As the number of Normandy invasion veterans rapidly dwindles, so does the number of ships that made the landing 75 years ago possible. Fewer than 30 documented vessels that had credible service in the invasion—of more than 6,900—are still afloat, and at least five of those are barely above water. A number of others bear no resemblance to their wartime appearance. At least eight of the veterans are American: Five were Navy warships, two were Army tugs, and one was a civilian cargo ship.
The U.S. Army large tugs Major Wilbur F. Browder (LT-4) and Major Elisha K. Henson (LT-5)—sisters from a series of eight boats—are perhaps the least known of the survivors. Their histories paralleled for the most part, but LT-5 was singled out for National Historic Landmark status. The National Park Service calls her “the last functional U.S. Army vessel that participated in [the] Normandy landings.” LT-4, known today as the Ludington, is docked at Kewaunee, Wisconsin, and is equipped and painted as she appeared during postwar service for the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Major Elisha K. Henson was in the first group of the Army’s large seagoing tugboats built specifically for the Normandy invasion. She was launched on 22 November 1943 and delivered to the U.S. Army Transportation Corps after the first of the year. She left New York on 3 February 1944 and made the transatlantic crossing to Portsmouth, England, with two barges carrying eight railcars in tow. From there, the tug was transferred 125 miles west to Exmouth.
Early on the morning of 6 June, LT-5, with two stores barges in tow, left Exmouth in company with a fleet of tugs, barges, aged merchant ships, concrete caissons, and cruciform steel floats to begin the creation of an artificial harbor, dubbed Mulberry A, off Omaha Beach. High winds delayed her convoy in its approach to the beach until the early hours of 7 June. For the next day, the Mulberry fleet stood clear of the much more important fleet that was landing invasion troops. On the 8th, she tied up alongside a sunken tank landing ship (LST), where she moored her barges. Throughout the next two days, the tug and the rest of the fleet fought off air attacks.
LT-5’s log cryptically states for 2030 on the 9th: “[P]lanes overhead. Everyone shooting at them. Starboard gunner got an F.W.” The tug had shot down one of the Luftwaffe’s premier fighters, a Focke-Wulf Fw 190.
The LT-5 spent the rest of the month in the prosaic duties of the workaday tug, shuttling barges and landing craft across the English Channel from Exmouth to both U.S. beaches and Mulberry A. The harbor had been completed on 14 June but virtually was destroyed by a three-day gale described as the strongest summer storm in 40 years. After that, the tug aided beached LSTs in their attempts to regain the English Channel.
Sadly, little detailed information remains of her Army service. At the end of the war, most small ship logs were collected and destroyed. What is recorded, however, is that she spent much of December helping open French ports. She towed a dredger and later four hopper barges from Cherbourg to Le Havre and moved a pile-driving barge from Le Havre to Portsmouth. Her last wartime movements were in June 1945 to tow car floats from Le Havre to Plymouth, England, and Le Havre to Antwerp, Belgium.
After the war, LT-5 returned to the United States, where in May 1946 she was assigned to the Buffalo District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and renamed the John F. Nash. From 1946 to 1989, she served the lower Great Lakes region by assisting in the maintenance of harbors and construction projects, including the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s. After being decommissioned in 1989, the tug was laid up at the Buffalo District headquarters until 1991, when she was acquired by the Port of Oswego (New York) Authority. Its H. Lee White Maritime Museum maintains and operates the tug, since renamed the Major Elisha K. Henson.