Addendum

 

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By Robert B. White
February 2001

I should note that the above is all of the history I was able to obtain from the Navy files. If Lt. Elliott completed the history, it somehow got separated from the above. Four years later, in January 2001, in response to a second request, this time seeking personnel data, I received much more information. In this packet of data I obtained a second, very short history, written by John Payne, which concerned itself with the very beginnings of the “beach party” and how he found himself a member after returning from survivors’ leave. But of even greater interest were some declassified operational orders. By their very nature these orders provided me with names, rank or rate, and company and platoon assignments of the entire battalion. Unfortunately, they covered only the Salerno and Anzio landings. More on this later.

From Bud Vey I learned that for the last 20 to 25 years there had been reunions; he said he would give my name to whoever was running the next reunion, but I never heard from them. Using the net, I just found the guy that ran the 1998 reunion; I’ll be in touch with him soon.  As with all groups of WW II veterans, our numbers are shrinking fast. Later info—I had found this man, Julius Sleder, by searching the ‘net. I assumed he lived in or near Traverse City, Mich., since that was where the ’98 reunion had been held. I wrote him on Dec. 2, 2000. On Dec. 23, 2000 I got an e-mail from Tim forwarding the obituary of Julius Sleder, who had died on July 21, 1999. Since my letter has not been returned, I hope someone forwarded it to whomever be will running the next reunion. Another obituary discovered by Tim turned out to be that of a Lieutenant by the name of William Seaman. I believe Lt. Seaman was Company Commander of “A” Company.

According to his history, John Payne was present at the Casablanca landings, but not as a member of the Beach Party. He was a member of ship’s company on one of the transports, USS Hugh L. Scott, AP 43, which was torpedoed off the coast of Fedala on November 12, 1942. He returned to the US, got thirty days survivors’ leave, and when he returned to duty he found his orders to the same group who had traveled as troops on the Hugh L. Scott. The group was now officially part of First Naval Beach Battalion, had just finished their training at Fort Pierce, and was to complete training at Little Creek, VA and Solomon’s Island, MD. He discovered that things were different in the troops’ spaces than he had been accustomed to as ship’s company. The bunks were stacked seven or eight feet high (as I recall, either five or six bunks with minimum vertical space between). With no duties other than morning calisthenics and General Quarters drills, the troops were bored. Many of them were seasick. They passed their time gambling, either dice or cards, both of which were illegal aboard ship. The Captain came down to one of the troop compartments, spotted the gambling, and appropriated the money for the Navy Relief Fund. A short time later one of the soldiers somehow got on the PA system and announced, “Now hear this, Captain, hear this! Kiss my dog-faced ass”! The Captain was furious; offered a reward for any clue leading to the culprit, but never discovered the criminal.

Our skipper was a Lieutenant Commander by the name of Eubanks. I remember a story I have told many times, and I know some of you have heard it, but I will repeat it now. It was shortly after we had arrived in Oran and, as part of the 40th Combat Engineers Regiment and part of the 45th Infantry Division we were required to make a march for the purpose of watching a demonstration on how an infantry squad can defeat an enemy pillbox. I recall the march as being at least 10 miles long, although in truth it may have been shorter.  John Payne describes it as thirty miles; he may be right. But it was late June or early July in North Africa and we were in full battle gear. The line of march was long and of course as the Navy, outsiders, we were “Tail-end Charlie”. Of course we were straggling. Suddenly a jeep bearing a General’s star came roaring up from behind, passed us, and pulled in, forcing us to stop. The General then proceeded to give our Skipper a proper dressing down saying things like, “Major, this is unsatisfactory. This is without doubt the scruffiest group of soldiers I have ever seen. Get them to march more smartly”.  Our skipper waited until the general paused for breath, which took some time. When he got a chance he responded, “But sir I am not a Major I am a Lieutenant Commander, and these men are not soldiers, they’re sailors and we are marching at the tail end of the column to the best of our ability”. The general said only, “Carry on”, tossed a salute, got back in his jeep and roared off down the column.

It was after this demonstration that General Patton gave one of his “cussin’ speeches”. By this time all of us, even the Navy, wore the Thunderbird shoulder patch of the 45th Infantry Division, and Patton told us that he expected that thunderbird patch to be the most feared emblem of the war. I can still see him with his pearl handled six-guns, striding back and forth before the Division.

My recollections of Fort Pierce are somewhat different, as well. When we got liberty we would walk across the bridge to the mainland. At the island end of the bridge was a bait shack, which doubled as a café. As I recall there was a counter with three or four stools. For a quarter (yes, 25 cents) you bought a bowl (a typical diner-type soup bowl) heaped with cooked shrimp, in the shell, and a bowl of cocktail sauce. I would usually have a bowl or two on my way to town. I suppose that’s where I developed my liking for shrimp with cocktail sauce.

Not far from the mainland end of the bridge was a firehouse, and most evenings there would be a cribbage game going on. I often stopped to watch and chat with the firemen. One night one of the players asked if I played; I admitted that I had never even seen the game before. Nothing would do but they teach me, over several evenings. I still enjoy the game, more than 50 years later.

Of course, I also remember the training. It seemed like a thousand trips to the beaches—why did the coxswains always seem able to find the sand bar that meant the boat couldn’t quite make the shore, and they had to drop the ramp in the water instead of on dry land? Sometimes the water at the end of the ramp was only ankle deep. But sometimes it was deep enough to be scary, particularly since we were fully combat-loaded. My radio alone weighed 40 pounds. But I agree the band at reveille was interesting, to say the least.

I find nothing fundamentally incorrect in the story as told. But in operational deployment the Battalion of some 450 men, consisted of three Companies each broken into three platoons. Each platoon was assigned to a company of the Engineering Regiment; for the Sicilian invasion it was the 40th Combat Engineers Regiment, which was similarly dispersed within the 45th Infantry Division. Thus, in an operation, we were spread out into different ships, with beach objectives assigned in accordance with those of the Division, of which we were a small, but obviously important, part. In fact, in the Salerno invasion, my Company was not even assigned to the American 45th Division, but to the British 46th Infantry Division, whose Engineers were the 35th Beach Group.  Both divisions were units of the British-American Fifth Army, commanded by U. S. Gen. Mark Clark. As pointed out, the Brits had come directly from participating in Rommel’s defeat. I had the pleasure of meeting some of the famed Gurkha troops; in fact they were good people, friendly, and I’m glad they were on our side; they could do a lot of damage with their razor-sharp knives.

An interesting aspect of being part of the integrated British- American Fifth Army: The U.S. was just switching from “C” or combat rations to a completely different “five in one” ration. In theory each box contained complete rations, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, for five men for one day. There were, of course, varied menus. Unfortunately, we were issued thirty days’ rations, and they were all alike! I don’t remember breakfast, or lunch, but to this day, I will not eat Franco-American spaghetti! The Brits had a similar, though longer-standing, problem—they were sick and tired of canned corned beef, which they called bully beef, which to us provided a welcome relief from spaghetti. We did a lot of trading of delicacies. They even liked the almost inedible hard chocolate bars—very nourishing, I’m sure, but I think they were mostly cocoa butter.

Another recollection that is tied directly to the fact that we were part of the British-American Fifth Army: One of the tasks of the Beach Battalion was operating the traffic control boat. The purpose of the boat was to ensure a steady flow of traffic in toward the beach and back out to the ships at sea. The boat was a 36-foot landing craft, an LCVP. The crew was made up of the coxswain, who ran the boat, a Radioman, and a Signalman. Since the boat was too small to have facilities like a head it was necessary that we tie up to a larger craft occasionally. One time we tied up to a British LCM, 50-footer. While the rest of the crew went below to use the head I stayed with the boat. I got to talking to one of the British crewmen and asked what stores they were carrying. He said they were carrying NAAFI stores. When I asked what they were he described them; in the U.S. Navy we would have called them material for the ships service store. Cigarettes, soap, razor blades, and the like. The British got all that; in addition NAAFI stores provided the daily tot of rum for all hands and a weekly or monthly bottle of whiskey for noncoms and officers. At my request, he turned his back long enough for me to "liberate" a case of whisky, which turned out to be Vat 69 Scotch whisky. When the crew returned we castoff from the LCM in a hurry. There were three of us with 12 bottles of Scotch. We reasoned that we probably could not manage to keep all of it for ourselves, so we decided to allocate one bottle for our Beachmaster, one bottle for our Communications Officer, and one bottle to the Company Commander. There was method to our madness; the US Navy takes a dim view of liquor aboard a Naval vessel. The officers were now our accomplices. To this day I still don't like Scotch but I have to admit that particular Scotch tasted awfully good.

It is strange how memories fade, events get out of synchronization, and even battles fold in on one another. Bud Vey’s memory of the Brits and their tea reminded me of a story I have told occasionally over the years. I, also, saw a group making their “cuppa”, but it was at Salerno, not Sicily, and the group I saw never got to drink their tea; apparently they had built their fire directly over a land mine, which exploded, killing them all. This happened within 100 or 200 yards down the beach from me, and I’ll never forget it. I’m quite certain it was at Salerno, simply because we had no Brits with us at Sicily. In his history, John Payne alludes to the same incident, but recalls only two Brits, and lays the blame on an unexploded Bangalore torpedo, not a land mine. The result for the British soldiers was the same.

Among the ships in the task force providing support to the transports and the landing force at Salerno was an assortment consisting primarily of cruisers, destroyers, destroyer escorts, and mine sweepers. One of the most interesting was a British ship called a Monitor. Its armament was similar in size to that of a battleship but it had only one turret with two 16-inch guns and they were used to good advantage at Salerno. One of the reasons we seemed to have difficulty holding on to the beachhead at Salerno was a very large German gun mounted on a railroad car and hidden in a cave in the mountains behind the beach. At random times they would run out, fire several rounds at the beach, which they had completely zeroed in, and then duck back into their cave. The British Monitor with its 16-inch guns apparently was the only vessel that could reach to wherever the cave was. This took awhile, but eventually they silenced that gun and we were able to continue our work with out further harassment from it. One vivid memory I have is of the sight (yes, sight) of a barrage of naval gunfire. You would see the flash as the guns fired, then hear the report, and then listen to as well as watch the projectiles arc overhead. They actually glow green, and they sound sort of like a train going by. It was very comforting to know that they were from our ships and not “incoming”.

Like Bud Vey, I, too was landed on the wrong beach at Sicily  I recall that the transportation provided was an Army DUKW.  There were about 10 or 15 of us in the back end of the DUKW driving along the beach when suddenly a German Stuka appeared. He was flying parallel to the beach for sometime and then began a strafing run. We piled out of the DUKW, some headed for the shore and some for the sand dunes. I headed for the sand dunes, and am well aware of how Vey felt when he was trying to dig a foxhole with no entrenching tool. He used only his hands, and so did I. I threw myself down and tried to present the smallest possible target. That was the first of several times I tried to crawl inside my helmet. It’s surprising, how much you think that helmet will protect you, even though you know it is not impenetrable. When the plane had passed I discovered a line of bullet holes on either side of me. He just missed me.

Another thing I recall about Salerno—that was where I had my first, last, and only ride on a motorcycle. There was a Brit, a mine sapper, whose name I don’t recall, who used to stop by the radio shack to chat. One day he showed up with a motorcycle, telling me that he thought mine sapping was too dangerous, so he had volunteered as a dispatch rider. We chatted for a while, and, upon learning that I had never been on a bike, he asked me if I would like to take a spin with him. I agreed, and off we went. We headed inland, away from the beach. Within five minutes he waved in a forward direction and said, “There’s the Jerry line, right over there.” Suddenly I realized that there were shots coming from “the Jerry line”, and that they were directed at us! He did a quick 180, and we moved out smartly. I can’t describe the difficulty in trying to get my entire body inside my helmet while holding on to the driver for dear life. I expected to reach the end of the war at any minute.  We got away, stopped at a dump of captured enemy arms, and I picked up an Italian Beretta and a brand new German Luger, complete with holster and extra clip as souvenirs. We got back to the radio shack uninjured, and I have never been on a motorcycle since.

Through a combination of my efforts, many of which led me down blind alleys, and a lot of help from internet-wise Tim, I have reached a definite conclusion: the Naval Beach Battalions are the “orphans” of the U.S. Navy regarding recognition for a difficult job well done. Through most of the articles (and there aren’t a lot of them) seems to run a common thread. Neither the Army nor the Navy seemed to know exactly what to do with us. When we were aboard a troopship, for example, we were classed as troops. Radiomen and Signalmen, being in short supply, were attached to Ship’s Company and stood watches along with the crew while the rest of our group were passengers, with ample time to clean and check weapons, write letters home, and generally prepare for what ever was coming next. Combat operations reports mostly went through Army channels, which probably at least partially accounts for the fact that so little is available through Navy channels.

About that open-air head/latrine in Scoglitti—I thought I remembered a picture of it, and Pat found it. See Fig. 5. I had thought it was a six- or eight-holer, with spots to sit side by side and back to back, but as you can see, we all faced the same way, right there in front of God and everyone. Note that our uniforms were a set of coveralls—not very conducive to modesty.

In his narrative, Vey points out that we were indeed a motley-looking crew. Among our personal gear we had our normal Navy seabag and hammock. In addition we had what the army called a “B” (barracks) bag, which contained our army uniforms. Our army uniforms were standard Army issue except that each article had a stenciled U. S N. For insignia of rank our Navy rating insignia became Army stripes. In my case, as a Radioman second-class instead of my normal “crow”, sparks, and two red chevrons my army uniform indicated that I was a staff sergeant. While we were issued standard Army uniforms, we lived almost entirely in our coveralls or fatigues.  Except on liberty. On liberty we wore the uniform of the day, either whites or dress blues, and were happy to be recognized as sailors.

While based at Bizerte, a liberty schedule was maintained. Although the Communications section of our platoon all rated liberty (a ride to Tunis in the back end of an army truck called a “six-by-six”) together, the lead Signalman, Christ Pete Xigogianus, and I usually elected to take our turns at liberty separate from the rest of the gang.  Not because we didn’t get along with them, but out of a sense of responsibility. Someone had to take care of them when they got back to the base somewhat the worse for wear, and we elected ourselves to the task. A couple of them tended to become somewhat belligerent after a few drinks. In fact, one RM3/c got out of hand one night and butted his head through the sheetrock inner wall of our Quonset hut before we could restrain him.

Another liberty story—I don’t recall how I met him, but I knew a businessman in Tunis. He owned a tannery, in the heart of the Kasbah. He hoped to come to America after the war, and was anxious to learn English. I was interested in learning French, so every time I got liberty I headed for his place. On a Saturday afternoon there was usually a group of men in the office. He got rid of them, very unceremoniously, then broke out his only bottle of Canadian Club, because “I was the only one who could appreciate it”. He poured me one shot, filled his glass of wine, we clinked glasses, “Cheers” from him, “A votre sante” from me, and we spent a couple of hours both learning and teaching languages. I don’t know if he ever got to this country; I lost track of him.

Like Vey, I left the battalion just prior to embarking for the Anzio invasion, but for a different reason. I had orders to return to the US, and to report to Cornell University, with authorization for air transport (with a very low priority—practically anyone could “bump” me) and allowance for thirty days leave en route. I went by train to Oran, flew (my first airplane ride, by C-47) from Oran to Gibraltar to Casablanca. At that time the only air crossing was the famous Pan Am Clipper, and between low priority and bad weather I didn’t have a prayer. I paced the docks at Casablanca, looking for someone, anyone, to get me home. By the time I got orders to a ship most of my leave time had disappeared, but I got to Norfolk, and had a few days at home.

My gear (seabag and hammock) had been left behind in Oran, so all I had with me at Casablanca was my ditty bag, with shaving gear, a change of skivvies, and a pair of socks. Luckily, I had kept my army mackinaw, because it was the only warm article of clothing I had when I arrived back in the States. Believe it or not, I had a serious run-in with a Shore Patrol character on the train from Norfolk to New York. We had quite a scrap---he considered me out of uniform, despite the big USN stenciled on the back of the coat. Needless to say, I lost, since the uniform of the day for liberty was dress blues, peacoat, and flat hat. But as soon as he was out of sight I put my mackinaw back on.

Somewhere, probably on the base at Oran, someone had sliced open my seabag, and my precious Luger, obtained at great peril during the only motorcycle ride of my life, was missing. The Beretta, being old and kind of ugly, came through.

This brings my portion of the history to a close. I suppose I should have sat down and organized it more, but if you don’t mind the fact that I skipped back and forth some, I think it tells you all at least some of my experiences in the First Beach Battalion. To the best of my recollection, almost sixty years later, it is factual.

Enjoy.

Tim White
Revised  October 21, 2008