The following is quoted from a letter written by William G. LAWRENCE, Chief Boatswain's Mate, to the Commanding Officer of the Chase
Friday the 9th was a day of apprehension, not as much for the invasion, which was certainly enough, but for the weather. The wind blew all day, whipping itself into a frenzy--the seas building up more and more as the day wore on. Around dusk, we passed Malta, while approaching a rendezvous area where hundreds of ships, all kinds and sizes, were converging. Those who were to be on the small boats kept watching the wind, hoping it would haul up into the northward a little more, as then we would have had a lee on the invasion shore. However, the wind held steady, which meant a sweep along the beach making cross seas. We knew what that meant for us. Last minute instructions being over, we tried to get some sleep around 2200--only to be shaken out by general quarters at midnight. Coming on deck, it was quite, a sight to see--a dark starry night, our own ships silhouetted against continuous firing ahead.
From then on we lost all track of time and what time meant, until after the night of the 12th. It was a period of night running into day, and day into night as though they were one. What little sleep we did get during those three days was very spasmodic.
At the call of condition four, the different members of my crew came aboard. They were Thomas SHEPPARD, CM1c, George KNIPPLE, SF2c, David LIGHT, Cox., Edwin CARSON, F1c, Martin SOTHAMEL, RM3c, Claude JENKINS, SM1c, Wm. JOHNSTON, S1c, J. BOBBITT, S2c, myself, and Lieutenant (jg) BANKS, who was in charge of the invasion craft from our ship.
By this time the wind had abated somewhat, but the seas were still running. Looking in toward the beach where the boats were to land, we saw fires from one end to the other. Afterwards, we say no indication of what those fires were. Suddenly, off shore there appeared a great burst of flame, which turned out to be the fate of an Allied destroyer. We were acting as an escort and information boat for the different waves, sending them to their proper ships as they got off their course or rendezvous area.
At 0245, the first wave hit hit. Explosions started going off, one after the other, along the beach. The same with the next wave. It looked bad for them from where we watched off shore. Our support ships were throwing salvos ashore. The shells, in groups of three, made perfect fiery arcs across the sky. Search lights were causing trouble, which had to be taken care of. Some cruiser fired one shot at a particular light, that seemed to travel forever through space, and when it finally did drop in, the light went out as though you had pushed a button. The next morning we saw the evidence of that shot; there was a gaping hole right through the center of the light.
At dawn, we were at the beach, where we started our salvage operations. The beach was a mess, broached boats all over the place. A plane came down in flames to the west of us, and as it sank, it sent up two large smoke rings from each end.
A surf was breaking over a bar just off the beach. The boats would come in heavily loaded and many were swamped before being unloaded. The boats would beach, the surf would run beyond them, the ramps would be lowered and the out-going water from the beach would fill them up. We kept pulling boats off as we came to them, taking only the ones that would run. At that time, it seemed to us more important to keep as many in operation as we could, than to waste time on a boat that would not run without a great deal of repair.
We tried to keep in contact with the Beach Master, so he could direct us to the next boat in difficulty. However, due to poor radio reception, we had no success with him.
At one time, there were three of my men on the beach--CARSON, SHEPPARD, and JOHNSTON, checking on the most easily salvaged boats. They were forced to take cover in fox holes during a plane attack. It was later that they realized, to do so, they had run across a mined area marked with white tape.
Then, we began to get it hot from artillery fire, strafing and bombing from enemy planes. We kept working along the beach, starting at one end and working up to the other, taking the best boats we came to. An LST ran in to the beach, and forgot to drop her stern anchor. Her commanding officer hailed us, requesting we carry it out for them which we did. It was no mean job with the heavy swells running as they were. But, my coxswain, LIGHT, one of the best, can do everything with that boat but make her talk. We had just completed this and were moving back in when CARSON yelled "Here they come!" Three enemy planes were winging in low in line with three LST's. The outside plane dropped her bomb first and them swung as to strafe us just as we opened up. Thank God we had these guns then as that plane changed course at once. We were convinced that the fire power of our one .50 cal. and three .30 cal. guns decided that Jerry not to fly directly into us. The other two planes dropped their bombs consecutively on the next two ships, and followed the first away. As luck had it, none of the bombs hit anything but water. One of my men who was watching said that the first bomb dropped, hit the water a short distance from one side of the first LST, skipped completely over the ship and landed on the other side before going off. One of those bombs was pretty close to us, making spray that gave us a salt water shower. Unknown to us at the time, it opened up two seams on the after run of the bottom starboard side. We continued operations that afternoon, watching one LST hit by a similar attack. We salvaged one boat that had a broken rudder and towed it out to its ship. Being near the Chase, we decided to try our luck again with chow. The request to the bridge, "Permission to come aboard for chow." The answer came back. "Tie up astern, and come aboard." That was good.
After eating, I reported to the bridge for further orders, which were, "Carry on at the beach." That we did, until well Into the night, as the moon gave us sufficient light to work for a considerable time. We then lay off the beach, directing boats coming in (mostly LCI's) to their right location. I set a watch of three men with two hour watches, giving each man almost four hours sleep on top of ammunition boxes, gear, etc.
Then came the dawn and back to the beach, only to be greeted by morning strafing. We salvaged one of the Oberon boats that would run, but had no crew. I sent it out to the Chase by Johnstown. The ship put a crew aboard, and he reported back after they had taken in a load. One of our own boats was lost through no ones fault, as we watched the entire thing. She came in loaded with an ambulance which made her very low and she got hung up on her first attempt. The surf being heavy, the coxswain had considerable trouble, but managed to back off and try again. On lowering his ramp, the ambulance started out and the boat filled up almost immediately. Nothing could be done about it. The ambulance reached shore safely.
We returned to the ship around noon for chow and further orders. We were told to stand by, and the entire crew fell asleep on deck while waiting. Ensign Tellier and Robert Sargent, Photographer's Mate Second Class, came aboard for the next trip and we left the ship at 1400 to continue operations. We salvaged some boats that could run, but had no crews, and anchored several off the beach. One of our boats, No. 5, with no crew, had the ramp down. We raised the ramp and Carson ran it out to the Chase. The entire beach was being heavily covered by enemy artillery fire, and at one point we had a close one. There was an LST unloading, while just to the west of her was an LCM that seemed in good shape, but was not quite unloaded. So, after moving on down the beach to work, we came back to her. Having made our cable fast in the usual fashion, we turned around, and started pulling. On the beach behind us, near the dune line, there was a burst from artillery fire; then another nearer and in direct line for us. They were undoubtedly trying for the LST, but their aim was a little to the west. The Oberon's LCM was just beginning to move when there was another burst nearer and still in line. If there hadn't been three men on that boat we would have slipped our cable, but we hung on, and she began to move out faster and faster. As we pulled away from the shore, the bursts kept moving down to the water, and then into the water. We cut to the west down the beach, and the next few bursts hit where we had been. It was just a case of being lucky enough to be one jump ahead of them. Sargent received a minor cut on his arm from shrapnel. The lighter would not run, so we were forced to tow her to the Oberon. Meanwhile, the beach had an attack by planes, just as a formation of heavy bombers hit at the ships offshore, dropping eggs all around them.
One Liberty ship was hit. Shortly afterwards, she went up in a terrific explosion. Leaving the LCM, we ran over to the burning ship to pick up any survivors, but found all hands had abandoned ship some minutes before she went up.
We returned to the Chase about 1730, and were told to stand by. We were aboard about an hour and a half, when orders came to proceed to the beach until nightfall. Upon returning to the ship, the word was passed to tie up astern for the night, leaving one man on watch. As it happened, it was Johnston's turn for the watch and he had a night of it. We were just getting settled down aboard, when the planes began to come in, and the order was given, "Cast off all boats astern." The order was executed before any of us could get aft to help out Johnston. He started the engines and began cruising around, torpedo planes started coming in low between the ships, and all ships began crossfire horizontal to the water. Johnston was right in the middle. He said afterward that he saw tracers that streaked across the deck right between the engine box and the winch. After that night, we let Johnston sleep the next morning on top of our soft beds of ammunition boxes.
Lieutenant Donovan and Ensign Tellier reported aboard on the morning of the 12th at 0500. After a hasty check along the beach of the stranded boats, we began operations as before. After pulling off a number of boats, we came to one that was still one half loaded with ammunition, the ramp down and quite a bit of water in her. After pulling up the ramp, she came off easily enough. Off shore a short distance, we hailed an Army duck, and transferred the ammunition to it. The boat began to take on considerable water, having a hole we could not find. After unloading her, we ran to an LST to hoist her before she sank. The slings were for boom hoisting, but after some manipulating, we made them do for davits. She was hoisted out and freed of water by letting the ramp down. We found a hole just over her screw. Sheppard patched it with lead sheeting. We then took her to the ship she belonged to. This operation took quite some time, and, as it was about noon, we reported back to the Chase. Up to this time, we had pulled off thirty-five boats. Then came orders from the bridge for five of us--Knipple, Light, Carson, Johnston, and myself to report with the salvage boat to the Hopi on verbal orders. We needed some repairs, so I requested permission to be hoisted aboard. It was then we discovered where our leak was. We had two teams sprung by bombs. The ramp gasket and our stuffing boxes needed fixing, as well as the two seams. After repairs, we gathered together our personal gear, and were ready to go overboard at 1700. The orders were to drop back to the port quarter and have a fire pump put aboard. In the midst of that, there was an air-raid which held things up for a bit. Next came an order to take several British officers over to the "Monitor" while we were standing by. Sometime around 1800 the Chase shoved off, and from the bridge the Commander called down "Report to the Hopi--good luck." Answering "Aye-Aye, Sir," we all felt as though we were deserted. To see our ship pull out, leaving us on desolate, war torn shores, was heartbreaking.
We reported to the U.S.S. Hopi. We were met by Lieutenant Commander Anderson, in charge of salvage operations in that area, who came aboard and asked to be taken on a round of the Liberty ships. About dusk, we learned he was going to send us out again for salvage work. I requested sleep for my men and myself and we needed it badly. That was agreed to. As they had no quarters aboard for us, we were
forced to live on our own boat from then on, making out as best we could.
The fire pump we had from the Chase was put aboard the Hopi on Commander Anderson's order. It was later given to the advanced base at Gela by order. That was all right with us as it would have made us so heavy, we wouldn't have been able to work the beach. As it was, we had to unload a lot of things to help make us lighter.
July 13th, we started out without chow, which didn't help our dispositions. We reported to the beach at Gela to carry lines for the tugs, so they could pull boats from the beach. They were working on the boats with a tug and a bulldozer when we arrived and had two tugs standing by. Running lines for them seemed a waste of time to us as we moved in and pulled off two boats while the tug was still working on one. When their boat finally did come off it sank and had to be salvaged again. Lieutenant Commander Anderson did not ask us to run lines for the small tugs again. He came aboard our boat and stayed with us that day and part of the next. That day we salvaged fourteen boats. Most of them we had to pump out as well as pull off. We had a three inch pump aboard belonging to the Hopi. This pump was not too heavy and worked quite well. Several of Lieutenant Commander Anderson's men were aboard helping us with the pump.
Knipple received a bad cut over his eye from being thrown to the deck when we hit one of those unexpected sandbars well off the beach. One of the Hopi's men, named Murphy, was thrown overboard but was picked up immediately.
Before reporting in that night, we evacuated casualties from the beach to the U.S.S. Mexico. We began the day of July 14th by taking a load of TNT into the beach for the Hopi. We salvaged five boats and then ran down to Victoria with the U.S.S. Nausett. We handled 600 fathoms of 1 1/2" cable, running from an LCT on the beach to the Nausett. We secured that night at 2330. We stood by most of July 15th waiting for someone to make up their mind. We finally received orders to return to Gela and continue salvage operations. We salvaged four boats in the time that was left. On July 16th, we continued work as before. The Hopi sent men to the beach to pump out and repair boats with minor holes while we used the 3" pump as in the past. As we took the boats off the beach, we turned them over to one of the smaller tugs of the salvage party. Our score for that day was twelve boats.
The morning of July 17th, we ran to Victoria with the Hopi, and handled their cable for a pontoon bridge. We returned to Gela the same day and salvaged six boats. On July 18th we salvaged ten boats. By this time we had salvaged an LCM that was in good condition and some of Lieutenant Commander Anderson's men started working with it using the same principle that they had seen us use. On July 19th we salvaged ten boats which finished up our work of pulling boats off the beach. This gave us a total of ninety-six boats altogether. These ninety-six boats were taken from the beach stretching from Gela to four miles east of Gela.
During the past days we often came across bodies of soldiers drifting near the beach. We reported them to the Army, which always took quick action.
From July 20th to July 24th, inclusive, we stood by, and towed boats to different liberty ships and LST's to be hoisted aboard and brought back for repairs. On the 21st, we were near the dock at Gela where there was a minesweeper stuck on a sandbar. He passed us his hawser, and we had him off in no time at all.
On the morning of the 25th, Lieutenant Commander Anderson told me that if we could get transportation he would give me orders to return to our ship. That was all we wanted to hear, so we started making rounds of the Liberty ships. One didn't have enough food, another no water, another had a jumbo that was not working, and yet another was filled up, and so on down the line, until the S.S. James Woodrow. They treated us with respect and we certainly appreciated it. We were hoisted aboard on the 26th, and from them on, we did nothing but eat and sleep--except for getting some of our gear in order.
At 1800 on the 29th, we landed in Algiers, and found the Chase had left for Oran. We stayed aboard the Woodrow for further transportation. We left Algiers on August 2nd and arrived in Oran on the 3rd. We reported aboard the Chase immediately.
There were several points we found to be absolutely necessary for one of these boats used in salvage work:
- Have your towing bit in the center and as far forward as possible.
- Keep your cable handy. In our case we used our deck winch.
- Don't load the boat down with excess weight when you expect to do quick work.