If you've seen the movie "Saving Private Ryan" you'll remember the horrific scene at the beginning of the movie. The beach scene at Normandy France. It was there my father, then a Lt. jg, fresh out of an accelerated class at YALE and not even 22 years old saw death and mayhem. A young man with barely a beard to shave and dreams of a future put on hold as he watched scenes he never forgot. I learned of his ship, LST-133, and how they eventually hit a mine when returning for a second trip to the beach. How they limped back to friendly port. How they were awarded the Navy Citation Medal.
Like many from that war, my dad never talked about it. Now, it's what he talks about most to any man he finds who served as well. Several years ago, my mother told me about Dad receiving a phone call from an old ship mate telling him of a reunion being held. They were too advanced in age to make that trip, but the amazing thing was, after hanging up, Dad sat down and started to cry. After LST-133 hit the mine, Dad had held a severely injured man's head in his lap until the medics took him away. There was no doubt in Dad's mind that he had not made it. For almost 50 years, he lived with that memory. "He's alive." he whispered. During the phone call, he learned that his shipmate was, indeed, alive and living out his old age.
I have a blue binder with pages of memories from my father's youth. Many of those pages deal with the war. I have included segments of his description of D-Day on board his ship. His words are in italics. I tried to summarize others to shorten the post. On this day of honoring heroes, please indulge me in giving tribute to my dad, who like so many others put themselves in front of death to defend all our American freedoms.
Walter "Bud" Witherbee
"The 'word' came down to us that finally we were to set sail from Portland on June 6, 1944. I was not yet 22 years old. We had been briefed beforehand on the situation with the Germans on the beach- where the strongpoints were, etc. An immense fleet of ships had been gathered along the southern coast of England and now was proceeding on its appointed task in the invasion. Our appointed landing beach was designated Easy Red, the toughest place of all. Paratroopers were supposed to drop behind enemy lines on the beach and knock out German coastal artillery before we got there but they got confused and dropped into wrong positions with accompanying loss of life. Likewise the gliders, who were supposed to land behind enemy lines. They landed hither and yon with resultant loss of life and equipment. This was to be done pre-dawn and in the darkness, which it was."
Dad goes on to recount how LST-133 received orders to beach at once - best possible speed. When you beach at "flank speed" you don't come off again. As they tore through the anchored ships toward the beach they saw they were the only ones moving. A suicide mission. My dad was the gunnery officer and broke open the small arms locker so the men would have some protection when they had to abandon ship.
The Captain (a regular Navy Chief Signalman before Pearl Harbor) was on the superconn, an elevated platform with ladder mounted above the regular conn where I was stationed. We proceeded and got closer to the beach, I could see the effects of the earlier beachings. Solid wreckage of smaller vessels. There was no way to beach except to run over one or two of them. We came closer and closer and then, suddenly to port, a blinker light going madly. I read the blinker. It said, "LST 133 STOP! DO NOT BEACH!" No action from the captain. Surely as an ex-Chief Signalman he can read it. Still no action. Finally in desperation, I hollered, "Captain, that LCI says 'stop, do not beach!"
"Very Well", he replied looking through his binoculars surveying the wreckage on the beach.
The LCI continued to madly blink the same message. I continued to wait for action from the Captain and got none. Once again I hollered to him relaying the message. Muttering "Very well" again, he finally got the message and at the last possible second ordered "Hard right rudder!" We almost broached on the sand but made it successfully. We anchored, the closest ship to the beach, just south of the largest German gun emplacement on the beach.
The following day, or as the Navy man put it, D-Day plus one found them with orders to beach at a different spot at high tide. They followed orders and once again upon nearing the beach, they were met with another blinking light saying "STOP! DO NOT BEACH!" It was too late, they beached. The tides at Normandy were so immense that they had to wait 3 hours for them to recede and another 3 hours to come back in so that they could come off the beach. As the tides receded, the men on board saw the reason for the frantic message.
There were iron poles braced on either side by two short iron poles. Where they came together at the top was an explosive device. Our port side lay against one of the bracing poles and our starboard side was against the other. About 10 yards from our bow doors was a third similar device rigged so that when the explosive at the bow went off, it triggered the others. Bear in mind, that my main storage area for ammunition was forward. There was nothing to do but wait.
Seeing that they had landed safely, the Admiral then ordered the other LSTs to go ahead and beach. Luckily, none hit any mined poles. Later, after the tide came in and Dad's ship retreated from the beach, they received another blinker message. This time it was the flagship saying "LST- 133 WELL DONE!"
Well done, indeed.