Interview with Frank Cankar, Lieut, (jg) USCGR
(Questions by L. Thompson, Lieut. USNR)
This recording of an interview with Lieutenant (jg) Frank Cankar, U.S. Coast Guard was made at Headquarters Eastern Sea Frontier, November 2, 1943. Lieutenant Cankar was assigned to Headquarters Eastern Sea Frontier for many months in 1942; then was given orders which took him to North Africa as Executive Officer aboard a landing barge and was a part of the Sicilian invasion.
Lieutenant Cankar, when you left here how did you get your orders which sent you across?
I got them by dispatch from Washington.
And where did they tell you to go? How did you get your preliminary training?
Well, I was to proceed to Houston, Texas, via commercial airplane, and to report there within 46 hours of receipt of my orders.
What kind of training did you get in Texas?
At Houston we had no training whatsoever. We put the ship in commission and two days after commissioning left for Galveston, Texas, where we stayed about a month going through a period of training which was really an experiment because no one seemed to know anything about these boats before that time. They were an innovation and I don't think they had any background of experience at the time that we took them over.
What kind of boats were they, Mr, Cankar?
They were LCI(L) which translated means "Landing Craft Infantry (Large.)" They're 153 feet long and carry a crew of from 21 to 25 and from three to four officers and are capable of carrying about 188 men. That is--sleeping them. They can actually carry as many as five or six hundred if necessary if they don't have to berth them. As a matter of fact, after the Sicilian invasion one ship brought back, as I understand it, some 750 prisoners.
Did you cross the Atlantic in one of these landing barges?
Yes we did. After we left Galveston--we left Galveston, incidentally, on March 1st--we proceeded to Key West, Florida, across the Gulf of Mexico--that was a five day trip. From there we went to Norfolk, Virginia, another five day trip and stayed there from about March 11th to April 1st, at which time we proceeded to Bermuda.
Incidentally on the run from Galveston to Key West we had some rather bad weather and inasmuch as a good percentage of the men were green (having had no sea experience whatsoever) we had a great deal of seasickness and some actual illness. On our way from Key West to Norfolk, one of the men fell over backwards from the conning station and suffered a very severe head injury.
How long did it take to cross from Bermuda?
It took us about--well it took us sixteen days and we made a landfall at Port Lyautey which is about 75 miles to the north of Casablanca.
How many LCI's were there in the convoy?
I'm not exactly sure how many there were. There were approximately 48.
How much escort protection did you have?
The entire convoy consisted actually of about 90 ships of which I believe there were some 8 to 10 escort vessels. I'm not too sure of the exact number now.
I should think that must have been one of the largest convoys to cross to Gibraltar at that date. Do you know how it stacked up--?
No I don't. As a matter of fact, outside of our own convoy, I don't think anyone knows very much about any other convoy. Although I do know that it was one of the larger ones.
How long were you in North Africa before the Sicilian invasion?
Well you see we were at Port Lyautey for about two weeks of training in the surf which runs pretty heavy and really gives you a good background of experience for handling ships on the beaches but from Port Lyautey we went to Gibraltar, spent the night there and then went into a little town near Oran called Arzew. From whence we went to different towns around Oran such as Beni Saf and Nemours, When we went back to Arzew and on June 1st we left for Bizerte arriving there five days later.
How much advance warning did you have that you were going to participate in the Sicilian invasion?
Actual warning, we probably had about six days when we began getting our orders, our secret charts and aerial photographs. But there was little doubt in the minds of most of us after we arrived at Bizerte as to what we were going to attack.
Did you have a good deal of training in terms of the final action? Did you know for instance exactly what group you were going to join many days before the invasion?
Yes. You see each ship was given a designated color. For example a blue color, green color or a red color and that indicated the beach on which you were to land. We made a complete practice with the ships of our own particular blue beach, oh, some two weeks before the actual invasion. As a matter of fact we made a run almost all the way to Tunis--to the Bay there--and came all the way back again completely loaded with troops. It could have been an actual invasion. As a matter of fact some of us thought it was. The only hitch in the whole plan was the fact that we didn't have as much ammunition as most of us thought would be necessary in an invasion and as it turned out it was nothing but a dry run.
How long were you aboard your ship after you had left for the actual invasion before you landed?
We left Bizerte on the morning of July 6th and made a run to Sousse which is to the south of Tunis. We arrived there on the night of the 6th and went into the city on the day of the 7th--that is into Sousse--and that afternoon got final absolution and that night we went out in the Bay and on the 8th we spent the entire day swimming and making various plans and discussing our proposed invasion. Of course by that time we were very definite that we were going there and all the soldiers also knew inasmuch as they had been handed then the "Soldiers' Guide to Sicily." We left Sousse on the night of the 8th and made a rendezvous point off of Malta and then headed due north on the 14th meridian, which ends up across Sicily about four miles to the east of Licata.
Did you have any sense of the size of the invasion fleet? You couldn't have seen very many of them because they would have been over the horizon on each side of you I suppose. Did it seem like an enormous fleet?
Well we were on the starboard flank of our group--more to the starboard I should say than we were to the port--and we all knew just about how many ships were in our group which was tremendous but as far as the actual size of it, you couldn't tell. But you could sense it was enormous and you could see these cruisers dashing back and forth every so often. Of course on that last day, that is, the day of the 9th, we had one of the worst seas we had had on any day since we left Galveston some three months before. Most of the soldiers were quite sea sick and a lot of our men were also; but our men had learned how to control themselves pretty well. But at times you could see sky under one-third of our LCI.
That's pretty hard. How long did it take you to complete the final run?
We arrived off of our point of attack about 2330 that night and fortunately the seas had died down a great deal. We were in the lee of the land at the time but we had to hang around about three hours while the Italian search light tried to pick us up. "H" hour was at 0245 and the bombardment started about that time from our own cruisers and other ships off, oh, some eight miles. I'm not sure about that distance.
Were the cruisers back of you so that the shells went over; so that you could hear them?
Yes, that's right.
And did the sound seem to build up or was it a steady action in that bombardment?
Well I would say that it was more or less steady, and you could see the fire works on the beach; but I don't think the Italians had anything that was too huge to fire back with. As a matter of fact, If I recall the aerial photographs, there was a big gun emplacement some twelve miles inland but I don't think that that could have affected us very much. And if I recall correctly we weren't bothered by it at all. Possibly our own paratroopers or our own artillery, naval artillery, had already blasted that one out.
How did the soldiers behave during that period of waiting when they had to stand by for the bombardment?
That's rather a difficult question to answer because every case is different. Now some of the men were quite nervous and others were very calm. But I think, generally speaking, you might say that they were all thinking about whether or not they were going to be the boy that was going to get it next. And I know talking to some people (I won't mention rank or name) who had been in the battle at Fedala and were quite certain that they were going to get it that time; yet were very calm about it. All in all I would say that you can't make a general conclusion. You have to take the condition of the men. Our group happened to be composed of men who were in the battle of Fedala and quite a large number of new boys. And I think the new boys were probably the ones who were more nervous although the older fellows knowing what they were getting into weren't too happy about it. But there were very few of them that were shirking their duty, that is trying to hide. There were only a few that I had to shoo back-who were trying to sit down inside the bulkhead and as far as panic--I think there was only one.
When you finally started in, how did you get your orders? What gave you your orders to start into shore?
We knew the exact time we were to start which happened to be "H" plus 75. You just go in automatically. You know where your point is and you should be off it some hours before as we were. It is all done on a time basis. You don't get any orders over the phone or anything else. You just do it, hoping that every one else is going in with you. And as we went in, we noticed all the little Higgins boats coming out from their initial run so we knew that we were right on time.
Then you were among the first to land?
No, the Higgins boats always go in first.
And they are from the larger transports?
That's right; that's correct.
You couldn't tell that the Higgins boats had gone in until you started your run in?
That's right. They evidently were off to one side of us and they didn't go by us at any time.
The seas had moderated enough so that the Higgins boats didn't have any trouble as you saw them?
As I saw them, they didn't. However, they evidently had had some trouble because when we came in we lost one of our ramps immediately from the surf and the other ramp, no sooner did we have It down than about six men--sailors--tried to come up that lone remaining ramp, they having lost their own boats. Now how they lost them I don't know. I don't recall whether or not they said they were blown up or they had been turned over in the surf because at that time I had been hit myself.
As you came in, how near in did you get before you noticed any shore gun fire?
We probably were only a few hundred yards off the beach at that time. We noticed gun fire going on but before we were aware of the fact that we were in it, it was only a few hundred yards and unfortunately we dropped our anchor too quickly and backed out all the way again on the winch. Picking up our anchor and coming in again so that we could make our landing. You see if you drop your anchor too quickly, you pay out all your anchor cable and you" lose your length; that is, your distance to get into the beach and you're out there at the end of the cable and still you're not on land. There are one or two things you can do. You can (which I think we should have done at the time) cut the cable and have gone in and then hope to back the ship off with power rather than pull it off with the anchor. That way we lost a little time. But that's one of the things you learn about after you have been in one.
When the ramp went down how did the men disembark?
Well at that time we had a little trouble. The problem there was that the six boys tried to come up while the other men were trying to get off. But, first, let me tell you. We had two burros aboard for the purpose of carrying ammunition to the shore. The only way we could get these burros off (inasmuch as they were awfully frightened and we had a practice with them) was to tie them on the ramp and then pull the ramp out and drop the ramp--that causing the burros to be on an incline--then cut the line and let the burros fall into the water. That was the only way we could do it and we did get the burros off before the six sailors, or five sailors, tried to come up the ramp. We had a little traffic problem there and I finally got them off the ramp by telling them I would have to bump them off or shoot them if they didn't get off.
These were the six men that tried to come back aboard.
Not back aboard. They weren't our own men.
Now all of this particular part is a little confusing to me because it all happened so rapidly that I don't remember exactly what I said to the men or what they said back to me. Probably wasn't very complimentary either way.
Your assignment as exec aboard that ship was to handle at that stage the disembarking of the troops--that was your primary assignment?
Yes, that's right. We had four officers on our ship. The Executive Officer stayed forward and handled the disembarkation and the ramps. The Skipper stayed up in the conning station, the Engineering Officer stayed below in the Engine Room and the Watch Officer stayed aft and handled the anchor.
You had a certain amount of armament. You had machine guns aboard?
No, we didn't have any machine guns. We had four 20-mm AA guns.
Did you make any use of them?
No, we were under orders not to fire.
You were asked not to give away your position, was that the purpose of not firing--or was it not necessary?
In a case like that I'm not sure. I don't think that was ever decided. There was a great deal of discussion as to the merits or demerits of not firing and although we had orders not to, I think that in some cases it would have been a good idea if we could have when we hit the beach and we did see an enemy position we might have at least distracted him enough so that he couldn't have done as much damage as he did. However, the powers that be evidently had a definite reason for it--as they do in an air raid when we don't fire because that gives our position away.
Did the searchlights on the beach pick up your own ship before you put your ramp down?
No they didn't. And of course we landed just at dawn so that you can pick out a silhouette very easily.
It was pretty light, so that as you got ashore you could see how wide the beachhead was?
Yes, fairly well--and of course we had it all memorized anyway.
And how long did it take for the complete disembarking of the troops from your own ship?
Well, I'm no authority on that because I was hit before the last man got off. But I would say it wasn't much more than 20 minutes from the time we landed until we were off. And that is very slow because the ship made one at Salerno. Of course, it only had 54 men on then and I wasn't aboard, but the Exec tells me that they landed and disembarked the troops in about 4 minutes.
How long after the ramp had gone down was it before you were hit?
Well, after I got through getting these six boys or five boys straightened out, I'm not sure which it was--five or six--why I noticed this fellow lying down and kicking and screaming down by the Number Two booby hatch (which is just forward of the conning station). I took my earphones off and turned them over to my Gunner's Mate and went back to this fellow, got back there, looked him over and discovered there wasn't anything wrong with him. So I yelled over to one of the Army Lieutenants, "What do you want to do with this guy?" and he yelled back "Leave the bastard lay there." I was just in the process of doing that to this particular individual when I got hit. The strange part about it was that I still had his head in the crook of my left arm and he didn't have a helmet on, yet he didn't get hurt at all whereas I got it five times.
You haven't spoken about any shells landing near you before that shell that got you. Did you notice any fire, any splashes near your ship before that?
Yes. I noticed there was some ammunition being expended from the beach and it was coming at us from the starboard hand. There was some machine gun fire and I could also see the millimeter stuff. Now what it was, whether it was 40-mm. or 47, I don't know, but it was in that category. I felt just like someone who was at a tennis match watching it come over from the starboard and then watching it cross the ship to the port. It was quite interesting. Of course it looked like someone was throwing a red ball of fire across when tracers went over. But you're pretty busy; you don't have time to do too much thinking on it.
And then, when you were hit, did you have any idea that you were seriously wounded?
Not at the moment. Your first reaction outside of a good exhibition of vulgarity is to go to the side of the ship where there isn't any firing. When I did get there I sat down, thinking I had been hit by concussion. One of my men told me the first thing I said was that "The bastards have got me." After I sat there for awhile I noticed that there was a pool of blood so I thought I better lie down and one of my Chiefs got a crash basket.
Where were you hit?
I was hit twice in the left leg, twice in the left shoulder, and once in the left chest just below the arm pit. I also had a punctured left lung.
And then you don't have much memory of what happened, until when?
Oh no. I have a complete memory of the thing because of the fact that I never lost consciousness. Matter of fact, I remember telling one of our men what to do as far as fixing me up and giving me a morphine shot. Why I didn't pass out I don't know; but I think I was probably shocked so much that I didn't. It was about 20 minutes before I got inside the ship--and strangely enough with the practice we had had we never figured out how you could get a fellow (once he was in a crash basket) inside the superstructure of the ship, there just isn't any way of making the corners; the passage ways are too narrow. As a final expedient, there is a door leading from the outside of the ship right into the crew's head with the three toilet seats. I laid on top of those with the crash basket. I was very happy then that we had always made sure that the toilets were very clean.
Then how long did it take to make the run back?
Well, there is a little incident involved there. I was transferred to a second ship on which we had a little operating room and Lieutenant Commander Gentile of the U.S. Public Health Service--who, incidentally, is an awfully good surgeon. When I got over on this other ship, why to give you an idea of how little you feel when you get hit (I mean there isn't any pain at the time or the pain is so great that you don't feel it anyway; I don't know which), he told me that he'd have to sew me up a bit and he put a stitch or two in my left side without my even knowing that he had done the job. Then just about that time the engines on that ship broke down and I was transferred to a third ship and 24 hours later I landed in Bizerte.
There began a lot of confusion, in my opinion. I was taken over to the Naval Dispensary at Bizerte and after being interrogated about 20 minutes on the floor in this crash basket they decided that they couldn't do anything for me and put me in another one of these ambulances--meat wagons, as we called them--and I was taken to an evacuation hospital, the 56th, where I received very good treatment.
What did they mean--when they said they couldn't do anything for you? They didn't have the equipment there?
I believe that was probably it. Why they took me over there in the first place I don't know.
Were there quite a few others in the same circumstance?
No. As a matter of fact, from what I was told, I must have been the first Sicilian invasion patient back in Bizerte. I know I was the first one at the hospital anyway. I was there about five days and they had drawn out some 150 cc, of blood, which is about a pint, from my lung which had been collapsed. Then I was taken by ambulance to Mateur and flown from Mateur to Telergma Air Field which is near Constantino and taken to the 61st Station Hospital where I stayed for some ten days before being transferred to the 26th General.
What was the overall length of time before you were sewed up?
You mean from the time I got hit?
From the time you got hit.
It must have been, oh, probably half an hour to 40 minutes.
Then how long were you in the hospital, recovering?
A total of ten weeks to the day. During that time I had had three operations and had had four aspirations--which means they take this big needle and jab it in your back into your lung cavity and draw out blood. I think they took out about five pints altogether.
Then while you were in the hospital, there were others who were brought in from the same operation?
Oh yes. As a matter of fact, it was rather strange. Just about at the time I was getting around, so that I could walk, I walked over to one of the tents and discovered that one of the Army officers we had taken across to Sicily was a patient there. He had been in the fight from July 10th to August 4th. On his way up a hill to do reconnaissance a mortar shell lobbed over the hill and broke both of his legs right below the thigh. He had a hole which was big enough to put your fist in right above his left knee. Talk about the stink of human flesh, well that's about the best example I've had of it or smelled of it.
When they finally had you all patched up how much shrapnel did they leave in you?
Well, as I understand it, I have one left in my leg, and one in my lung they tell me. There are various numbers of small pieces in my lung but they are so minute you can barely see them.
Do you get any reaction from them now?
Yes I do. It's not anything to hinder my moving about, but it makes me tired. However, I'll soon be in good shape again.
How did you finally get back to the United States?
Well, when I was discharged from the hospital being the only Coast Guard or Navy patient there, they didn't know exactly what to do with me. So a Lieutenant Colonel who was in charge of the Airfield (but who was in the hospital at the same time I was) arranged it so that I got a B-17 plane ride from Constantine to Tunis and then from Tunis I hitch-hiked to Bizerte and was there a week when I got orders to return back to the States. Bizerte being our Flotilla Headquarters. From Bizerte I boarded a C-47 two engine transport plane and in that first day (which was on Tuesday, September 27,) went from Bizerte to Constantine to Algiers, then across the northwestern tip of Africa to Marrakech which is near Casablanca and is the home of one of the more or less well known and fabulous pashas. We stayed there over night and incidentally on this trip I met a man--my introduction was a pack of cigarettes. He happened to be a French officer who (after talking with him for awhile) I discovered was a Colonel, and I believe he said had charge of the Air Forces in the French African Army. He was a very interesting fellow and after we talked for awhile I asked him why they resisted us when we made our initial landings in Africa. He said "Well, it was just one of those things. It was regrettable but necessary." I gathered that he was trying to convey the impression he was saving face. A very fine man and thought a great deal of the Americans.
What kind of plane brought you back to the United States?
Well, different types of planes. From Marrakech I went to Rufisque which is near Dakar. It was a flight over the Sahara Desert and that was another C-47 plane I believe. There we had a little trouble. We lost one of our engines. That is, the engine had to be shut off due to lack of oil, I wasn't sure that we were going to make it. We had a lot of fellows on board who were pilots and who had completed all their 50 missions and were coming back. They were a little afraid not any more than I was, however, that they were going to lose their lives after they had gone through all this death and danger stuff over Naples. They felt that it was kind of sad they might not make it after coming that far. But we finally landed and we stayed in Dakar for about three days (or in Rufisque which is near there) and left there in a C-87, which is a converted B-24 job, and landed in Natal, Brazil, ten hours later.
How did you get up here?
From there we went in a C-46 type plane going from Natal to Belem which is also in Brazil on a Sunday, it took us about five hours. Belem is a very interesting place, well developed for an air field and will probably be used when the war is over on the basis of the permanency of their installations. From Belem we left very early on a Monday morning, five o'clock as a matter of fact. From Belem we went to Atkinson Field which is in British Guinea near Georgetown* From Atkinson Field we went to Trinidad, thence to Puerto Rico. Borinquen Field to Miami arriving in Miami that same night about 11 o'clock.
From the time you left the hospital until you got to Miami what is your overall period? How long did it take you?
After I left the hospital I went back as you know to Bizerte and stayed there a week but I left the hospital on September 18th and arrived in Miami on October 3rd.
We're glad to have you back here, Frank, and all we ask now is that the Coast Guard reassign you to Headquarters Eastern Sea Frontier.
Well thank you, Larry, and I hope I'll have the pleasure of working with you once again.