Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Short History of the 518th Port Battalion

1st Private Anglin, 301st Port Company, 518th Port Battalion, Normandy 1944.
Photo courtesy of Solomon Fein.

The 518th Port Battalion served on Utah Beach alongside my grandfather's 519th. Last year I began speaking with a veteran of the 518th, Solomon Fein. He had some great stories and helped me understand the general work of port companies in Normandy. I approached the National Archives, requesting copies of any documents they had on the 518th. I was hoping to receive a detailed written history with dates, places, and maybe even a map or two. Unfortunately, the only records they found were some monthly statistics on tonnage unloaded from supply ships—not very helpful.

When my grandfather's obituary appeared in the newspaper last month it was spotted by another 518th Port Battalion veteran, William James. William has lived in Albany, NY for as long as my grandfather lived in Schenectady and Rotterdam, NY. William was surprised to see a port battalion veteran listed in the paper and he felt compelled to pay his respects at the funeral service. He was still more surprised to see a book had been written about WWII port battalions. My family gave him a free copy and I have talked with him several times since then.

In 1994 William returned to Utah Beach for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day invasion. The veterans were asked to write down their memories of their time on Normandy. William recently sent me copies of his notes, which is the closest thing to an official history of the battalion.

The 518th Port Battalion (composed of the 278th, 281st, 298th, 299th, 300th, and 301st port companies) trained at Indiantown Gap (see chapter 3 of my book). William's account picks up after the battalion was sent overseas:

After landing in Glasgow, Scotland in April 1943 my unit, the 298th Port Company of the 518th Port Battalion, moved to Plymouth, England early in the month of May 1943, where we loaded military supplies on ships and ocean going barges. [Solomon Fein's 301st Port Company worked in Fowey, England]. We moved to what I believe was Southampton, England about the end of May where we prepared for crossing the Channel.

We departed England on the afternoon of June 5th onboard a two-hold English coaster loaded with artillery ammunition. At day break the morning of June 6th I witnessed battleships, cruisers, and smaller Navy ships, all bombarding [German] coastal emplacements, i.e. pill boxes and perhaps some inland areas. We were surrounded by other supply ships, landing vessels, and troop carriers. There were small freighters such as ours and Liberty Ships and ocean-going barges. The barges had been towed across the Channel by the Liberty Ships.

Each ship flew one or two barrage balloons 150 to 200 feet above their bow and stern to protect them from dive-bombers. After a few days our antiaircraft guns were heavy along the coast, and at night there tracer fire was visible as far as the eye could see, and huge antiaircraft spotlights would light the night sky like day. For several days we continued to unload the coaster that we crossed on, into Army DUKWs as they became available.

Several concrete-hulled Liberty Ships which were used to bring in supplies after being unloaded were later sunk in a manner as to form a breakwater off the beachhead. [This artificial breakwater was called a "Gooseberry"] Several of the barges were sunk to create a pier to which boats could anchor and supplies, vehicles, and troops were offloaded.

On our about the 5th or 6th day [June 11th or 12th] my company having unloaded the coaster, went ashore and established ourselves about a half mile inland, where we dug in, and we lived in the dugouts [foxholes], two men to a hole, in a large field which had been cleared of mines. We covered the hole with our pup tent. From this position we would travel to the beach area to unload supplies, working in twelve hour shifts day and night. Our position was under nightly observation by a German plane, and on two occasions we were bombed.

Men from the 301st Port Company posing in front of a German pillbox, Utah Beach 1944.
Photo courtesy of Solomon Fein.

Sometime in late September our battalion moved to the port city of Cherbourg and continued bringing in supplies.

During the invasion my company and battalion were part of the 38th Engineer Regiment of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade which had the responsibility to move the supplies and material to the units moving inland. There is now
a monument erected on top of the pill box [concrete German bunker] from which we operated daily, which commemorates all the units of the "1st Engineer Special Brigade H-hour 0630, D-Day June 6th 1944."

At some point after Cherbourg Solomon Fein's company moved to Gent, Belgium, were they remained for the rest of the war. William James' company remained in Cherbourg.