North Africa

 

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IN THE BEGINNING - NORTH AFRICA

Picture, if you can, a contingent of United States Naval personnel, outfitted in a mixture of Army, Navy and Marine Corps uniforms, commanded by a United States Coast Guard officer, and acting for all the world like a stevedore crew from the docks of New York, and you can see in your mind's eye a picture of the Beach Party, the forerunners of the Beach Battalion. From a nucleus of nine of the best of these beach parties, the First Naval Beach Battalion was formed and subsequently took part in the assaults on four more enemy shores after the African landings.

The organization and training of each of these individual beach party units was hurried, disorganized, and in every aspect, minimal. Sent to an area known as Little Creek, Virginia, the officers and men were assembled and lodged in pyramidal tents in the swampy bog, across the creek from a spic and span US Coast Guard Section Base, to learn invasion tactics with no "book" from which to learn. Morale was understandably low. Officers were as much in the dark as the men and could provide no answers to many legitimate questions raised every day by the men in their charge. I think the fact that we were all up the same creek, literally as well as figuratively, was the embryo from which our later First Beach Battalion feelings of pride and achievement were born. Assembled in late August and September of 1942, divided into nine groups of 43 men and 3 officers, including one medical officer, we were on our assigned ships and off to the shooting war in early October. Up the rebels.

It has always been somewhat questionable whether or not the “real Navy" ever laid claim to this "bastard" outfit. But that was in the beginning. What was the job of this strange looking group of half-­outfitted men who had come aboard their ships? (We might well have felt better about the whole thing if we had known how untrained for combat and insecure the crews of these makeshift attack transports were) What job had been assigned to this strange group? What operational orders did they bring aboard? Were they "commandos?” Nah. Were they attached for temporary duty of some unknown description or were they newly assigned to the ship's company as permanent residents? With those rag-tag outfits from Army, Navy and Marine Corps, and those Springfield rifles still rank and sticky from cold storage in solid grease bags since turned in after World War I, we undoubtedly did provoke discussion as we straggled aboard ship. Fortunately we had balked at accepting those little round WW I helmets, and could come aboard looking OK if viewed from the upper decks. Finally, were we soldiers, sailors, or marines? Answers to such questions were hazy or nonexistent in 1942. Most are still unclear today, 50 years later. Suffice it to say then, that from this inauspicious beginning, evolved the battle tested crack amphibious support unit which was later to be commissioned as the USN FIRST NAVAL BEACH BATTALION ­the first ever in the annals of naval history.

The men of the fledgling beach parties began reporting to Little Creek, Virginia in late August and September 1942, "for duty in connection with amphibious operations, (beach party training)". No battle-tested veterans these. This was a nucleus of doctors, lawyers, salesmen, mechanics, educators, football players, stevedores, farmers, clerks, etc., etc. No women; this was 1942. You name it and the profession was represented in the ranks of these fledgling beach parties. Some prior military presence could be felt in the form of personnel who had previously served in the military - a few back to World War I, but generally speaking, the bulk of the new units were plain, ordinary citizens from all walks of life who had been drafted or who had volunteered for naval service to end the war in which the United States was now a full fledged partner.

Typical of the type and length of training required for the new beach party personnel were the orders given to Lieutenant (jg) Jack Elliott, (later to become Executive Officer of the battalion). Lieutenant Elliott received orders, after six weeks in training with 800 other "30 day wonders" at Harvard University, officially known as the "Officers Training School", on 28 August, 1942, to report to the Commander, Amphibious Forces, Atlantic Fleet, Norfolk, Virginia. He reported, as directed, on 31 August 1942, and was transferred on 7 September to the Commanding Officer, Amphibious Force Training base, Little Creek, Virginia, for duty in connection with amphibious operations, (beach party training). A scant three weeks later, on 29 September, Lt (jg) Elliott was ordered to "take charge of Ensign Julius C. Sleder and proceed to the Commanding Officer, 36th Army Engineer Regiment, Camp Bradford, Virginia, for duty as assigned, and for further transfer to the USS Susan B. Anthony". Ten days later, Lt (jg) Elliott reported to the Commanding Officer of the Susan B. Anthony, formerly one of the Grace Line combination banana/passenger ships pressed into service for the speeded-up invasion plans agreed to by the allied forces to appease Stalin's demand for a "Second Front". The conversion of this ship to a ship to take part in an invasion in enemy territorial waters and beaches was almost ludicrous. The mahogany staircases and other areas in which the original wood fittings created a terrible firetrap remained intact for this invasion because there was no time for such work. Lieutenant Elliott reports that a soda fountain in the former ship's lounge area was still intact and working. Lifeboat davits had been strengthened and the boats replaced by some of the earliest of the Higgins Landing Craft. That was it. Off to war. Rub-a-dub-dub. Lieutenant Elliott's amphibious training ended with his reporting on board. From now on, he and Ensign Sleder and the 43 men assigned to him, would learn the hard facts of landings, air attacks, and warfare in general from their own improvised actions. They were trained naval warriors.

From the hallowed halls of Harvard on 28 August 1942 to the decks of the Susan B. Anthony attack transport on 9 October 1942, a total time span of approximately five weeks, this young civilian/officer, along with all the other officers in this first invasion, had received all the training they were going to get prior to embarkation for the amphibious assault on the beaches of North Africa. To make matters worse, as excerpted from the personal notes of Lieutenant Elliott, it appears that the only knowledge, the only tactical or operational orders ever seen by members of this brand-new baby beach party came in the form of a release to the entire ship's company after their leaving port for the invasion. "These orders were for the Anthony’s boat crews...the beach party had to borrow copies and play their part in the invasion by ear ... no help was offered by the ship's company", wrote Elliott. "The Niagara Falls surf that first day, and our evacuation that night to an empty ocean with all ships gone - moved to another area because of a German submarine attack which got four of the transports only partially unloaded - was a combination of a very good small boat officer and crew, and a goodly measure of pure blind luck."

With the above as the only available information on the initial organization, training, and embarkation of the naval beach parties assigned to the landings in North Africa, we shall proceed to document, insofar as possible, the subsequent movements of the beach party groups.

Specific numbers of Naval Beach Party personnel involved in the African landings are not available, but we do have documents indicating that the beach parties, organized into the previously described 43 men and three officers, were assigned as temporary ship's company to a variety of naval vessels, primarily those converted from civilian use to troop and attack transports, with names such as the Susan B. Anthony, the Joseph Hewes, Tasker H. Bliss, Edward Rutledge, Hugh L. Scott, and others. The names I have given you, except for the Anthony, which was lost in the cross-channel invasion of 1944, remain fixed in our memories as they all shared a common fate - they were torpedoed and sunk off the coast of French Morocco and the Mediterranean coast of Algiers during these early amphibious operations in November 1942.

From limited documentation and personal recollections of the members of the participating beach party units, it appears that the invasion fleet embarked from ports all along the Atlantic Coast - Boston, Newport, Rhode Island, New York, Norfolk, and Jacksonville, meeting to create in mid-Atlantic, the giant armada that was to effect the first major military operation by amphibious forces of WW II. Some of the beach party units trained in the Norfolk area were sent to England and embarked from there for the invasion targeted for Algeria, in and around Oran and Algiers. But the bulk of the beach party units that were later to be formed into the First Beach Battalion were those trained at Little Creek and Camp Bradford, and embarked from points in the Hampton Roads area.

Generally speaking, the invasion fleet had a relatively quiet voyage. The expected U-boat sightings were few and far between. As with all troop movements, by land or by sea, day followed day in monotonous sequence with little but “chow”, “calisthenics”, and the inevitable wild crap games to break the routine. I think most of us were anxious for the landings to start to see if our expectations and fears were correct or exaggerated. Few had ever been in any form of combat and the adrenalin was flowing in gradually mounting waves as the November 8 D-Day inevitably drew closer.

Finally it was here. Suddenly, after dark on the night of November 7, the anchors were dropped, total blackout was enforced for the first time, and the deathly silence after blowers and other machine noises were stopped made us realize that our time to enter the war had come. Around midnight, each of the transports began to prepare for the landing. Cargo nets were slung over the sides of the ships, the landing craft were off-loaded, empty except for the boat crews (the jerry-rigged replacement davits had not been sufficiently tested to warrant entrusting the boats to be loaded with personnel at deck level and then lowered into the sea), and the signaling flashlights started to signal the beginning of the scariest part of any preparation for landing. The climbing over a ship’s rail in inky darkness, groping with one foot for a piece of the cargo net, carefully finding a hand hold on the net, hopefully two, and then the start down the net, “rung by rung”, trying to avoid, by feel, stepping on the hands of the man below you, hoping that the man above you would also be so kind, realizing, as the net swung out from the ship as it rolled in the tremendous swell, nearer to that part of the African coast, that it was going to swing back in the same pendulum action to smash you and your hands against the rusted, barnacle-encrusted steel side of the ship, hoping as it happened that you wouldn’t flinch and cause you to loosen your grip, realizing also that as you swung out from the ship on the outward roll that your weight would probably drop you through the bottom of the landing craft presumed to be down there somewhere in the blackness, with all the guns and ammunition, back packs, and food and water tied to your body one place or another, listening to the cursing and muffled shouts from the boat crew to “get the hell down here, we’re in a hurry”. Finally it was over. You had dropped when you could make out the outlines of the landing craft, and, being one of the first over the side, you had fallen into a relatively empty boat, and hadn’t squashed any of the beach party under your combat-loaded hulk. You were in a landing craft which, when loaded, would circle with others for an hour or two until enough had been off-loaded to form a line abreast and head for the beach, shepherded by a minesweeper or other shallow-draft ship.

Suddenly, for this particular time of year and segment of the Atlantic Coast of North Africa, you realized that you were embarked in, (on), a veritable bucking-bronco making like a latter-day Maid of the Mist. The surf was reported to be totally unbelievable. Only a small number of troops of the Third Infantry Division were landed on the beach that day. About dark a landing craft was sent in from the Anthony to evacuate their beach party. As Lt (jg) Elliott has noted, removal of the men from this beach in that unbelievable surf was an example of what a good boat officer and crew could do if trained to handle the worst of small boat conditions. That boat crew was a credit to any amphibious operation. The fact that the transports had evacuated their unloading area because of the U-boat attacks, leaving the boat crew with it’s beach party cargo to wander about the coast of North Africa in a drizzling rain and mist, added to the unreal nature of our first enemy contested action. The Anthony’s Beach Party, and all the others, was now “blooded”.

Naval beach parties were landed at various points from Port Lyautey/Fedala in the East to Safi in the West. There were three main assault areas Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers. Each of these was assigned three landings. The nine attack points took place along a succession of beaches covering a front of over 200 miles. General Patton, in the Casablanca assault area, had the largest body of troops, estimated to be 35,000, spaced out over the 200-mile front.

Allied Command had decided that because of the political situation in which Vichy still held control over the naval forces, it would be foolish to storm the ports themselves and face the naval defenses protecting them. The result was the dispersal into landings, nine in all on the entire front, to outflank the ports, and permit the development of an encircling pattern.

So much for theory and planning. All along this Atlantic Coast the Allied Command had been warned of the surf and tide conditions that made any attempt to send troops and equipment ashore extremely hazardous. A French pilot, familiar with these conditions was brought to the United States to describe and plot the hazards. His final advice was that it would be possible to land on these open, unprotected beaches a maximum of three days a month. What the Allied Command apparently overlooked — they were “green” too — was “what three days?” The rapidly rising and falling tide in the small river connecting Fedala and the airport at Port Lyautey, estimated at eleven feet, and the crashing combers along the coastal areas north and south of the Port Lyautey river approach created a combined hazard that wrecked many of our landing craft and caused the drowning deaths of an inordinate number of troops. Many of the incoming boats were in trouble and tossed around like scraps of wood before any beach party personnel could reach them. The loss of lives and cargo was hard to accept as something planned by the higher-ups. Finally, someone in authority started adding up the pluses and minuses and called a halt to the carnage. Beach parties were recalled to their ships and the invasion fleet was directed west to the undefended ports in and around Safi for dockside unloading. Why this decision was not reached long before it was, will remain locked in the files of the war’s many fiascos.

(A tidbit of information gleaned by the author during the research for this landing indicated an even worse projection of landing days than that described by the French river pilot noted above. This additional information indicated that there is at the most a period of ELEVEN days during the entire year when the landing in the Fedala/Port Lyautey area is physically possible. Monstrous tide movements, dropping or rising as much a 24 feet in a 15 minute time span are the norm.) The blooding of the beach parties which would subsequently be melded into our battalion was now advanced a giant notch. We had met the enemy, and we were on the way home with a fraction of the casualties we had been led to expect. We weren’t cocky, but we were on our way to confidence that we could face up to many hazards that had heretofore seemed beyond our abilities.

Operation “TORCH”, (as the North African invasion was designated), was successful, partially because it came as a complete surprise to the French forces in that area who were already in a confused situation related to loyalty to whom --the Vichy French or the pre-Vichy leadership. For a short period, the French forces reacted as might be expected -- they fought fiercely to defend their territory from an invader. The French Navy in particular, never gave up, and fought viciously to the end, which came on 11 November 1942 by which time it became obvious that the destruction of Casablanca and the ships of the French Fleet in its harbor would occur if a surrender was not negotiated. The peace treaty was signed that afternoon at Fedala, and General George Patton, Commander of U. S. Ground Forces, toasted the heroic dead of both countries and evidenced the wish that they now fight side by side to destroy the Nazis.

The 450 or so men of the beach parties in this operation, undergoing their initial trial by fire on the beaches of North Africa were numerically insignificant when compared to the estimated thirty-five thousand men which comprised the task force under General Patton’s command, but their actions and accomplishments were in no way insignificant. It was in this major action, their first, with relatively light casualties, that the word ‘immortal” was first whispered as befitting the beach parties. Four invasions later, when the Battalion was decommissioned, the casualties were still amazingly low in relation to landing on enemy beaches under the always awe-inspiring barrage of gunfire, bombing and strafing that characterized the first few days of an attack. Maybe there was something to the catchword “immortal”. Somehow the references to the Battalion as the “Immortal First” gained popularity and has lived on to present times, at least in the hearts and minds of those “khaki sailors” who got their baptism of fire on the beaches and in the treacherous surf of the Atlantic Coast of North Africa.

Following a period of stevedore work on the various docks available for unloading, the ships containing the individual beach parties as temporary ship’s company, returned to their points of embarkation. All but some radio and communications personnel were detached and ordered to temporary duty in and around the Hampton Roads area. As the men and officers returned from leave, most reported or were ordered to Oceanview, the new Headquarters of the Beach Battalion to be formed and commissioned as the USN First Naval Beach Battalion. Those granted “survivors leave” as a result of their ships having been torpedoed and sunk were the last to return to the fold. No parades or ticker tape welcomed them home, no citations were awarded, no medals pinned, no words of praise. In all probability, few in the Hampton Roads naval complex even knew we existed, or had gone, and returned. But the men and officers of the individual beach parties, ordered to the assault transports, ordered to land on the enemy-held beaches, and ordered back home, and finally to the Nansemond Hotel in Oceanview, Virginia, these men and officers - they knew. The nucleus of the First Beach Battalion evolved from this rag-tag “bastard” outfit of army-equipped sailors who had dug their slit trenches and foxholes in the sands of North Africa. There already was a feeling of “belonging”, a feeling that we would like to be held together as a group for the future, whatever it held for us. We were the first -we were unique. The fact that the feelings remain with most of us at this point in our lives - 50 years after that initial experience - speaks for itself. We didn’t know that we were to strike terror into the hearts of the cream of the Signorinas and Mesdemoiselles on the European mainland or that we would be called upon to land four more times on enemy defended beaches, in the first few waves ashore. Wou1d it have made any difference if we had known? I doubt it.

Now followed a period of re-organization into an Army-styled Battalion. Personnel of nine beach parties which had participated in the African invasion were grouped into three companies of three platoons each. A Battalion Headquarters and three Company Headquarters units completed the Battalion of approximately 40 officers and 420 men. This was January. The raw, damp winds around the Norfolk area were not doing anything to keep the Battalion’s spirits up. Some thoughtful soul decided we needed the Florida sunshine to bring our training up to snuff. Accordingly, we received our first orders as a Battalion: get on a train and go to Fort Pierce, Florida for amphibious training and exercises with Engineering Regiments of the US Third Army. Ah so. Thirty-two hours in WW I coaches. No “facilities”, no food. One stopover somewhere in the Carolinas at which we were marched to the center of town and fed by some very kind ladies who had been warned of our unfed arrival. All of this topped by our having been ordered to make the trip in our dress blue Sunday best uniforms. After dark, on a siding somewhere in Florida we were ordered to dismount and marched to the center of this little town in the Indian River fruit country for re-loading into trucks. Out to an island with rows of pyramidal tents. Rather nice, compared to the shivering musters outside of Quonset huts in our Little Creek home base. No tents yet available for officers so they were trucked back into town for lodging at a small hotel, about ten to a room

The Florida training with the Army Engineer Regiment was “good duty”. We were all in the same boat and got along great. One very nice touch was the form of “reveille” decreed by the Regimental Commanding Officer. He had a band. It was a large band. It was a good band. It was a damn good band. Come reveille hour and the band would form up outside the rows of tents fill of sleeping sailors and soldiers, at the far end of a paved stretch of straightaway, which ran through the middle of the camp for about a half mile. As you gradually awakened, you would hear the cadence of muffled drums and marching feet on the macadam road, and then like a blast from a stereo when your wife leaves the house, the band would open up as it reached a point opposite the first row of tents. It was great. It sent the shivers up your back. You got up feeling it was good to be alive. I don’t know if all Army Regiments did the same thing, but it was a good idea. Particularly since we, the naval detachment, shared in the best wake-up time we were ever to get in our military careers. This Colonel, Colonel Mason I believe, was a real trencherman, got along fine with our own candidate, Commander Eubanks, but managed to kill himself and several of his officers when he drove his jeep off a mountain curve near our temporary base at Porto Empedocle, Sicily after we made the invasion there.

We were sorry to see the Fort Pierce duty come to an end. It began with the detachment of “A” Company, under the charge of Lt (jg) Elliott, to proceed north via that infamous troop train and report to the US Coast Guard transport, Leonard Wood, somewhere in the Chesapeake. The orders were to engage in so-called “survival” training with an Army Engineer Battalion. Forty-eight hours on the beach at Solomon’s Island about half way up the Chesapeake from Norfolk without blankets or fires. Lt Elliott reports that he and Lt Bill Seaman found that they couldn’t move after waddling off the landing craft that brought them to the beach about midnight. They were coated with solid ice from the spray of the landing craft riding high because of the light load and a cross-chop of waves just high enough to break over the ramp as a steady stream of ice water. Other units of the Battalion were embarked on different ships for this exercise. I had the good fortune to embark aboard a rather nice Coastguard ship named the Anne Arundle. My good fortune was short lived since after arriving at the Chesapeake Bay rendezvous, Company “B” Headquarters group, of which I was a member, was shifted into an LCI (Landing Craft, Infantry), aboard which I spent some of the most miserable hours of my life. So miserable was it that I firmly believe that was one of the major considerations which made me leave the Navy and spend the rest of my military career in the Marine Corps after the war. Neither the bone chilling cold of Korea or the stinking jungles of Vietnam were anything near as miserable as that rolling, pitching, bouncing, grunting, groaning amphibious torture chamber. But of course we survived this exercise as we did so many others. The exercise, dreamed up by an Army Colonel who was reported to have been court-martialed because of the number of men suffering loss of fingers and toes from frostbite, had to be called off prior to the 48 hour assigned length when the landing craft were unable to continue with propellers frozen tight. It was THAT cold. Lt Elliott and the men and officers of “A” Company were detached from the Leonard Wood and ordered to report to Camp Bradford, Virginia, which was to become the permanent home base for the Battalion. I don’t really remember anymore, but I believe that the same orders were received for those of us in the other companies who were aboard the other ships participating in the exercise. I do remember the final indignity, which was that the trip back to Camp Bradford was to be made by landing craft and the uniform of the day for the trip was ordered to be.. . you guessed it, DRESS BLUES! Of all the absolutely stupid, unthinking, and irresponsible orders I have carried out during my 25 years in the military, this one took the cake. The LCTs and LCLs assigned to the trip were not of the highest quality and some of the coxswains must surely have been trained by Robert Fulton when he launched his revolutionary steamboat. Lt Elliott’s coxswain did his best but managed to hang his LCT up on a sand bar about 75 feet from the beach. Nothing to do then but get as much of the baggage as possible on backs and shoulders, step off the ramp into more of the Chesapeake’s frigid waters, and wade ashore... to the great amusement of some other beach battalion members sitting in a jeep to lead the “lucky ones” from this desolate beach to the barracks at Camp Bradford.

There followed a period of several months of tedious waiting, not knowing what or where we were to be sent next. This interval saw one memorable event; the Battalion’s first full dress parade for some visiting dignitary. The timing left us with only one day to rehearse something we had never done before. The parade was not all that bad except that one officer in charge of a company strength group heard the order “by the left flank, march”, executed it beautifully himself, but neglected to repeat it for his company, who (all 130 of them) marched happily ahead, straight into a farmer’s pea crop. The officer retained for the rest of the battalion’s lifetime the well-deserved nickname of “Peafield”.

Finally things began to stir. We knew from the absence of our officers for meetings with various army groups that something was up. Antennas began to twitch and the scuttlebutt spread. Finally the orders came. We were to sail, for the Mediterranean for an as yet unannounced target. The Battalion was split by the Army into so many different ships that it was impossible to tell if the full battalion-strength ever made the trip. Lt Elliott reports that he was on an AKA with but two of the battalion personnel, our chief yeoman, and our mailman “Sarge” Speraw, who had served in the Navy in World War I. He added that they never knew that the others were aboard. Sic Gloria Transit. The “final four” was about to begin.

The battalion was now at full authorized strength. Battalion Headquarters, Company Headquarters, three companies, nine platoons. During the time that the individual beach parties were in Africa, wheels had been turning in the Amphibious Headquarters, Oceanview, Virginia. Personnel were transferred in from various parts of the country to flesh out the groups returned from the North African campaign. A sizeable contingent of the reporting personnel were from the US Naval Training School (Radio) at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois to replace the communications personnel retained as ship’s company when the transports returned from Africa to their Hampton Roads base. Some of those in this group came as communicators and some as seamen -- (I was among that group) who had been unable to cope with the nerve shattering dit-dot, dit-dot of the International Morse Code key. We all seem to remember that it was at this time, just prior to the embarkation for the Mediterranean area, that the battalion was commissioned as the USN First Naval Beach Battalion. As best we can determine, no documentation of this truly historic event exists. We have discovered from battalion orders and correspondence at this time that the caption “First Naval Beach Battalion” began to appear as early as February 1943. It is disappointing to all of us at this time that no official record of this event can be found. It was a benchmark, a milestone in Naval History. No other unit had ever been commissioned in the United States Navy for the specific purpose of conducting beach operations in enemy territory.

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Tim White
Revised  October 21, 2008