heavy waves, in Monterey Bay.

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SS Palo Alto

SS San Pasqual was damaged in a storm in 1921 and became a warehouse for the Old Times Molasses Company of Havana. She was converted to a coastal defense installation during WW2 and outfitted with machine guns and cannon, then becaming a prison, during the Cuban revolution. The wreck was later converted to a 10-room hotel before closing, for good.  That was some swanky joint, I’m sure.

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SS San Pasquale

The steamer SS Sapona was sold for scrap and converted to a floating liquor warehouse during Prohibition, later grounding off the shore of Bimini during a hurricane.  All the liquor, was lost.

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SS Sapone as she looked, in 2009.  H/T Compsciscubadive

The SS Atlantus was destined to be sunk in place as a ferry dock in Cape May New Jersey in 1926, until she broke free in a hurricane and ran aground, 150-feet from the beach. Several attempts were made to free the hulk, but none successful. At one time, the wreck bore a billboard. Advertising a marine insurance outfit, no less. Kids used to swim out and dive off, until one drowned. The wreck began to split up in the late 1950s. If you visit sunset beach today, you might see something like the image, at the top of this page.

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SS Atlantus, Insurance billboard

In 1942, the world once again descended into war.  With steel again in short supply, the Roosevelt administration contracted for another concrete fleet of 24 ships.  The decades had come and gone since that earlier fleet.  This time, the new vessels came off the production line at the astonishing rate of one a month featuring newer and stronger aggregates, lighter than those of years past. Like the earlier concrete fleet, most would be sold off after the war.  Two of the WW2 concrete fleet actually saw combat service, the SS David O. Saylor and the SS Vitruvius.  

In March 1944, an extraordinary naval convoy departed the port of Baltimore. including the concrete vessels, SS David O. Saylor and SS Vitruvius.  It was the most decrepit procession to depart an American city since Ma and Pa Joad left Oklahoma, for California.  A one-way voyage with Merchant Marines promised a return trip, aboard Queen Mary.

Merchant mariner Richard Powers , described the scene:

“We left Baltimore on March 5, and met our convoy just outside Charleston, South Carolina,” Powers recalled. “It wasn’t a pretty sight: 15 old ‘rustpots.’ There were World War I-era ‘Hog Islanders’ (named for the Hog Island shipyard in Philadelphia where these cargo and transport ships were built), damaged Liberty Ships.”

1,154 U-boats were commissioned into the German navy before and during WW2, some 245 of which were lost in 1944.  The majority of those, in the North Atlantic.  The allied crossing took a snail’s pace at 33 days and, despite the massive U-boat presence, passed unmolested into Liverpool.  Powers figured, “The U-Boats were not stupid enough to waste their torpedoes on us.”

Herr Hitler’s Kriegsmarine should have paid more attention.

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On June 1, Seaman Powers’ parade of misfit ships joined a procession of 100 British and American vessels.  Old transports and battered warships, under tow or limping across the English channel at the stately pace of five knots.  These were the old and the infirm, the combat damaged and obsolete.  There were gaping holes from mine explosions, and the twisted and misshapen evidence of collisions at sea. Some had superstructures torn by some of the most vicious naval combat, of the European war.  Decrepit as they were, each was bristling with anti-aircraft batteries, Merchant Mariners joined by battle hardened combat troops.

Their services would not be required.  The allies had complete air supremacy over the English channel.

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A line of U.S. Liberty ships deliberately sunk off the coast at Omaha beach to form a breakwater for the Mulberry harbor there.(U.S. Army) H/T wearethemighty.com

These were the “gooseberries” and “blockships”.   Part of the artificial “Mulberry” harbors intended to form breakwaters and landing piers in support of the D-Day landing, charged with the difficult and dangerous task of scuttling under fire at five points along the Norman coast.  Utah.  Omaha.  Gold.  Juneau.  Sword.

Later on, thousands more merchant vessels would arrive in support of the D-Day invasion.  None more important than those hundred or so destined to advance and die, the living breakwater without which the retaking of continental Europe, would not have been possible.

 

A Trivial Matter
The British Army lost 19,240 killed on the first Day of the WW1 Battle of the Somme. French and German forces suffered a whopping 975,000 casualties on one single day of the ten-month Battle of Verdun. Imperial Russia lost five million soldiers, in the first two years of WW1. Many single day’s fighting of the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the previous 100 years. Combined.