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Special - ‘A Project So Unique’

By A. Denis Clift

Next, Moran received his reserve commission via 90-day officers’ training school, joined the coal-burning reefer ship Ice King , became navigator, and headed out on transatlantic runs delivering tons of frozen meat to the troops in France. When the war ended, he returned to Moran Towing. His new Navy credentials served him well as he ascended the company ladder. The Moran tug fleet was expanding. There was good growth in the tug and towing business between East Coast ports and in the Port of New York with its 1,500 square miles of waterfront, more than 700 linear miles of docks and wharves, and nonstop arrivals, departures, and inner-harbor comings and goings of thousands of merchant ships, liners, and barges. In the late 1930s, the Department of the Navy’s Bureau of Ships consulted with him on the design of a new ATF fleet ocean tug, “inquiries with respect to the hull, as to deck fittings, towing apparatus, navigational equipment, the power plant, and propulsion machinery. . . . The ships, the tugs, were built on the East Coast and on the Lakes and turned out very satisfactorily.” He would also consult on the Navy’s plans for the new ATR rescue tug. 4

Small-Craft Acquisition

In spring 1941, by then in charge of the towing company, Moran again took leave and headed to Washington, D.C., at the request of retired Rear Admiral Emory S. Land, chairman of the U.S. Maritime Commission, to become a special assistant in charge of acquisitions of small craft for the Army, Navy, and the British. This was a business that would grow quickly. Requests and instructions came via the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. He and his staff negotiated with civilian boat owners, from yachts, to tugs and barges, to 75- to 80-foot sea boats of the West Coast sardine fleet. Where necessary, three Circuit Court of Appeals judges ruled on just compensation.

“Harold Vanderbilt had a yacht, Bara ,” Moran recalled, “and we requisitioned it. It was in an unfinished state, and we determined $300,000. So he said, ‘Do you ever come to New York? I don’t like to go down to Washington.’

“I said, ‘Yes, I do.’

“And he said, ‘Let me know when you are coming to New York; give me a ring.’ So in due course, I gave him a ring, and I met him at a club over there—downtown. We sat down and he said, ‘What do you think that thing is worth?’

“And I said, ‘We determined $300,000.’

“And he said, ‘That’s all right; I’ll take it.’ So we finished lunch, and when he got the check [for $300,000] he signed it over to the USO. He just endorsed the check over, the whole thing, which was very fitting.” 5

In May 1942, while serving under Rear Admiral Land, Moran returned to active duty as a Naval Reserve lieutenant commander, and six months later was promoted to commander. He kept moving, always upward, next serving a brief tour on loan from the Maritime Administration. At this point in the war, German U-boats were still taking a heavy toll on allied merchant shipping. Moran became rescue officer for the Eastern Sea Frontier, in charge of the operations of rescue tugs going to the aid of torpedoed and shelled merchantmen.

A Call from Admiral King

One day in 1943, a member of Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest J. King’s staff called on him. “He asked me a lot about ground tackle and beach operations, but he didn’t tell me why he was asking the questions. He asked me about unloading on beaches. He was a naval officer, and I told him all I could.”

In late 1943, Admiral Harold R. Stark, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, got in touch with him. “He said, ‘I might like to have you come over and take a look at a plan that is being considered. You come to London and spend a few days. Give me your opinion of certain aspects of it and go home. . . . ‘The next thing I knew, the Army called and asked for a type of unit that could get up on the beach and be discharged when the tide was low.” 6 The Army and the Navy did not then have the craft required.

At the outset, while Moran did not know that the precise challenge would be to put 10,000 tons of gasoline, ammunition, and K-ration meals on the beaches of Normandy, he thought through the problem with some of his seafaring colleagues. They first thought that railroad-car floats—very long at 220 feet with very low 7- to 8-foot sides—might do the job. They could go up on the beach and when the tide dropped the barges would be high, dry, and ready for off-loading. But the railroad barges’ lack of longitudinal strength was a worry. They wondered if oil barges might be better. “They were flat, they were a little deeper, and they had better sides so that they were more immune to the dangers of breaking in half on the way over to France.”

They hedged their bets and requisitioned both railroad-car floats and oil barges. To solve the longitudinal-weakness problem, they stacked two floats on top of another in drydock and welded them together. Each had the capacity to lift 1,000 tons. A convoy of stacked floats and eight oil barges towed by tugs steaming at six knots departed the United States in late April and crossed the Atlantic with the loss of a single tug. “We took them to Cardiff, where the barges were dismantled and put afloat on their own bottoms and brought to Plymouth, where they were loaded with ammunition, K rations, and gasoline. . . . On June 6 we took them across the Channel, and they were a lifesaver.” 7

Moran was already in England in April when the barge and float convoy arrived. He had signed secrecy agreements, and in meetings with new U.S. and British colleagues he was working his way into what would be his next, far-greater assignment. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, had been studying the issue for many months. He had a clear appreciation of the near-countless challenges he would face in the D-Day landings. The beaches of Normandy had been chosen in the greatest secrecy, with the knowledge that the Germans would expect the landings to be at the ports of Cherbourg or Calais. At the same time, he would write: “The history or centuries clearly shows that the English Channel is subject to destructive storms at all times of the year. . . . The only certain method to assure supply and maintenance was by capture of large port facilities. . . . To solve this apparently unsolvable problem we undertook a project so unique as to be classed by scoffers as completely fantastic. It was a plan to construct artificial harbors on the coast of Normandy.” 8

‘Two Large Synthetic Harbors’

In his 7 June communication to Soviet Marshal Josef Stalin on the Allied landings, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote: “Most especially secret. We are planning to construct very quickly two large synthetic harbors on the beaches of this wide sandy bay of the Seine estuary. Great ocean liners will be able to discharge and run by numerous piers supplies to the fighting troops. This must be quite unexpected by the enemy, and will enable the buildup to proceed with very great independence of weather conditions.” 9

The artificial harbors would consist of Gooseberries—outer lines of ships scuttled bow to stern to form breakwaters—and 146 Mulberries—inner, fixed breakwaters, each displacing from 1,600 tons to 7,000 tons and made of giant concrete caissons ranging up to 5 stories high, 200 feet long, 69 feet in beam, and with a draft of 23 feet. More than 330,000 cubic yards of concrete and 31,000 tons of steel were involved in their construction, and thousands of workers were brought in for the job.

As every British shipyard building way and drydock was already fully occupied, the Allies improvised. Close to the banks of the Thames River, excavators dug 12 large holes. With pumps draining water that was seeping in, the Mulberries were constructed in the holes. When they were at a point were they could be floated, the strip of land between them and the river was removed, and they were launched.

There would be two Mulberry artificial harbors, one for the British landing at Gold Beach and one for the Americans at Omaha Beach. The British naval planning staff had to arrange, taking into account precise water depths, for the sinking of the right caissons in the correct offshore positions. The Mulberries when submerged and connected provided piers for troop and cargo ships and had more than seven miles of attached, flexible, floating roadways and pontoon bridges leading straight to the shore. 10

Moran thought the idea of creating Mulberry harbors was reasonable. But he had been going aboard U.S. and Allied tugs and was concerned that some of the planning for the tug men might not yet be adequate to allow correct delivery of the inshore caissons. Although he was carrying out several other assignments for Admiral Stark at the time, he discussed the problem with the British officer in charge of the towing operation, who went to his superiors and said, “This guy can do this job better than I can do it. Let me out and put him in.” The issue was taken to Royal Navy Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, Operation Neptune Naval Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Naval Expeditionary Force. After Ramsey and Stark conferred, Ramsey told Moran that he was to relieve the Royal Navy captain who had been charged with being the controller of the operation. 11 Naval Reserve Captain Edmond J. Moran was now in charge of the tugboat fleet, 150–160 strong.

Moran kept circulating among the tug crews on the British coast, refining plans, moving equipment, keeping morale high; “they never knew when we might get an air raid or we’d get one of these buzz bombs.” He selected a Dutch tug as the lead boat for the cross-channel operation, thinking a crew whose country had been overrun would have the right esprit for the return to the continent. “The next fellow I sent was an American. . . . I just talked to him; he [later became] president of one of our companies in Baltimore. He was a game sort of guy.” 12

‘90 Caissons in Tow’

The D-Day assault took place early morning on 6 June. Moran had 90 caissons to tow. He recalled in his oral history: “We started across with the tows on the morning of June 6. The tows proceeded at a rate of five to six knots, and the distance was approximately 100 miles, coming from Portsmouth, Selsey, and Plymouth.” All of the tug crews “were civilians, and they were capable of doing it all right. And, of course, there were patrols there that would lead them in, because they were under constant fire from the shore batteries. . . . [I]t all worked according to plan; we brought the equipment over, all of it, and the British engineers and the American engineers had the job of locating them where they wanted them. 13

Mulberry A at Omaha was in operation on 16 June. The contrast between Omaha on 6 June and 12 days later, in Samuel Eliot Morison’s words, was amazing:

This lonely three-mile stretch of beach, where nothing bigger than a small fishing boat had ever landed, was now a major port of entry. Through 18 June it had received 197,444 troops, 27,340 vehicles, and 68,799 long tons of supplies. With the aid of Mulberry A, Omaha had now become the most active port in northern France, with the greatest capacity. And, for the moment, it was the most active port in Europe, with British Beach Gold a good second. 14

While Mulberry A would be severely, irreparably damaged in a violent storm in late June, it had played its part in establishing the Normandy beachhead and facilitating the initial U.S. moves inland. Mulberry B would continue in a major artificial-harbor role for months. “I don’t think the assault on France could have been accomplished with out it,” Admiral Moran reflected:

I don’t think there was a possibility of going on open beaches without the protection that these harbors afforded. I don’t think it could have been completed in half the time that it took for the whole adventure to be completed if you hadn’t done it that way. It would have taken twice as long. These troops were going ashore over the caissons, over the road. In seven days, the bridge had been completed. The LST could have gotten them up onto the beach, but the LST would have been shot to pieces, and the crews did very well getting them over the pontoon bridges. They had lots of artillery, and they didn’t have to worry about stepping into water over their heads. We landed them and got them on the bridge, and they walked ashore and went where they were supposed to go and got there safely. 15

Breakfast with Ike

In mid-June, Moran, now back in London, was ordered to report to the destroyer USS Thompson (DD-627) in Portsmouth, and as it was 0500, he went down to the wardroom for breakfast. “Pretty soon a fellow came along, sitting alongside me . . . and it was Eisenhower. So I said, ‘Good morning, General.’ He said ‘Can I get some breakfast here?’ I said ‘Sure, just a minute. Mine’s coming.” The Thompson had been providing gunfire support during the landings and on the 12th had carried General Eisenhower, General George C. Marshall, Admiral King, and General Henry H. Arnold to take a look at the invasion beaches. After some food, Eisenhower pulled Moran aside on the destroyer, told him how desperate he was for more supplies and equipment from the United States to keep the invasion going, and ordered him back to the United States—nothing in writing—to carry that message to all the right people and right places. “Then I saw Marshall and King,” Moran recalled. “King said to me, ‘I saw that place you built there at Normandy, and I must say it was a great job.’” 16

While Moran personally downplayed his D-Day role, he was awarded the Legion of Merit; the Honorary Commander, Military Division, Order of the British Empire; and the French Croix de Guerre with gold stars. He departed for Guam and when the war ended was guiding the preparation of Mulberries for the invasion of Japan. In 1953, he was promoted to Naval Reserve rear admiral. He returned to Moran Towing, was elected chairman of the Board of Directors in 1964, and retired in 1984. 17

1. The New York Times , 17 July 1993.

2. The Reminiscences of Rear Admiral Edmond J. Moran, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired) , Interviewed by Dr. John T. Mason Jr. (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 2004).

3. Ibid., 15

4. Ibid., 32–33.

5. Ibid., 50–51.

6. Ibid., 62.

7. Ibid., 64–66.

8. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1948), 234.

9. Winston S. Churchill, Triumph and Tragedy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1953), 8.

10. CDR Kenneth Edwards, RN, Operation Neptune (London:The Albatross Library, 1947), 60–63.

11. Moran, op. cit., 71.

12. Ibid., 78

13. Ibid., 72–75.

14. Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II , vol. 11, The Invasion of France and Germany 1944–1945 , (Boston: Little, Brown, 1953; Naval Institute Press Edition, 2011), 166.

15. Moran, op. cit., 76.

16. Ibid., 84–85.

17. Tow Line magazine, vol. 46 (Winter 1993-94), 5.

Mr. Clift is the U.S. Naval Institute’s vice president for planning and operations and president emeritus of the National Intelligence University. A naval officer from 1958–62, he served in the administrations of 11 successive U.S. Presidents. From 1963–66, he was editor-in-chief of Proceedings .


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