Our experiences on board a tank landing ship, the USS LST-386, were typical of many in World War II. Allen Pace was first the communications officer and later the commanding officer, and Marx Leva started as the navigating officer before becoming executive officer. Like the rest of the ship’s crew, who came straight from farms, factories, businesses, and law firms, we had no naval experience. In fact, only one officer and one enlisted man in the LST-386 had ever sailed on salt water.
After being commissioned in November 1942, the ship Was ordered to Bayonne, New Jersey. There, the tank deck was filled with all the anchors, buoys, steel netting, and other gear necessary to install an antisubmarine net. On our open top deck, an elaborate foundation was prepared to support, and later actually launch, a 105-foot- long tank landing craft (LCT).
In mid-February 1943 the LST-386 and her piggybacked LCT-33 received sailing orders to join a convoy. Our slow cruising speed must have frustrated the crews of the much faster escort vessels.
One of our stops was at Bermuda, where a pilot was put aboard to take the ship into harbor. Our nervous captain asked him, “Have you ever handled a vessel of this sort before?”
The ultra-correct pilot replied, “I brought in one of your aircraft carriers last week, but I must confess I’ve never handled a barge before.” End of conversation!
In the Med: Once in the Mediterranean, the convoy began to split up to go to various ports. The LST-386 went to Arzew, a small Algerian fishing village. Within days of our arrival, the antisubmarine net from our tank deck was installed across the port entrance. We derived great satisfaction from seeing the tangible result of our first wartime mission.
Launching the LCT-33 without benefit of the type of crane used to lift her aboard at Bayonne was more dramatic. By listing heavily to one side and using a heavy load of grease, we side-launched the LCT-33. She hit the waters of Arzew with a great splash.
Arzew was to be our home port for several weeks. During this period our ship undertook the first of several experiments that caused us to regard her as the guinea pig of the amphibs.
One was an effort to find a solution to the problem of a beach gradient that caused the LSTs to beach—in an almost tideless sea—in water too deep to permit off-loading over the ship’s ramp. A steel pontoon causeway had been developed that could support the tanks and other vehicles carried by LSTs when it was put into position at the ramp of the beached LST. But how to transport this tremendous, unwieldy object to invasion beaches remained a problem. We were selected to try one proposal.
This plan involved using the ship’s stem anchor engine and her 500 feet of heavy steel cable to hoist the causeway on its side so that it rested on special projections welded to the side of the ship. Elaborate rigging was required to hoist the causeway into this position, but the plan did work and once the procedure was established by the experts, the ship’s crew could hoist the causeways. Selected LSTs were rigged for this purpose and the pontoon causeways were successfully used by our ship and other LSTs in future beach landings, including at Sicily and Salerno.
As soon as the former French naval base at Bizerte, Tunisia, was taken by Allied forces, the LST-386 and other LSTs were ordered to proceed there, and we began in earnest to prepare to invade Sicily. Once again, we were selected to be used in a test—this one to determine whether an LST could be converted into a miniature “aircraft carrier” to launch small Army reconnaissance planes. A flight runway, topped with metal landing-strip mesh, was installed on our top deck.
A single plane was placed at the end of the runway and we proceeded to a remote area of Lake Bizerte to test the feasibility of the plan. Our ship headed into the wind until she reached her top speed. Although emergency facilities were standing by, they were not needed because when the plane took off from the runway there was room to spare. “I saw it,” signaled the captain of another LST, “but I still don’t believe it.”
Shortly after this, our ship and all other available LSTs lined up at the Bizerte loading docks to take on troops and equipment for the invasion of Sicily. Bob Hope and his entertainment troupe had just finished their performance when an enemy air raid struck the dock area, presumably trying to disrupt preparations for the invasion. German chandelier flares lighted up both the surface of the lake and the landing craft at the loading docks.
The attack caused no major damage to invasion preparations, but for the first and only time in our entire wartime experience members of our crew were killed. We believed the ship’s “aircraft carrier” flight runway was the direct cause. A white line had been painted down the middle to assist the pilots in taking off, and even in the darkness this line had been sufficiently illuminated by enemy flares to permit an attacking plane to make a strafing run from one end to the other. Ammunition fragments and marks left on the metal mesh of the runway attested to this.
Two members of the gun crew on the bow of the ship directly in line with the painted stripe were killed, and several other crew members were injured slightly. We found an unexploded 20-mm. shell embedded in the battery of one of the small boats, which was located only a few feet from the open navigation bridge of the ship, where the captain and several other officers and enlisted men were stationed.
Sicily: Shortly after sunrise on 10 July 1943, the LST- 386 got under way just off the invasion site at Licata, Sicily, to launch the first of our small planes, which were to be used for gunfire spotting and reconnaissance. As we started our launching run, a coastal defense gun at the entrance to the harbor at Licata opened fire on us; the first shell fell short, but the next round went over us. Even the ship’s inexperienced crew considered it likely that the third round would be in between the first two and possibly a direct hit. But thanks to the alertness and accuracy of the gun crew of a U. S. Navy cruiser supporting the invasion, which knocked out the shore battery with a shell, the third shot was never fired.
Immediately after launching the three reconnaissance i planes and thereby completing our duty as an “aircraft carrier,” we proceeded to our assigned landing beach, placed the pontoon causeway at the ramp, and disembarked troops, tanks, and ammunition trucks. We ran a hose ashore and pumped fresh water into tanks for the invasion troops. We also unloaded a number of small African burros that had been stabled under the aircraft runway'' The burros were hardly bigger than large dogs and were to be used to carry ammunition into the hills.
On a follow-up trip a few days later to bring additional supplies and personnel to Sicily, we once again were fitted out for a most unorthodox function. Enough stalls were constructed on our tank deck to accommodate the horses of a company of native Moroccan cavalrymen, known as Goumiers, who were to fight in the mountains. They were certainly a colorful sight, wearing their native burnooses as they rode off the ship on their horses.
Still another mission of the ship was to take on a group of some 500 Italian prisoners captured by Lieutenant General George Patton’s forces. Having loaded them and their gear on the tank deck, we headed back for Bizerte. The trip was uneventful, except for enthusiastic accordion-playing by some of the Italians, who were happy that—for them—a most unhappy war was over.
Salerno: At the end of the Sicilian operations, the LSTs were again based at Bizerte and we began preparing for the first invasion of the Italian mainland. After further loading and beaching rehearsals, we received orders detailing our assigned duties in the invasion of Salerno, scheduled for 9 September 1943.
The invasion fleet arrived at the Gulf of Salerno on 8 September and anchored to await the predawn landings. As a pontoon carrier, the LST-386 was to be the first LST to beach, so at 0430, in total darkness, we got under way. Almost immediately, an enemy air raid began and aerial flares illuminated the entire area. We were under continuous fire from the shore as we went through a channel partially cleared of mines by minesweepers. (In the Salerno landings, minesweeping ended two-and-a-half miles from the shore, so as to maintain the “secrecy” of the landings.)
Our bow lookouts saw a mine, either floating free or cut loose from its underwater mooring but not detonated, close to the starboard side of the bow. We could not maneuver fast enough to miss the mine, because by this time the pontoon causeway had been launched and was being towed along the starboard side. The ship herself swung to Port and cleared the mine, but the causeway overrode and exploded it. Although 23 Seabees were on the causeway, they had enough warning of the mine to run to the seaward end of the causeway. All were stunned by the terrific explosion, and two were killed.
When the mine exploded, the British troops scheduled to land at Salerno were below decks waiting for the moment of landing. The force of the explosion— concentrated at and below the waterline—hurled many of them into the steel partitions that compartmented the troop areas. The bodies of several of the casualties were wedged into the lockers that had been provided for troop use.
In the opinion of the officers and men of the LST-386, the real heroes were the Navy Seabees and the British Army personnel who were prepared to go ashore and carry the battle to the enemy. It was never clear to the officers and men of the LST-386 just why Pace received a Silver Star, and Leva a Bronze Star, for the “heroism” involved in being skillful enough to hit a mine while making a beaching run on D-Day in the Gulf of Salerno.
The ship had a hole in her side that was approximately 48 feet long and extended halfway through to the other side. In addition, one of her two engines and her gyrocompass were knocked out. Even so, she dropped a stem anchor offshore and proceeded to the beach. But when she hit the beach there was no way to unload, because water was 12 feet deep at the ramp and the causeway had been destroyed. The shell fire from shore became heavier as the ship sat on her bottom at the water’s edge. As dawn began to break, hostile machine gun fire joined the heavier weapons shelling the ship. A Marine major on board as an observer estimated that a dispersed battery of eight 88- mm. guns, possibly from German tanks, was involved in the shelling.
Because he was unable to unload the ship, the captain decided to try to retract from the beach. It was uncertain whether this could be done with the ship so badly damaged, but her remaining engine and stern anchor winch were able to pull the ship slowly off the beach so she could reach the anchorage area.
We were then ordered to unload our cargo into LCTs in a bow-to-bow manner, and then depart for reconstruction. Temporary repairs were made at Bizerte; strips of railroad track reinforced the ship to keep her bow from falling off. Then we went back to Oran for further repairs, which took four months.
Anzio: Just a year after leaving the United States, the LST-386 was again fit for action. This was just in time, for the next invasion of the Italian mainland, at Anzio, was planned for the following month, January 1944. While other LSTs were preparing for this operation, however, we were picked for a special one-ship assignment to carry a complete airfield construction unit from Palermo, Sicily, to the northern part of the island of Corsica. The purpose was to expand an Allied fighter field so that bombers could take off from Corsica to bomb southern France and possibly northern Italy. Our destination was the port of Bastia, approximately 25 miles from the German-held island of Elba.
Our only scheduled stop, at a small harbor between Sardinia and Corsica, proved to be far more of an ordeal than a respite. The entrance to the harbor was through the Straits of Bonifacio, a narrow passage with rock cliffs on both sides. A near-gale-force wind was blowing across the straits as we entered, whipping up sizable waves and whitecaps. While the captain and Leva were devoting their efforts to keeping as nearly as possible in the middle of the channel, a lookout reported a submarine defense net dead ahead, previously obscured by the high waves.
The navigation charts and sailing orders had not indicated the net’s existence, so it came as a complete surprise. By the time of the sighting, we had no chance at all, with an LST’s limited power, of changing course sufficiently to head for the narrow opening in the net. So once again we maintained the existing course and once again the result was successful. Probably there was nothing else we could have done under the circumstances, but the captain’s reasoning was that because of the ship’s flat bottom and shallow draft, our momentum might permit us to ride up over the top of the net, which was suspended by floats on the surface of the water. As a precaution, we stopped the two propellers to keep them from becoming entangled just before the stem of the ship went over the net.
The storm continued to rage as the ship entered the harbor and anchored, but we knew immediately that the anchor was dragging and we were drifting slowly toward a rock cliff. We hoisted the anchor and attempted to reanchor in a different spot, but with the same result. Repeated efforts were equally unsuccessful, and when the ship seemed only a few yards from the cliffs and it seemed obvious that she would drift into them, we stopped the propellers. At about the same time, the ship came to an almost imperceptible halt. The full length of the anchor chain extended from the bow, and the stem was almost within arm’s reach of the cliff.
For the rest of the night the ship held her position in complete security, and by dawn the wind had ceased and the mere weight of the anchor chain had gradually pulled us back to a safe anchorage in the harbor. Although the navigation charts showed nothing but the rock cliff, we presumed that there must have been at least a small spot of sand where the stem had come to rest, thus saving our ship and cargo.
Our mission to Corsica prevented us from being included in the landings on the Italian mainland. As it turned out, the initial landings at Anzio were virtually unopposed and it was not until several days later that the Germans mounted a sizable counterattack. By this time we were ready to take our place in what became known as the “Anzio Shuttle,” the term given by its participants to the steady stream of LSTs that carried men and equipment from the Naples area to the tiny port of Anzio. Small to begin with, and largely used by fishing vessels and ferries to the offshore islands before the war, the port was so cluttered by debris as a result of pre-invasion Allied bombing and later German bombing and shelling that no ship larger than an LST could enter it.
The crews dreaded the nightly LST shuttle trips less than they feared the time spent at Anzio’s unloading dock. Enemy air raids were always possible, but during the unloading process shelling from a huge German gun was almost a certainty. This gun, nicknamed the “Anzio Express,” was mounted on a railroad car that was reportedly kept in a railway tunnel in the Alban Hills near Rome, except for short periods when it was pulled out to be fired. The gun was said to be 30 miles away, but it was obviously aimed to pinpoint the harbor and unloading docks, and it was equally obvious that somehow the gun’s crew knew when any LSTs were in the port.
After several weeks of shuttle service, the LST-386 was designated to serve as a mother ship to small craft stationed at Anzio. This entailed taking on various stores and supplies (including oil and ammunition) and remaining in the Anzio anchorage area for about two weeks.
While we were serving in this role, reports reached us that enemy frogmen might try to attach underwater mines to the hulls or propellers of ships in the anchorage. Dropping a small explosive over the side of a ship where a frogman had been detected had proved to be an effective countermeasure. So we were not surprised when we were named the distributor for this new item, which consisted of four sticks of dynamite with a fuse attached. Accordingly, two tons of dynamite sticks were stacked on our open deck, along with the appropriate detonators and instructions about how to assemble them into miniature depth charges.
That evening, before any distribution had begun, an unusually heavy air raid began, the most intense we had ever experienced. It seemed to us that our ship was being singled out for special attack by the bombers; the fact that we were not yet covered by a smoke screen supported this belief. Crew members on the exposed open conning tower clearly observed bombs in “sticks” of four, falling on both sides of the ship, as well as in front of the bow and aft of the stem. We carried no dynamite experts on board but we presumed that a stray piece of shrapnel would be enough to explode the two tons of sticks stacked neatly on the open deck. After what seemed forever, the raid ended and, once again, we had survived without damage or casualties.
Normandy: At the end of our Anzio service, in April 1944, the LST-386 was ordered to proceed immediately to England. There we began to take part in group exercises and other preparations for the invasion of Normandy.
At Deptford, a grimy, ancient town that is part of Greater London, we loaded our cargo for the cross-Channel invasion. Our cargo was a combat load of British troops, their combat vehicles, and related equipment. Their destination, as we learned later form our sealed orders, was the British and Canadian landing beaches designated Juno, Sword, and Gold. Closest to the great port of Le Havre at the mouth of the Seine, these were the easternmost landing beaches in Normandy. In fact, our ultimate landing was on the broad, flat beach designated as Juno that lay immediately in front of the village of Courseulles-sur-Mer.
Before we reached Normandy, however, we had to leave the Thames and pass again through the Straits of Dover. Our ship was part of the relatively small force that was assigned to simulate a landing in the Pas de Calais area, hopefully to mislead the Germans. While carrying out this mission, our small group of ships was heavily shelled by German guns located at Cape Gris Nez, a point of land not far from Calais itself. Fortunately, we were not hit—and, to the best of our knowledge, there were no hits on any of the other ships in our task force.
Because of our D-Day activities in the Pas de Calais, it was not until D + 1 that we were ordered to Normandy. We beached without incident and wished our British guests Godspeed as they went ashore on 7 June 1944. On the next rising tide, we pulled off the beach and headed hack to England to join the trans-Channel follow-up shuttle fleet, from England to France and back again.
While making a follow-up run to Normandy on 19 June, We were caught up in a tremendous, unexpected storm that lasted until 22 June and was said to be the largest June storm in 80 years. We anchored off the Normandy beaches, hoping to ride out the storm. But we carried a heavy load of ammunition, which Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s forces fighting to capture Caen needed desperately.
Accordingly, we were ordered to get under way for the beach, and we made our run at the height of the storm. We were able to beach at the proper place, in spite of the huge Waves, but in the interval between our beaching and the next low tide, the ship was viciously bounced up and down by the winds and the sea. On each surge of the sea the bottom of the ship hit the sandy beach with a loud crack!
By the time low tide arrived, enabling us both to unload the cargo and examine the ship’s hull, it was clear that the bottom of the ship had been badly bent. Viewed from outside, at a point about halfway between bow and stem, the hull had been forced upwards at least three feet. Viewed from inside the tank deck, we could see a large, upward bulge close to the middle of the ship.
After this particular crossing, we had been scheduled to have railroad rails laid on the tank deck so that we could haul fully loaded freight cars from England to France. It was clear, however, from the new configuration of the tank deck, that unless we received extensive repairs, the railroad exercise could not be carried out.
So back to England we headed, to put the ship into dry dock on the Thames. About halfway across the Channel, one of our lookouts spotted and heard a “flying object,” emitting flames from its tail, headed toward England. We presumed that this was one of the rumored German jet- powered fighter planes, but after entering dry dock in the London area learned that we had seen an unmanned flying bomb, a V-l.
These flying bombs made England, particularly London, much more hazardous than the Normandy beachhead. Frequently, as many as six or seven could be observed in the sky at once, and they were not affected by poor visibility or other weather conditions. Statistics showed that the Thames River docks in London were the most frequently hit targets, and the LST-386 sustained several near-misses at different times while in dry dock and, later, while tied up two abreast to the Deptford dock. The V-2s, which came later, were a further hazard.
The End: Toward the end of 1944 we began to wonder if we might have to spend another Christmas away from our homes, but in December we received orders to decommission the ship and turn her over to the Royal Navy. The pounding of our hull in Normandy was undoubtedly a factor in this decision. After 22 months of continuous duty in Mediterranean and European combat areas, including active involvement in every major amphibious landing in the area, the officers and men of the LST-386 delivered the ship to the British, at a Scottish port, and sailed home on board the lie de France.
Looking back through the mists of almost 50 years, the lesson is that the officers and men of the LST-386, like the officers and men of many of the Navy’s wartime ships, were by peacetime standards totally unqualified for the tasks they were called upon to perform. But through a combination of on-the-job learning, dedicated patrotism, and courage under fire, they made a significant contribution to ultimate victory.