Thursday, November 10, 2011

A Short History of the 494th Port Battalion in WWII

After speaking with veteran Dr. James Baker I requested the 494th Port Battalion historic report from the National Archives. I got a roster of men in the battalion, which is unusual, and I got a five-page written history detailing the time in the UK. Frustratingly, it cuts off just before the Normandy invasion! I would have been very interested to read what the battalion officers wrote down about that event and the time in Europe. Luckily, my conversations with James and his memoir can fill in the blanks.

In the UK
The battalion crossed the Atlantic aboard the HMT Queen Elizabeth, arriving in Gaurock, Scotland on October 19, 1943. The next day the 494th was transported by train to Maghull, Lancashire in England. The men were quartered in Deyes Lane Camp and Poverty Lane Camp. The companies all moved to Race Course Camp, Manchester, Lancashire in February, 1944. They worked the docks in the port of Liverpool until March, 1944.

You can read a fully detailed description in the pages bellow. In addition to a report of the ships unloaded these pages talk about the troops' interaction with the British. For instance, men from the 494th joined Liverpool's local Home Guard unit for a Memorial Day parade. Along with the 490th Port Battalion, the 494th co-hosted a children's Christmas party. (click for a larger view):

In Normandy
The 494th Port Battalion was attached to the 6th Engineer Special Brigade and landed on Omaha Beach in the first wave of the Normandy invasion on D+1: June 7, 1944. Read James' account of that day. In 1944 the Army Transportation Association Journal published an article "158 Days of Hell" by Captain Albert Simmons. He mentions the 494th:

"It is said of Port Battalions that they can't ever win a war but they sure as hell can lose it! One such Port Battalion, the 494th, was operating on Omaha Beach in June of 1944. On D-plus 1 the 494th was the first to hit the beach. [Earlier in the day they sat out there in the [English] Channel a few thousand feet off the shores of France, waiting, pleading, begging for the chance to go to work. And then they got it! They started discharging cargo that day, and on D-plus 158 they were still going strong.

Yeah! They are a pretty tired bunch of men right now--off loading thousands of thousands of tons of precious cargo [most by hand] every minute of every hour of every day, twenty-four hours a day for 158 days straight! [Can you imagine] standing out there in the black of an invasion night, with Jerry overhead, and tracer bullets cutting a beautiful, horrible pattern of death around you? You are seeing, feeling, sensing, the hundreds of ships out there in the channel just off the beach, loaded with tanks, guns, ammunition, gasoline, oil, chow, trucks, jeeps, and all the supplies and implements of war? You know that you and your buddies will have to unload every last ton of it...

Yes, the GI's of the Infantry are facing quick and sudden death daily, but their admiration for what the Port Battalions did during those invasion nights is expressed in the words of one Infantry Division platoon sergeant just back from the front.

"God, that took guts."

When they left finally left Omaha it was quite peaceful; and they wonder what lies ahead. But what ever it is, they'll do it again. Successfully, because they are the best stevedore battalion ever activated, and because they've already done it once on Omaha Beach."

In a recent phone conversation 494th Port Battalion veteran Robert Robinson told me about a frightening encounter he experience within hours of first coming to shore. "We waded in, and went up the hill. We just flopped down 'cause it was getting late. I just dropped down under a tree, and I was sitting with all my equipment, all wet and tired. It just happened that a sniper was up in the tree. Naturally we couldn't see him because of the leaves." Robert expected that the Germans in the trees (there were a couple) were waiting until nightfall to make their escape. "Night approached and we didn't realize there was any danger. There was a field artillery unit nearby. They spied the Germans in the trees and started firing their guns. One fell right across my legs! The thing that saved me was I reached for his weapon and took it away." Robert unarmed the wounded German before who soon collapsed from his wound.

Attacks by German aircraft were an almost nightly occurrence for at a week or two after D-Day. James Baker explained the best way to dig a foxhole to avoid being shot by the incoming planes: "They'd have us lie straight [parallel to the coastline], because if they come strafing the beach if you're lying straight you have less chance of being hit than if you were crosswise. You could see the tracer bullets coming down, and they're hitting all around you, and you just pray your name was not on the next one."

In November of 1944 the 494th left Normandy for LeHavre, France where it would continue unloading supply ships until the end of the war.

P.S. The SS Inventor was the first supply ship unloaded in Liverpool. I'll list all the ship names mentioned in the hopes that ship enthusiasts find this post: It was followed by the SS Modera, the Liberty Ship SS Abraham Lincoln, SS Santa Barbara, SS Elmer A. Sperry, SS Tombocktou, SS Gateway City, SS Apshun, SSFR Stockton, SS Eugene O'Donnell, the Mahlon Pitney, the Sheridan, the H. Watterson, the William McKinley, the John Phillip Souza, the Samana, the Seapool, the Losado, the Clan Murdock, the M/C Progress, the Elijah White, the Scottish Monarch, the City of Christinia, the Charles Robinson, the James Wetmore, the Bendoran, the Hove, and the James Duncan.

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