Monday, January 24, 2011

History of the 517th Port Battalion in WWII, part 2

The WWII historic data reports housed in the National Archives vary in their detail. It was up to the individual unit to decide what it wanted to record of its operations. I was fantastically fortunate that my grandfather's 519th Port Battalion provided a detailed description of every month of its service. The 517th records, unfortunately, say little about its time in Normandy. There is a map of its camp on Omaha Beach, and an official date of when they arrived, but that's it. The 517th port company men performed the very same work as my grandfather's unit, so you can use my book as a guide. After the Normandy beaches closed down supply operations the 517th moved to Antwerp. The men were housed in the very same apartment building as my grandfather. So, once again, my book Longshore Soldiers fills in a gap in the historic record.

For the 517th's time in the UK read PART 1.

June to November 1944
The 517th Port Battalion set foot on Omaha Beach on June 8th, 1944. For the two days prior the port companies had been unloading the supply ships which had transported them across the channel. The companies of the 517th were scattered in separate camps surrounding St. Laurent-sur-Mer. As with my grandfather's battalion, the men of the 517th first lived in simple foxholes, then built little shacks made from "dunnage," wooden boards used as packing material in ship holds. The battalion's medical staff were housed in an abandoned German headquarters building in town.

The day-to-day work of the port companies involved unloading supply ships anchored a few miles at sea. DUKWs (amphibious trucks), barges, and landing craft were filled with material and motored back to shore. In the first week the men worked anxiously with the expectation of a German counterattack (which thankfully never came). The very real threat of German artillery barrages and Luftwaffe fighter-bomber attacks persisted for several weeks. The pace of work was so frantic there was no time for recreation. Rough winter seas ended supply operations in November.

The above map shows where the 517th's port companies were camped on Omaha Beach on D+3. The units marked "AA" are antiaircraft artillery positioned to fend of German planes. (click on map image to view larger version)


November 1944 - June 1946
Morale was lifted when the port company men were notified of their transfer to Antwerp. They felt they were being rewarded for their splendid work on the beach. On November 24, 1944 the 517th boarded trains at Isigny, France. They arrived in Antwerp on the 29th after an uncomfortable ride in the cramped "40 & 8s" (WWI-era train cars built to hold 40 men or 8 horses).

The battalion moved in to Tampico Flats, located near the docks. The affect of the Germans v-weapon barrage is described in chapter 11 of my book. The 517th Port Battalion Medical Detachment report from August 1945 adds further detail on the danger:

"The conditions in this sector were a little different than before, and the men had to be trained for another type of warfare. The most serious problem became the psychosis problem. The men in the battalion could do nothing to combat this menace except seek shelter, and the psychological reaction was great. Many men had to be hospitalized because of V-1 and V-2 bombs as psycho-neurotics.
The greatest catastrophe to befall the battalion and in which the medical detachment did great work was in a V-2 bombing of a theater in Antwerp, The Rex Theater. The battalion lost fourteen men dead, and a greater number in wounded men. The detachment was dispatched to the scene of the incident and carried on rescue work all day and night, doing yeoman work. There were other occasions when the detachment was called upon to do rescue work, but this was the greatest."

The battalion's port companies performed specialized work in the city. These are all the same duties performed by my grandfather's 519th Port Battalion. My book provides greater detail on their work and offers a few interesting anecdotes.

The 797th, 798th, and 799th, and 285th port companies duty was to supervise the Belgian civilian stevedore's discharge of Allied supply ships, the storage of cargo, and the outloading of cargo onto trucks, trains, barges.

The 800th and 284th port companies provided guards for trains heading to the front lines, they served as guards in Antwerp's North Yards, and several specially skilled personnel worked as crane operators and warehousemen.

In March of 1945 the 798th Port Company left dock work and was reassigned to guard duty on trains and in warehouses. The port company men serving as guards were put under the operational control 793rd Military Police Battalion.

Above photo: Rex Butler and John Haren on the snowy roof of Tampico Flats in 1944, courtesy of Jack Haren.

June 1945
In June 1945 the 185th Port Company was attached to the 517th Port Battalion. It was responsible for discharge of supply ships, checking, outloading supplies onto trucks, trains and barges, and the storage of cargo in warehouses. On June 28 the 284th Port Company was detached from the 517th and sent to Bremerhaven Germany under the command of the 487th Port Battalion.

The end of the 517th
Sometime by December 1945 the battalion had been moved to the Luchtbal Barracks, north of Tampico Flats. Men who had been with the battalion since activation were slowly sent home. The historic record does not say when the 517th was deactivated, but it was probably around the same time as my grandfather's battalion: the winter of 1946.


  1. Looking for anyone who might have known Alvin Schultz of Oshkosh Wisconsin Was In the 517th Port Battalion possible Special brigade. Thanks

    P.S. Have lots of pics to share including of some football teams.

  2. Hello,

    Thank you so much for all the information on this website! I do have a question though, perhaps you can help me?
    I am a Dutch student working on a project; I am trying to find out as much as I can about an American soldier whose grave my family adopted. Thus far I have discovered he served in the 797th Port Co. AND the 487th Port Bn. - which, if I have read everything well, doesn't fit - this Company should be part of the 517th Port Bn.

    He died after the war (August 45) in Bremerhaven; could it be that the 797th Port Co. was sent to Bremerhaven as well in 1945, under command of the 487th? Do you know anything about this?

    I'd be very happy if you could answer my question - I do not know much yet about the American army so I can use all the help I can get! Thanks.

  3. Hi Iris, The US Army port companies were removed from battalions and attached to new battalions more often than the combat units. This especially happened at the end of the war. I will look in my records to see for sure. Is the soldier's grave in the Netherlands? Or are you living in Germany?

  4. I have military records for both those battalions. The 797th Port Company was part of the 517th Port Battalion, taking part in the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach. Beginning in late November 1944 the company supervised the civilian Belgian dockworkers in the port of Antwerp. Some of the company served as guards under the command of the 793rd Military Police Battalion. This was during the German v-bomb attacks. The 797th Port Co left the 517th in Antwerp and joined the 487th Port Battalion in Bremerhaven on June 26, 1945.

  5. Hi,
    That makes more sense, thank you for looking into it for me! I figured the company might have 'switched' batalion, but now I know for sure.
    I live in the Netherlands, near the big Margraten Military Cemetery. Trying to honour one of the men who came here to free us, by doing this project... I am very interested in reading your book, by the way, but I'll have to find a way to get it to Hollan first.
    Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Iris, Did you know there was a new book written about your town and the cemetery? "The Margraten Boys: How a European Village Kept America's Liberators Alive" by Peter Schrijvers. There is a dutch language edition.

      Can you email me? I would like to be able to ask you questions.


Thank you for your comment! You can email me too (see at right).