I met World War II hero Master Sergeant Robert Smouse in September of 2014. Once again, it was by happenstance that I saw him walking into the HEB Grocery-store with his hat on and I went to pay him respect for his service. After befriending him, he opened up to me about his experience and even gave me two priceless items, his own War Diary and the Diary of Admiral Sabin.
At 17, he joined the US Navy after Pearl Harbor. As a Navy signalman he participated in the African campaign battles of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, the Italian campaign battles of Salerno and Anzio, then from England to Normandy as part of the initial D-Day landing on Utah Beach, then finally finishing the war in the Pacific in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. After the war, he re-enlisted in the Air Force. He retired as Master Sergeant after 20 years of service.
The Introduction below is courtesy of his own war diary- which he has given to me.
The Personal Diary of Admiral Sabin
The fall of France and the British evacuation of Dunkirk showed that any war against Germany would have to be carried out on entirely different lines from those of World War I, when we were able to use the excellent terminal facilities of French harbors. The implications of this, tremendous and far reaching, were not immediately realized. The US Army embarked on a large field-gun and tank building program without considering how these were to be landed on coast held by the enemy. Even President Roosevelt, so quick to apprehend needed change in naval warfare, remarked to his naval aide, early in 1942, that he considered special tank landing craft to be a mistake.
Admiral Joseph Reeves, the former commander in Chief of the United States Fleet was largely responsible for bringing this important problem to the attention of the high command.
In a memorandum to the Chief of Naval Operations dated February 24th, he declared:
‘’There are building in this country a great number of tanks without adequate means of transporting them to the theater of war. This task is more complicated than is at first apparent. It involves more than the mere transportation of the tanks overseas. It includes a hostile shore. In such an offensive campaign it is unlikely that there will be available open ports and harbors with docking stations and hoisting facilities. Large number of tanks, especially in the first stages of the campaign, will have to be landed against opposition on hostile beaches. A special type of landing craft is required for this operation…’’
The Royal Navy had ordered the construction of about 200 Landing Ships Tanks in the United States in January of 1942. Landing ships and craft were given number-one priority over destroyer escorts, aircraft carriers and everything else in the May of 1942. Such high priority was given to the building of these types of ships that the keel of an aircraft carrier that had already been laid was removed from the dry dock and three LS’s were built in its place.
Three new types of Landing Craft were devised. The Tank Landing Craft (LCT) and the larger, longer-legged Tank Landing ship (LST) were designed to handle the bigger, heavier, tanks and self-propelled guns coming into service. A similar craft was needed to carry larger forces of infantry across wide bodies of water and land them directly on an invasion beach. To meet this need, the Infantry Landing Craft (Large) or LCI was developed. In the terminology of the time, it was called a ‘’craft’’ rather than ‘’ship’’ since it was not expected to be able to make long voyages on its own.
This new landing craft was 158 ½ feet in length, 23-foot beam with a mean draft of3’ 1 ½’’. The landing draft was 2’8’’forward , 4’10’’ aft. Loaded Diesels divided into two sets drove twin variable-pitch propellers to give her a top-speed of 16-knots. When landing on shore the LCI was capable of holding 199 men. This, then is the history of the first Amphibious Flotilla in Annals of the U.S. Navy Flotilla LCI-2.
“Spirits of The Dead”
Historical Setting: Europe, World War II
In January of 1943, Winston Churchill and FDR met at a conference in Casablanca where they agreed to open up a new front in Europe. The obvious target was Italy, which was severely weakened by its failures in North Africa. The only real unanswered question was just where this was to take place. There were several choices, but it was narrowed down to two. It could happen through Sicily or the island of Sardinia.
The Allied High-Command chose the Sicilian route. But- in order to throw the Germans off the scent of this plan, they organized a deception, meant to fool the Germans into thinking the invasion was to begin elsewhere. This was known as ‘’Operation Mincemeat’’ and was launched almost immediately. A corpse was dropped off the coast of Spain with false papers on the soldier’s body. It was a long-shot and a gamble, but it worked to perfection.
The papers were misleading, revealing that the allies would pretend to attack Sicily while their real target was Sardinia. Of course, it was the exact opposite in reality. Enigma code-breakers soon revealed that the Germans fell for the ruse. The Italian coastal troops presented few problems. Further west, the US Seventh Army landed in the Gulf of Gela and the Italian resistance was again overwhelmed.
For the Italian people, the invasion of Italy was the final humiliation. Mussolini was overthrown and the new government began to talk of an armistice. The Italian people were never bought into the side of the Germans and it showed once the Allies landed on the continent. The Italians, for their part, had a long history of Gothic takeover and turmoil and the generational wounds of the middle-ages helped to further anti-Frank sentiment once the war began. For Hitler, it was yet another nightmare. He was now forced to send in an already stretched set of reinforcements to protect his southern flank. Every time Germany had to answer for Italy’s ineptitude, it cost Hitler more and more resources, time, and thwarted his own plans of offensive warfare.
Within Five weeks the Germans were pushed out of Sicily and the Allies now moved to the mainland. US Troops moved up the west side at Naples and the British moved up the eastern side at Tarantino. The Germans fought back savagely, all the way. And finally, On October 1st, 1943, Naples fell to the Allies. Victory came somewhat sluggishly however, because weather and stiff resistance hampered the Allied forces. Their progress was slowed due to autumn rains and skillful German counter attacks.
The Americans sailed up the east coast landing at the port of Anzio in January 22nd 1944. They were pinned down due to fierce fighting and nearly driven back into the sea. But the supplies that kept coming for the Allies were not coming in for the Germans. It was just a matter of time.
The Allied forces took 10 weeks to break out of Anzio and the allied forces moved swiftly north, to Rome. On June 4th, 1944, the Italian capital was liberated. Thousands waving American flags greeted the American soldiers, along with a large number of very beautiful Italian women. The celebration was intoxicating. The sight of American and British tanks driving past the Coliseum was something that is, to this day, vivid in the eyes who have ever seen it.
The Allies Take Rome
To Hitler, this was another severe blow. Throughout the war, Hitler insisted on being the supreme military commander – something he wasn’t. By not allowing his career military officers run the war, Hitler slowly and deftly drove his own military into the ground. He was now barely hanging on to Italy and his forces were harried by Allied Air-Power and infantry. The German defenders fell back to the ‘’Gothic Line’’ which was just north of Florence. But bad weather would prevent the Allies from taking the Germans out completely. The Americans waited through the rough winter and soon supplies to the Germans dwindled. Finally, the Germans fled from Italy and the war truly turned around in favor of the Allies.
Robert Smouse, In His Own Words
We were thrown into a world of terror and bloodshed. Above, below, on land, in the sea, from disease and infection, it did not matter where death came from. Away from home far too soon, orphans of America we were. The crosshairs of war didn't just find and pick-off soldiers. The war found everyday people in the marketplace; men in the assembly line, women in the bakery; the children in the schools, the elderly in the flower garden. Only a year earlier, so fresh is my memory. Awaken and go to school, laugh with my friends, imagine asking the prettiest girl to the dance without mustering the courage to do so.
A year later, I walk with men who have climbed the highest summits of courage. I felt sorrow when I saw fear. We could not possibly have imagined the technology designed to kill other men. Weapons most could never dream of were suddenly thrust into our hands. We were entrusted with these to come home alive, and that is what victory meant to me.
To the valiant men on the ship, there was no safe place in the entire world. A state of war seemed almost perpetual at the time. Our own fathers were still celebrating the victory of the War to End All Wars. Men would travel in formation, dressed in their old World War I uniforms. These frequent parades and holidays glorified the men and the machines.
After two years of this, I could no longer remember the beginning of the war, and I could not see the end of the war. I had assumed the rest of my natural life would be lived on salt-water soaked ships, bullets, blood, and blame. And yet I also believed I would see and experience new things, see news hills and new valleys, and make close friends united in life, united in death. When Germany finally surrendered, I couldn't trust that I knew my own thoughts and feelings.
I was barely eighteen when I enlisted in the service. We were so angry when we were attacked at Pearl Harbor that most of the boys were itching for a fight. I suppose I was no different, and my mother threw the worst fit about it too. You see, she was a second generation German, but she was very loyal to America. I was one of nine children and she didn’t want any of us going off to war. My brother Willie and I enlisted but they wouldn’t take him because he was cross-eyed. You get to looking at someone for so long that you tend to forget that one of his eyes pointed right at his nose! So they didn’t take him.
I didn’t have any real training before deployment. Oh, they made you do a few jumping-jacks, yell at you for no reason and then send you off to war. Imagine that! .....Just a ticket and a swift kick in the ass and off you go. If you were lucky you got to learn how to shoot a real gun along the way. Most of the boys had dummy rifles and those weren’t any fun at all on account of the fact they don’t shoot nothing!’
One of my first responsibilities was to take stock of the shape of the craft. Of the four craft, only one had a working Gyro Compass and these were erratic at best.
Their magnetic compasses were in general unsatisfactory condition and our plotting sheets and navigational maps were inconsistent. We hardly owned even a small amount of spare parts so we had to improvise in order to fix anything. The ship smelled like you would have expected – musty, moldy, dirty.
There was a sea-salt film all over everything and what you don’t realize is that trapped inside that sea-salt film is the smell of spent rounds and tobacco and sweat from men who probably hadn’t bathed in weeks. The waves rock the ship back and forth, so there is a constant swaying motion all around you. The ships are tough to get used to. The constant motion makes got to almost all of us at one time or another. sea sick, but not all. If you are on deck, it smells salty, and often there is a sort of mist like spray coming up from the ocean.
Everything I did, I did well. I was up for promotion frequently. I think my secret, if you will, is that I was too dumb to complain! Hell, I didn’t know any better! I smiled my way through everything. ‘’Smouse, go scrub the latrine!’’ ‘’Yes Sir’’ I would answer, just bopping and happy as could be. In a war, one of the casualties is ranch animals. The farmers who till the soil are now soldiers, and many of the animals escaped, but would be found in the road deader than a door-nail. So I’d hear, ‘’Smouse, move the dead roadkill out of the way!’’ ‘’Why Yes Sir!’’ And off I’d go, singing and whistling the whole time I was pushing a dead animal off the side of the road so our vehicles could go by. It got so, that every time something dirty needed to be done it was, ‘’Get Smouse the Mouse, he’ll do it…he’ll do anything!’’ And my name became something positive with the commanding officers. I like how that worked, but that truly was my personality, you know, never complain.
Eventually, I was responsible for assessing our men. The report I sent to the commander was that the officers are woefully lacking in instruction in the following; Celestial Navigation, Communications, Engineering, and Naval Customs. The majority are willing, earnest, sincere and anxious to learn. But very few were qualified to command this type of vessel when they reported to me for duty. The report was just my honest assessment but it far exceeded anything that they had ever expected from a dumb hick like me. To this day-- I didn’t know why they ever chose me because I was still wet behind the ears, but once they chose me to do these things, I did them very well. The men - they learned fast.
The Plan to Invade Italy
In March of 1943, we landed at Gibraltar and took on stores and provisions. It was a lovely place, scenic you know. We didn’t get to stay but three days as we received orders to head to Arzew. This is a key port city on the coast of French Africa, Algeria. There were almost no facilities in Arzew and it was a rotten place really.
It was like walking back hundreds of years in time. Our boys knew that they shouldn't speak to them, or otherwise look at the few Arab women who weren’t actually covered up. We were told that if we did look or talk to them, their ‘police’ would take them and beat them right then and there. Can you imagine that? If there is anything attractive about an Arab man or romantic about Arab women, then I have been looking at the wrong Arabs.
World War II Postage Stamps from Algeria– Note the French Ownership
For the first time we were brought into a room and told that we were preparing for an invasion of Europe from the South, but we weren’t told where. It was just as well, the men were hoping for an invasion of the French or Italian Riviera. Imagination is a funny thing I guess….the boys who were single – we kind of knew we would end up envying them a little because we heard how grateful the locals would be. The thing that really was shocking was that so few of then guys had seen an actual battle. They couldn't imagine in any terms of sensibility how terrible it would be.
In late June of 1943, Admiral Sabin called for a surprise inspection. We saw all of the unit commanders in conference and when Sabin addressed us, he told us all to synchronize our watches. All of a sudden things got very serious. We knew that we were heading for an invasion and it was my role to land first with my amphibious boats and deliver supplies for the men once they got on the beach. We were to land, lay radio wire, leave boxes of ammunition, medical and first-aid kits, bottles of fresh water, and other supplies.
On July 8th – we were finally told where and when we were going to land. Sicily-We were prepared for any beach really, so the location needn’t be a secret – but it made us apprehensive knowing that the war for many of the boys was going to happen. There was a nervous energy with the boys. In the hours before it would all begin, the stillness was all you heard, for each of the boys were writing letters to their families and loved ones. Admiral Lorenzo Sabin
The weather was a real problem. The night before we landed, the water was throwing us around real good. Even the heartiest of sailors were having difficulty holding their food down. Thunder, lightning, and high winds almost made our landing impossible. We had to reduce our speed to fewer than 6.5 knots and with the exact coordination of all of the Navy and Marines we were now behind the larger convoys. If we didn’t somehow get there ahead of them, they would land and have no radio communications, no supplies, no wire, nothing. We knew that if this failed, it would set the invasion of northern Europe backwards. We were going to approach Germany from the south while the rest of the allies would attack from the north and west. Russia was to attack from the east.
News of German Concentration Camps Reaches the Soldiers
For the first time, a few of the boys began to discuss the war itself. There were rumors of these re-internment camps in Germany and Poland where the Jews were being systematically butchered. Some of the men didn’t believe it. You see, that is how little we knew about anything really. You’d spend an afternoon intermingling with the local peoples and pick up a newspaper perhaps, and you would hear these things. Sometimes the rumors were just that –nothing more than rumors means to drum up hatred for them. Other times though, the rumors and the news didn’t do justice to actually seeing it first hand.
And the boys didn’t believe these stories. Why would a wartime power use so many resources in a fanatical desire to slaughter innocent people? I mean, that's the way we thought of it...and the guys just didn't seem to grasp it all. It wasn't because they were anti-Jew or anti-anything really; they didn’t believe it because none of us WANTED to believe it. One of the boys made a compelling argument. ‘’Why would a country so short of resources and needing every last bit of metal and chemicals waste it trying to kill its own people?’’ I think this is a question for all the ages to know the answer to, but we sure never found out.
Our first reliable news of it came from a Red Cross chaplain. He was telling us of what he saw in Bavaria. A small barn was set ablaze. He said that the Red Cross ambulance turned off the main road to see if there were injuries. When they arrived, they saw the barn completely burned to the ground and German soldiers were just leaving it. As the Red Cross driver went closer, the German jeeps honked and waved at the Red Cross vehicle.
They waved back. When they got there however, there were maybe thirty women and children and a few older men massacred on the inside. No one, not even two infants – were spared. Every last one of them were locked in this barn and burned alive. He said it could never leave his memory, seeing those Germans drive by as if it was a leisurely stroll on a Sunday afternoon. It’s the kind of murder that a normal person can never understand.
One day, several officers who were part of the pacific fleet came to assist us. There were a number of Brits there too, and their presence reassured us. Still, we began to hear about the Japanese, and their stories made our skin crawl. Early in 1942, they told us of what happened in Singapore. They got away - but their stories of how they took a sick pleasure in torture really made us worry.
The Japanese were ruthless and we began believing that Germany was in the same boat. The Japs were built on fighting in the jungle. Atrocity had become routine, and the Germans were said to do much of the same thing. Fanatics and fiendish, the Japanese would kill without fear - something which none of us had the stomach for- but make no mistake, we would have done it. Given the harsh conditions that they faced, the malaria, the biting and stinging insects and leeches made the southern part of Italy sound a lot more preferable. And I am sure it was!
One of the British officers was at the Battle in Singapore. He was bitter that the locals didn't do more to fight the Japs. Why surrender when you have the mightiest armies on the planet supporting you? And yet, that's exactly what they did. He was jaded by the whole experience, having witnessed the surrendering soldiers being paraded through the streets. After hearing their stories, it began to sink in on some of the guys that we might be facing an enemy that could well do the same.
Side note to History: The site of this massacre appears to have been Rosenheim Germany, a city in the very center of multiple concentration camps sites from Auschwitz and Dachau to several sub-concentration camps in Munich. There was one entry in German ‘war-log’ that refers to the site on September 8th, 1942. “”We were told of a party being held on a small farm owned by Bader. We arrested him and his wife and sent them away. As for whatever the occasion was, we quickly ended it and we shall have our other prisoners harvest the remaining crops. The Jews of this area were likely of Ashkenazi settlers in the early seventh century. They shuffled back and forth from Poland to Germany throughout their history, enjoying a time of flourishing followed by times of persecution.’
Each man was expected to be experts in a particular field. We had radio guys, linguists, mechanics and medics.
We also had guys on the Flotilla who were minesweepers. These men were invaluable to the rest of the invasion force, but as I mentioned, if we didn’t get there first, there wasn’t anyone to perform this job. In some ways, we were so specialized that it hurt us.
APPROACHING ITALY, SEPTEMBER 1943
Rolling, pitching, tossing. Snapping and buckling. Every day, every hour, we went through the sensation of being on the water. Green seas cover the ships and battered us until it didn’t seem possible that our little ships were going to make it without breaking up. No fresh food – not even a loaf of bread…Nothing but canned stuff to eat and everyone was sick. On the night of the 10th, our escorts were attacked. Both were blown up and there was a huge oil slick that seemed to circle and follow us like spirits of the dead. It was so sad.
And at night! That night before we landed, you could see the big red breakdown lights from anywhere on the high-seas. Our invasion of Sicily didn’t seem like a secret but the coastline was surprisingly sparse from a standpoint of resistance. We awoke to a 5am call and prepared for the battle ahead, but we didn’t see a single ship. The mist and overcast skies obscured everything and it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Slowly, surely, twenty-five vessels appeared like ghosts along the seas and through the mist. The invasion was about to begin.
The LCI nu.16 was the most important vessel and we needed to protect it. There were 200 officers and men of the 45th Infantry - some of the toughest, meanest men on the planet. You couldn't pick 200 men better suited for the job. We saw planes overhead and we assumed they were softening the position as tension began to pick up. It was September 10th and 11th and we made it into Salerno Bay and made preparations. No more laughter amongst the boys. Just serious and somber bravery.
I tended to just bury it. But, don’t be fooled by our bravery - we were scared. We were supposed to be supported by Naval gunfire that sometimes missed their mark and tactical bombing support. We landed and the progress was very slow, but keep in mind we were Adm. Sabin's Diary WWII also surprised by the poor weather.
While waiting for Beaching Orders - a terrible thing happened. Planes that were trying to soften the position began dropping bombs between the LC (Landing Craft) 16 and between LST (Landing Support Team) Number 382. With our binoculars I saw the ramp had been blown clear off. Many of the men were dead, others were drowning. Those were our boys, killed by our planes. It's a damn shame and what a waste too.
Once we landed, the sounds of war grew louder and louder. We sure unloaded on the enemy too! Someone told me that over 200 rounds of 20MM were dropped in front of us. In a way, we couldn't advance because the roads and trails were in the way! Running cables and wiring while taking gunfire is just the way it was.
Nonetheless, we were so successful in setting up the groundwork for this invasion that it was a blueprint for our invasion of Normandy. You learn not to get off the front of the ramp because it can roll over you if it hits a wave. We lost two men in that invasion – but not to enemy gunfire. They simply drowned after jumping off of the vessel. What a terrible waste that was. Our amphibious assault craft suffered no casualties during the initial invasion of Sicily in 1943, and would later deliver troops to the shores of Utah Beach on D-Day.
But, while going through Sicily we saw casualties -civilian casualties. And that really got to some of the guys. ''C'mon, let's go...'' I had to really learn to shake it off. It really made you shake your head. You wonder, ''how'd they get caught up in the middle? 'We thought that perhaps the war was over at this point, we didn't know. The admiral didn't let us get comfortable either.
The Germans had learned what needed to be done after mounting no real defense in Sicily. They put these huge spikes in the beach designed to tear up our ships. One of our Intel officers got us caught up on was really happening in the war. We would get scattered bits of news here-and-there, but we really didn't grasp it. For instance, he told us that the Germans were fighting the Allies throughout the world. It seemed like we were up against quite a formidable adversary! And yet they offered minimal resistance in Sicily. It seemed like they believed those spikes would cut through our landing craft and ships. They took the idea from something that was done many years before by King Henry V. He did the same thing, only on a soft ground, and it wasn’t to stop ships, but horses.
Italy was a beautiful place, everything I ever dreamed of. There were reminders of home everywhere. The rolling hills, gentle terrain and the food – it all was encompassing. Many of us who were told about the difficulties of war found this one in Italy to be only mildly abrasive. Well, I ‘m not sure if that’s the right word for it, but let's face it, so many of us were unaware of what ‘’real’’ war was all about.
HOW DO FRENCH FIRST-HAND ACCOUNTS DESCRIBE THE ALLIED INVASION?
From the diary of sixteen year-old Jean Roger, St. Lazar
Our countryside had been bombed with 'detachments' from their airplanes. (To a sixteen year old this is a natural description of bombs) The animals were terrified, and the bloated and rotting carcasses of cows and horses, as well as German soldiers, are all blanketed by maggots and flies. These macabre and horrifying scenes were everywhere as was the miasmal odor hanging over them. We weren't sure what was happening except that the Germans were leaving. We were caught in the middle and as a result we probably were not as welcoming of the Americans and Brits as we could have been.''
Another account from a French newspaper editorial describes the terrible cost, “....there is little enthusiasm in the ashen fields of France.''... ..alas, a screen of terrible visions stood between us and joy.”
Smouse discusses the most critical day of the war, the landing in Normandy.
After we left Sicily we continued missions like this all over the Mediterranean. We went back to Tripoli and there was a stark difference between what the city looked like several months ago. Local leaders were turning the youth against us. We were always giving out things to the kids. We liked being around hem, took our minds off the war you know. Why should they be the victims, right? We gave them chocolate and a box of smokes. and they were thrilled to us. Now we were met by an angry crowd, throwing rocks and cursing us in Arabic. It's a good thing they weren't cursing us in English.
Once again I was bumped up in command. And once again it was 'Smouse, go do this! Go do that!'' I was happy to help out and take on these responsibilities, but now it wasn't just me. It was Smouse leading other men to do things. I tell you this, It was better leading than it was following.
When we approached Utah beach, I thought I was experienced at this kind of attack. I was confident and what I wasn’t ready for was the vast amount of gunfire and shells that we were hit with. Our mission was to land before the other American GIs so we could set them up with radio communications and ammunition. We also had to dynamite foxholes for our guys to take cover in when they landed.
It was treacherous work, no doubt about it. I raced through the waters with all of this gear around my head and back and I kept falling in the water, making my gear only heavier. Men all around me were falling in pools of blood, and as the waters lapped up on the shore, the crimson color of death was being left on the sands.
The men were transported from the ships into my craft. Hundreds of men were packed into the boat and as they jumped out, many of them went straight down, they drowned. Others activated their life vests far too soon and they were pushed face down in the water with their backpacks on their backs. You’d go to jump onto the water and you’d see the bloated figures of your friends in the water – face down. It made me physically ill. Hundreds of volleys and a hailstorm of loud whistling bullets. Many of the men never saw what hit them.
Once that gate went down, the fear went up. I was one of the smaller guys- but I carried the same gear that everyone else did. It was all about to happen, and when you see the guys you just saw in the men of other vessels......they are floating in their own blood, urine and whatnot, it sure makes you scared to jump into the water. Our vessel was taking quite a bit of fire.
The Germans were picking us off, right-and-left. With every crack-crack-crack and the sound of whistling metal shooting past us, absolute terror and fear took over many of the boys. In spite of it, their relentlessness was impossible to comprehend. As far to my right and as far to my left I see amphibious boats just like ours. And I see the bodies. And I couldn’t seem to forget it, not for many years.
We hit the beaches and took ground and small arms fire almost at once. It was my first real taste of war, but I wasn’t scared really, I just knew I had a job to do.
And again, that good old thing called ‘ignorance’ came into play too. I just really didn’t know what to expect. The invasion seemed to happen a lot slower than we expected. Mines were everywhere. Everyone fanned out on the beaches and we began to lay wire when 16mm shells began pounding the beach. Turns out, these were our own ships! They couldn’t see us in the mist and fog and luckily they stopped firing before anyone got hurt. But it just goes to show you how dangerous war can be and how we all coped with the fear.
I’ll never forget the stretcher-bearers racing onto the beach to get the injured. I saw a man with his inners hanging out, body parts lay all over that beach. I seemed to deal with it by just putting focus into what I had to do. We were waiting for the Air Force to bomb the beaches in order to give us air cover. They were late, and they didn’t want to bomb us so they got rid of the bombs some three miles away. You have to remember that when planes went out back then, their fuel level is calculated to the weight of the plane. So keeping the bombs were not an option. The lighter weight meant less fuel would be needed.
I dug holes for the next guys coming in. I lay the wire as a shell fragment jammed into my back. I got up and continued to work. It got quiet in my neck of the woods which allowed me to lay radio equipment just in the nick-of-time. And that’s how the mind works sometimes. My focus on getting the job done kept me sane.
Wave after wave of ships and men were behind me. Part of the D-Cannon, Second Regiment, were taking an awful pounding. I heard screams and yells and shrieks. You couldn't have imagined the scent of gunpowder and explosives and gas propelled fires.
‘’Abandon Ship!’’ as the fleet was torn to pieces by a combination of spikes and rocket shells. Men were drowning, being shot. The water was turning bright red and we were pinned down. Even when we landed on the sands, we couldn't form a cohesive attack plan….if you stood up, you were going to be shot.
I was always the first one off the vessel. Guys next to me were disappearing in liquid puddles of their own blood in the water. The man on my left was shot in the ear and somehow continued to push ashore even though he had been mortally wounded.
He probably knew he was going to die but he carried that wet 85lb backpack through the translucent salt water while I didn’t get touched. When you are the first off, you can't look backwards, as much as you want to. The reason is that the guys following you will see you looking back and think that we are supposed to retreat. Talk about fighting temptation...I wanted to see how many guys I had lost.
The166th Regiment, Second Division Don McCarthy is yelling back to his command leader, a man named Cannon. ‘’All for yourselves, just survive!’’ You just sprinted to cover as best you could. I looked back at these tanks that were supposed to float and they just sank. Regardless of Military Branch, we were all thrown together, and we blew up, together. We lived, we fought, and we died as one. Body parts were everywhere. You couldn’t help but step on them. You had to put it out of your mind or soon, someone would be stepping on your body-parts.
We had to report when we saw human remains. We had to call it in and people would come and collect them. It never leaves your memory. We lost a lot of good people that day. Coming into the beach right after us were paratroopers with the 101st. They were being picked out of the sky like target practice. Meanwhile, we lay radio and extra ammunition for the men when they landed. Even though we were first in, the rest of the guys weren’t far behind. In both directions there were men bleeding out on the sand. The salt-water of the sea would wash ashore and move the bodies little-by-little and wash the blood into the sea. It was devastating to watch.
It made me sick and I can’t ever shake those pictures off. We were all a bunch of young kids. Watching them floating there and dying on the beach was total hell. At first, we thought it was a huge failure and that we just gave up the war. Bobbing up and down, dead soldiers. The Navy bombarded the bluffs but those Germans withstood it well. We miscalculated their efficiency and their ability to adapt. Each of the Divisions had a portion of the beach that they were to take. But it didn’t matter amidst all the chaos. Once we hit the water and all hell broke loose, much of the precision planning that we were expecting was out the window. It was just ‘survive.’ To this day I don’t know how I made it through. I was too young to know any better, too innocent to feel guilty.
My best friend was shot right beside me. I heard the bullet whiz by my head and smack into the chest of Walt. I looked back in time to see him fall and as I went to pick him up I saw he was already dead. Bullets smacked into the water around me and I started to shake. I asked God if this was the end for me too. It’s funny in a way, you have these long conversations with yourself when in reality, only seconds pass. You got me thinking about the smells of war. The smell of gunpowder and sweat and salt-water was enough to make you throw-up. When you are wading into the beach with blood on your legs from the floating bodies of your comrades behind you , it can take you to a miserable place. It made me even angrier with the Germans.
FIVE BRONZE STARS
I rescued a number of the guys after I dropped the supplies. Well, there wasn’t really anything else for me to do as I was waiting to get back on the Amphibious Landing Craft. I saw the men struggling and those who were still alive were who I targeted to save. The weight of my clothes was slowing me down so I stripped down to a pair of shorts and began carrying men up to the shore. I loved these brothers of mine, and it never mattered to me that I might die with them that day.
The water was full of debris and moss and white foam. Several guys were pulling others out of the water. I would wade out from the beach in the cold-water. It was also very windy. The first man I saw wasn't that far out - and I brought him back and luckily found a medic. I wasn't particularly tired, so I swam out to sea, looking for more.
They were everywhere, one looked like he might be moving so I flipped him over-and saw he had a huge bullet-hole in his forehead. So I kept looking. There was no time to be scared, no time to process what we were seeing. Still, even at night, I sometimes see those horrifying images of me flipping a guy over in the water and seeing a bullet hole in his forehead. About twenty yards away, I see two guys holding on to one another. I am still heading out in the midst of gunfire and took one of them by the hand. He tried holding on to his buddy but the waves were so choppy and it was so loud you couldn't hear anything really.
Just then, the guy who separated shows up on the other side of me! Now I have each by the arm and to make matters worse, both were wounded and both were strapped to an impossibly wet backpack that it was like moving in quicksand. The waves bounced us up and down and all I knew was I had hurry. Finally I got the guys to shore. Now I am exhausted, spent. The medic I had found before was nowhere to found at this moment. One of the two fellows was mortally wounded, and I didn't think he'd live. He was shot four times. But the other fellow was wounded but going to make it. He helped to comfort the other one before I heard another scream for help. ''Well, here I go again.''
I don't know how I didn't freeze. I am just wearing shorts. It was a very windy and cold day, overcast and gray. I couldn't see where I was going but I could hear the guy yelling. When I found him, he was in bad shape. He hadn't been shot but he had swallowed a great amount of water and was drowning. I had to get this backpack off of him or I wasn't going to get him in time. While I was wrestling with his backpack something sharp came out of nowhere and stuck me right here, right in m my ear. It might have been something in his backpack, or one of the many things in the water - but it left a small scar.
I got him back to shore and as soon as he caught his breath, he came to his senses. Another medic reached the other two guys and took them to get help. I was suddenly shivering and exhausted. Someone came and threw a blanket over me and once I identified myself, one of the guys said they found my backpack way over there! Well over there- was well over a half-mile away! The current in the water was so strong that it pushed me a good ways from where I started.
And that is how I earned five bronze stars before the age of 21!
''You drop the gate, and off you go, whether you are ready or not! And whatever you do, don't look back!''
Here is what happened:
Things are naturally chaotic, but all of a sudden, you find yourself 'in the moment' as they say. I can't explain really. You are truly in the moment. The week before we were playing cards, talking about our girlfriends, family, kids and even our favorite baseball teams. And now you are seeing their lifeless bodies bobbing up-and-down in the water.
In-fact, a part of me died with each and every one of them. There were just as many men who never knew my name who would give their lives up for me and this creates a closeness that is hard to describe in today’s terms. These men had wives, girlfriends, kids, moms and dads and brothers and sisters – just like I did. And yet we were all in this together, lives that depended on one another. What is sad is how many men gave their lives that day. So sad…Many of the men on my flotilla never made it back to their ships. In fact, most of the men I served with were killed that day.
After the day came to an end, there was a moment where we just collapsed from the enormity of it all. A bunch of military kids, hardened by a solitary day. How much more could we withstand? It seemed like we didn’t sleep much, but we learned to maximize what we did get. You can go without food, water and fresh clothes for weeks….but you need to get your rest.
We went and examined their pill boxes and we could see that they had well constructed places to operate. We made it about ten miles inside Europe, and German radio mentioned it as if it were a big blow to them. I heard later that the most brilliant man in the German Service, Rommel, wasn’t there. He was celebrating his wife’s birthday. It was a stroke of luck because I tell you, that man was a cut-above the rest of the Reich. We were warned of his strategic skills and will to win well before we landed.
But there were some key differences between landing in Sicily and France. First of all, the beaches were much larger in Sicily and we had more landing space. At Utah Beach there were hills and places to conceal the enemy, making that invasion much more difficult. It seemed so easy when we invaded Sicily that many of us thought it would be the same at Normandy. I think that was wishful thinking.
The Day After Normandy
When we realized what had been accomplished, there was quite the sense of pride. Today we think that the war ended not long after we landed on Normandy and Omaha. For me, I look at the soldiers who landed on Utah Beach and I think of the mission. We were to set up radio communications with all of the armed services. They had extra ammunition and supplies when they landed. Although I was just doing my job, I received Bronze Stars for the men I rescued – in fact, FIVE of them!
I have one more story to share and that when I met General Patton. You read about him in the numerous newspapers and he just seemed so much bigger than life itself. As it was, our flotilla was a necessary component of the invasion of Normandy. During a routine stop over in Belgium, I got to lay my eyes on General George Patton. What a motivating man he was! Not everyone knows this, but he had a shrill, almost high-pitch voice. It didn’t seem to go with the man, that’s for sure. We were up 05:30 for a morning wake-up when his jeep arrives. We were raising the flag at camp. In Europe, this was often a solemn moment, where we played taps and then the national anthem.
While we were carefully raising Old Glory, a bee lands right on the Generals ear. I watched as Patton never flinched. The bee was buzzing all around his ear and I’m telling you, the man was a rock. Finally, it put a hell of a sting on him and he slightly winced, but he didn’t move until the Anthem was over. And then with one snap of his wrist and hand he caught this bee shook it up.
He shook his closed fist like mad in his fist and when he let it go, the bee made these crazy loops and buzzed away. It’s not something that caught the attention of biographers or even for that matter, almost anyone else. It just was one of those things you see and never forget. Patton was the reason we were winning in Europe. But he was a ‘soldier’s-soldier.’ He commanded respect and you knew who was in charge.
Of course, he was used as a pawn in the invasion of Normandy to feign an attack far more north on the continent. Hitler fell for it hook, line and sinker. And the reason Hitler fell for it was because he feared only one man in the American forces and that was George Patton. The men of The Second Ranger Battalion rushed the beach and streamed past us. They weren’t supposed to do that but we weren’t having a great deal of luck then either. It was one of those things that caused our original plan to go awry – but in the end it probably saved a lot of lives.
Well as I said, I was the youngest guy on the ship, and I had five Bronze Stars before I was 19 years old,….I turned 21 on Sept. 2, 1945, the day the war ended. I did have good memories of the 1940s and without a doubt it the time spent on the island of Crete. Look at the postcards, beautiful isn’t it? You never enlist expecting to see such pretty places, but some of us got to do just that. All of Italy was beautiful, but the south of the country seemed largely untouched by war. It was so gorgeous!
Crete– now that was my favorite place! Crete was just a bunch of burros and people and it was such an easy way of life. The burros carried my backpack so I could actually stop and talk to the pretty girls. They didn’t understand me of course, but the Americans were very popular with the ladies! They wanted to cook for us and we were so grateful and hungry that we could never say no to them.
Our visits were made so much nicer all because of those little burros. The burros could carry everything, even us! When we had leave time on Crete, it wasn’t uncommon to see GI’s on the backs of these burros. No doubt, you learn to appreciate things like that when you have been lugging your gear that is often weighted down because it is wet. You’d see them there and in Sicily and it would be a race to get to one of them. I often wanted to go back but now I hear that it's all hotels, the burro's are all gone!
Postscript: In 1976, President Jimmy Carter announced Amnesty to draft evader. This was inclusive of both WWII and Korean War Draft Dodgers as well as Vietnam. The order came on the eve of an anniversary where Admiral Sabin was due to reunite with mem
bers of his Flotilla in an emotional rekindling of men from around the United States.
The President declined to attend the affair and wanted nothing to do with it. In fact, when a letter of thanks was requested in lieu of the absent President, a blank sheet of notebook paper and an unsigned note was all that Admiral Sabin could manage out of the President.
In addition, the Naval and Air Force rules regarding the awarding of Citations was broken when Carter awarded a long overdue award to members of the All-Black 172nd Infantry Division. The newspaper article refers to this regiment as ''Eleanor's N___.ers'' and details their plight on the battlefields of France.
The award gave Admiral Sabin hope that members from his fleet would be awarded the long overdue recognition they deserve - a cause that Admiral Sabin had been fighting for ever since the war itself ended.
Admiral Sabin and Vice-Admiral ''Red'' Moye both sent letters to the President to which his wife politely answered that such an endeavor ''would be impossible at this time.'' Men who died as heroes or lived as heroes were never recognized for meritorious achievements in the face of danger and the President even put off the issuing of Purple Hearts to the veterans which would have given them an added pension and improve the overall quality of life.
The notes and letters are pictures here, and it is astounding to me that such a deliberate oversight by a President in this manner ever happened to our veterans.
In 2013, Smouse took part in an Honor-Flight to Washington DC where he was reunited with many of the men he served with. It was an emotional moment that he regarded as the high-point of his entire life.
Note: ''Smouse'' as he called himself passed away very shortly after we met. We had been through three interviews and it did not seem he was that ill. He left me with his Diaries and Postcards, something which I plan on sharing with a great many people. Smouse was simply an incredible man who seemed unaffected by the horror of war or the failed VA Hospital which is leaving soldiers like him without proper medical care. For those who support Wounded Warrior, you know how hard these veterans can have it. Continue please to support these soldiers, for they have built a great nation with their blood and sacrifice. It remains a proud and dignified measure of service which we as Americans can still honor - and should. ###