Beachmaster’s Dream From YANK Magazine

Posted on May 29th, 2016 by:

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Beachmaster’s Dream

By Tom Bernard, Sp.(x)1c, USNR

YANK Navy Correspondent

Story of a Beachmaster from the 7th Naval Beach Battalion on Omaha Beach from YANK Magazine.

ON THE NORMANDY BEACHHEAD—Time is too precious and men are too busy just now. The blackened hulk of the LCI, settling deeper each day into the sands of this “toughest beach,” must remain where it is—a few yards from the main lateral road. Perhaps it is just as well. Not because the vessel struck a mine and was riddled by 88s and burst into a mass of flame during the first full fury of German defense. Nor because its forward hold for days clung stubbornly to the bodies of the soldiers who died there.


This Normandy beach, crowded with men and supplies for inland troops, was the Battalion’s workshop

But because it is a monument which epitomizes the seemingly insuperable obstacles overcome by a Navy Beach Battalion in landing American men and machines of war and in keeping them flowing to the Second Front.

Only 41 men of the battalion’s 150 who made up the assault force started for shore on the LCI. Those who did had to swim for it through 150 yards of water slashed to a frenzy by rifle and machine gun slugs. On the beach they scrambled ahead crab-fashioned, on their hands and knees, ducking under coils of barbed wire, weaving through steel and concrete barricades tipped with anti-personnel mine.


The Beach Battalion digs in for their first night on French soil

Twelve hours later they reached their assigned beach only a thousand yards away. They had crawled all the way.  The medics lost their bags of blankets, flasks of plasma, their morphine and battle dressings.  Somewhere in the shallows were the handie-talkies, the larger radios and the signal lamps of the communicators, and the tools and instruments of the hydrographic and boat repair men.

In those twelve bloody hours the men underwent mortar fire and the pounding of the 88s and the whistling bullets of the snipers which kept them cowering in hand-dug foxholes for timeless intervals.

Some of the battalion—three small groups of medics and communicators—had been on the beach for an hour. Others were still landing. But they had neither time nor equipment to carry out the operational plan they had practiced so many times on the beaches of England. Their first concern was for the wounded.


U.S. Navy medics set up this first aid station on a French beach

The medics searched for casualties. From them they took special first aid kits containing pain-alleviating morphine, sulfas and bandages. They salvaged blankets which floated up with the tide. They pressed into service as litter-bearers the bosun’s mates, the shipfitters, the radiomen, the signalmen.

“We had to,” said Lt.(jg) Paul Koren, a Navy doctor who had been on the beach since forty minutes after H-hour. “The beach looked like a neighborhood junk yard with burned-out tanks and landing craft piled all over it. Only there were bodies, too, and the wounded.”

All that night they worked, cloaked in the comparative safety of the dark. They managed to get two LCTs in and send them back loaded with casualties. The remaining ones they placed in the lee of the cliffs, behind rocks, any place that offered some protection. Never were they positive of their safety. The snipers were still working. And there were booby traps, the mines.

The next day it was almost as bad. The mortar fire started again and continued until noon when destroyers, cruisers and battlewagons teamed their big guns in a devastating attack on enemy artillery. And the snipers were thinning out, as some of the destroyers concentrated on them and infantrymen were capturing them or wiping them out with hand grenades and tommy guns.


Beachmaster and sailors of the 7th Naval Beach Battalion during training in England prior to D-Day

During the night, soldiers had advanced inland where they ran headlong into Nazi troops on anti-invasion maneuvers.  Their casualties, too, started drifting back to the beach, accompanied by Army medical aides, who left them in the blackened shell of a two-story house, fifty yards from the beach. The Navy medics took over for transportation out to sea and England.


Survivors of a shell-sunk craft reach Normandy in a rubber life raft

By midday it was possible to release some of the men to carry out their assigned duties. The others were now ashore with equipment that was sorely needed.

As best they could under the circumstances the men fell back on their training at Fort Pierce, Fla., and the “dry runs” in England. At intervals they set up command posts along the beach, each headed by a beachmaster.  With him were signalmen—to bring the landing craft in through channels when the tide was right; hydrographic men to locate and mark underwater obstacles and sand bars, boat repairmen to put to right minor damage to craft and send them back to their ships.

Commander Lawrence C. Leever, USNR, of Ann Arbor, Mich., CO of the battalion, found that it was difficult to operate as planned on the four beaches which his battalion had to organize. Leever had always contended that it took “just a little training and a lot of guts and imagination” to run an invasion beach properly. He has proved that thesis with Lt. Sam Byrd, USNR, of Mount Olive, N.C., a Broadway actor best remembered for his role as Dude Lester in the original Tobacco Road.


Survivors being helped onto the beach

Sam—everyone here in Normandy knows him as such now—was the battalion’s transportation officer in England during its training. He had no combat training. He went along on the “dry runs” as an observer. He’d been a public relations officer in the States. All he knew about the how and why of beach-mastering he learned from conversations with others. Yet Sam Byrd was on that LCI—as some kind of a liaison officer.  “Frankly, I don’t know what the hell I was,” he admitted later.

After the 12-hour crawl he ran into Doc Koren and worked with him as an evacuation officer for the wounded.

“Everyone did what he saw had to be done,” said Sam. “We put casualties on anything we could grab. If they could walk, we’d put two of ‘em together and send ‘em down to the water to hitch their own ride. We had to, y’understand.”

During the heat of the second day a request for reinforcements came through what was supposed to be Battalion HQ. Through the ships came a group of LCVPs loaded with infantry in response to the SOS. Sam Byrd crouched in the shelter of a sand dune, holding a boat paddle to one end of which he had knotted a soaking towel. With this he signaled the boats into shore.


Willing hands guide the exhausted men onto the stone-strewn beach.

“Every time I’d stand up to wave the towel some sonofabitch-of-a-sniper would take a shot at me and I’d duck down again,” he said.

The next day Sam found himself a full-fledged beachmaster — a man in charge of an important strip of sand. But because his beach had never been included in pre-invasion planning, Byrd found himself a comparative orphan. Instead of a full platoon of men, each a specialist in one of four operations, he had to work with only two signalmen, two seamen and a signaling lamp.

For headquarters the new beachmaster took over an iron-roofed, sand-bagged hut sunk five feet below ground level at the intersection of the exit road and lateral beach road. It had been used before, apparently as a headquarters dugout for coastal defense trenches cut by Germans along the beach. His men built themselves a similar shelter nearby. They lined both dugouts with Army blankets, their only comfort then, and now.


Safe ashore. Below, a rescued soldier gets first aid treatment.

From then on the days dissolved into one another. There was no such thing as sleep. As the Germans were pushed further inland, more craft, including the big LSTs, started punching their flat bows into the sand, ready to unload cargo. Every night there was an air raid. Sticks of bombs occasionally blasted along the beach. Anti-aircraft batteries opened up, first from the ships and, in a few days, from the hills surrounding the beaches. Flak became more dangerous than snipers.

The biggest primary task was cleaning the beach of the litter left by war. With the men and the tools they had, the sailors could not possibly do the job. There were “hedgehogs” and other obstacles, battered tanks and trucks, holed landing craft and mines and bodies. Through this mess must be cut definite roads before the beach could begin to operate anywhere near properly.

“The engineers were the workingest men I’ve ever met,” Lt. Byrd said. “With their bulldozers they performed miracles of elimination. If the wrecks were too big to move they’d at least shove ‘em out of the way.”


US Navy Beachmaster in Normandy

Other units blasted paths through the obstacles and later removed them all. Grave-registration soldiers collected the bodies and buried them in neat rows—each marked with a white stick and a dog tag—on the other side of the beach road. The Ducks performed amazing tasks, churning through the surf and on up to the sand and back again, with wounded going out, infantry coming in.  “They were always there when we needed ‘em,” according to Sam.

Some of the hydrographic men marked boat channels and obstacles. For markers they used strips of bunting barrowed from the Army and lashed it to ten-foot posts which they stuck in the bottom.

For ten days the beach was a jam-packed section of Times Square with sand sprinkled over it. There were always emergencies, always mistakes, always traffic snarls.


Beachhead team-work. Navy aid men help wounded soldiers in France.

“We were unloading an LST on one side of the beach, an LCT on the other, and they were fairly high on the sand,” Byrd related, to illustrate the confusion.” Another LCT, standing off, suddenly decided it wanted to unload, and barged in between them only to hit a sand bar some distance out. It had not waited for our signal to come in, and it wasn’t even on the right beach.


US Navy publicity shot of a Beachmaster in action

“The first truck roared down the ramp and into the water up to its windshield. Twenty infantrymen in full packs were sitting in it and the tide was rushing in at a foot a minute.  We had to get them off or they’d drown.”

Byrd and his men commandeered a duck and ran out to the truck.  Holding the truck and the Duck together with their hands they helped the soldiers aboard and sent the LCT down to its proper beach.  Then the Duck cut loose and took the men down to rejoin their outfit.

As the days went by Byrd found he had to sponge personnel from the other beaches until finally he had a regular rotating crew drawn from two platoons of the battalion. He needed them. The days were sometimes like this:

“Two LSTs were lying up on the center of the beach. A coast Guard LCI with damaged propellers was replacing them with screws from a knocked out craft. There was an LCT unloading on the left flank and a fleet of Ducks transporting supplies from ships at sea to the beach. Meanwhile, waves of LCVPs and LCMs were landing regularly, depositing men and vehicles on the sand and going back for more. Hell, boy, it was a beachmaster’s dream,” said Byrd.


Signalman from the 7th Naval Beach Battalion (NBB) during training in England. Communication personnel were vital to for a Beachmaster to maintain order on the beachhead

It sounded to me more like a nightmare. I stayed on the beach with Sam Byrd for two days, trying to get this story. I trailed around after him like a child begging his mother for candy. But he was always busy, running from one ship to another, checking through casualties and German prisoners, censoring his men’s first letters back home, trying to snatch an hour’s sleep now and then. Sleep seemed most important after his job. After all he had none for the first six days and nights.

Finally, I cornered him in his dugout just after he had conferred with a friend over the new name he had for his “home”—La Maison de l’Oiseau sur Mer, “The Bird House by the Sea.”

We sat on the Army blankets and talked for two hours. Several times he nodded sleepily between interruptions from visitors. He was telling about how he got his men from “A” Company.

“I had known the outfit before—skrumfil—same company—brruzz…” He dropped off to sleep in the middle of the sentence.

For More about the 7th Naval Beach Battalion Check out:

Spearheading D-Day: American Special Units in Normandy

For Related Articles See:

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