The 517th Port Battalion was activated at T Camp in Seamills, England (a suburb of Bristol) on February 18, 1943. This is interesting, because the five other port battalions have researched were all activated in the US. Initially titled the 2034th Port Battalion, the unit was renamed the 517th in June 1943. The first commander was Major Donald N. Cerefice. The battalion was composed of Headquarters (the officers), HQ Detachment (enlisted men assisting the officers), and A, B, C, D companies.
The enlisted men all came from replacement depots in England. So, basically these GIs were shipped to the UK after their basic training in the States. These guys were shipped to the UK not knowing what kind of unit they would end up in. The uncertainty leading up to their assignment in the port battalion must have been frustrating. The port battalion's companies were distributed over several English and Welsh ports and towns. They were shifted around quite a bit before the Normandy invasion. I hope my description isn't too confusing.
A Company was commanded by 1st Lt. James J. Powell. The enlisted men came from the 10th Replacement Depot in Litchfield, England. The company's first duty was to maintain railroad tracks and road beds in the US Army depots at Newbury, Thatcham, Aschurch, Sudbury, Highbridge, and Burnham-on-the-Sea.
B Company, commanded by Captain Russel J. Morton, was composed of enlisted men transferred from the 761st Engineer Railway Operating Battalion and the 10th Replacement Depot. This company's duty was to operate railway engines at all the same US Army Depots as A Company, along with the depot at Burton-on-Trent.
C Company was commanded by 1st Lieutenant George Gilman. Jr. All personnel came from the 10th Replacement Depot.
On February 28, 1943 HQ, HQ detachment, and C Company moved from T Camp to the newly built Camp Seamills (previously occupied by the 2034th Port Battalion).
D Company was created on February 29th, 1943. It was commanded by Captain George Oliver. Once again the enlisted men were supplied by the 10th Replacement Depot. It was posted to Camp Seamills.
On March 25, 1943 C Company moved from Camp Seamills to Hayes Lane Camp, Barry Glamorgan, South Wales. Here the company discharged cargo from supply ships at the Port of Barry.
Battalion redesignated as the 517th Port Battalion.
On July 19, 1943 the scatted detachments of A Company relocated to Manchester, England. The company unloaded cargo from supply ships at the Manchester Ship Canal.
On July 19, 1943 the scatted detachments of B Company relocated to Camp Seamills, in Seamills, England to unload ships at the Avonmouth Docks.
On July 30, 1943 D company moved to Barry, Wales. The company unloaded ships at the Port of Barry. This seaport was under the jurisdiction of the US Army 11th Port of Embarkation.
On September 9th D Company moved to Cardiff Wales. It unloaded supply ships at the Port of Cardiff.
On September 12th HQ, HQ Detachment, and B Company moved to Hayes Lane Camp, Barry, Wales. B Company unloaded ships at the Port of Barry, while HQ managed administration and supply to its four companies.
On September 13th A Company also moved to Hayes Lane Camp. It too unloaded ships in the Port of Barry.
On February 10th the command of C Company was turned over to Captain Philip V. Dunbar. on the 18th the company moved to the Transportation Corps Training School at Mumbles, Wales for training in amphibious operations with the 1st and 5th Engineer Special Brigades.
On March 12th C Company finished training and returned to Barry, Wales.
On March 13th B Company moved to Torquay for amphibious trainign with the 6th Engineer Special Brigade.
On April 7th Major Cerefice was relieved of command and was replaced by Lt. Colonel Harold E. Bonar. Bonar had been in command of the African-American 490th Port Battalion. Some time in or after April the A, B, C, and D companies were re-named as the 797th, 798th, 799th, and 800th port companies.
Below is a quote from the 517th Port Battalion Historic Data report, which I received from the National Archives:
During this period there was constant talk of invasion, not alone by the military, but newspapers, radios, people in the street, the air war was being stepped up, and the American 8th Air Force was hammering the Pas de Calais are nearly every day. With two companies undergoing amphibious training, there was a growing awareness that the 517th Port Battalion was to take part in the Invasion of Europe. It was on the 10th of April that this organization received notification that it was alerted and was attached to the First United States Army for operations with the 6th Engineer Special Brigade.
Two additional port companies, the 284th and 285th, were attached to the battalion. The 517th then moved to Perth, South Wales, where it remained until the 30th.
June 2, 1944
The 517th Port Battalion boarded ships of the Allied invasion fleet.
The 517th joined the 6th ESB for its invasion of Omaha Beach. When Normandy supply operations closed due to winter weather the battalion moved to Antwerp. That part of the 517th story is told in PART 2.