Friday, May 25, 2012

History of the 502nd Port Battalion

My book Longshore Soldiers focuses on my grandfather's port battalion, the 519th, so I am pleased to use this blog to share short histories of the other Normandy port battalions. This month the National Archives sent me their records for the 502nd Port Battalion. While short, this ten-page report was surprisingly well-written. (Usually these Army reports are written in a plain utilitarian language.) The report gives a concise account of the unit's service during the war, highlighting some notable events taking place on Omaha Beach. The 502nd was one of the segregated battlaions. All the enlisted men were Africa-American, while the officers were white. This first post includes text in the introductory letter. The full report fill following a later blog post. I have typeset the photocopies to make it easier for you to read:

502ND PORT BATTALION
COMMUNICATION ZONE ETO
APO 562 US ARMY

5 September 1944

SUBJECT: Unit History.

To: Commanding Officer, 5th Engineer Special Brigade, Communication Zone, ETC, APO 562, U. S. Army. (Attn: Brigade Historian) In accordance with letter, Hqrs., 5th Engineer Special Brigade, dated 1 September 1944, Subject: Unit History, the following is submitted for the 502nd Port Battalion.

1. CASUALTIES AND CHANGE IN COMMAND: As one of the few regularly constituted SOS [Service of Supply] units selected to accompany the Combat Engineer Battalions in the establishment or the Beach Head, tUW 502nd Port Battalion suffered some casualties. These included Lt. Colonel JAMES T. PIERCE of Erie, Pa., the Battalion Commander who had activated and trained the organization. On D plus 3 and only two weeks before he would have celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of his original Army induction Colonel PIERCE lost his leg in tne explosion of a German anti-personnel mine. The same explosion wounded 1st Lt. KENNIE E. HATFIELD, the Bn. Adjutant wno was evacuated and later returned to duty, and Tech. Sgt. Elbert D. Blocker of Corona, New York, the Battalion Sergeant Major. Major MARTIN S. HAYDEN of Grosse Pointe, Michigan assumed command.

Three of the five 502nd men who lost their lives on the Normandy Beach were drowned as they were being landed on tHe afternoon of D plus 1. These men, members of tne 270th Port Company, lost their lives when a landing line stretched ashore from a grounded LST gave way as tney worked their way ashore. But for the heroism of an officer and four EM of tne Battalion, the casualty list would have been higher. 1st Lt. WILLIAM B. MORRIS of Wilmington, N.C.; S/Sgt. Herbert R. Brooks of Bronx, New York; Cpl. Robert D. Bond of West Somerville, Mass.; Sgt Scott Clay of Brooklyn, New York; and Pvt. William H. Beach, Jr. of Warick, New York repeatedly risked their lives by going out into the channel water after men who were unable to get ashore alone. In all they brougnt ashore 16 men including the three upon whom their efforts at artificial respiration were unsuccessful. The officer and the five EM have all been recommended for the Soldiers Medal. 

2. BATTALION BAND: The 502nd Port Battalion has good grounds for the belief that tneir organization was the first to furnish organized entertainment to American troops in Normandy. The story goes back to tne United Kingdom and the determination of Col. PIERCE that his Battalion would have a band. Instruments were procured and a band formed at Camp Crookston in Scotland. The instruments were brought along when the Battalion sailed for
France. On approximately D plus 12 the first concert was given. It was an unplanned and informal affair which partially disrupted
Beach operations as soldiers gathered from the fox holes or adjacent fields and trucks pulled up on tne road to listen to a little jive. On orders of the Brigade Commander the band was removed from other duties and put "on tne road" as the first organized show in Normandy. Nightly they performed under the direction of Cpl. Eugene D. Cosby of Alquippa, Pa., the band leader. Band ofiicer is 1st Lt. FREDERICK A. STONE of South Sudbury, Mass. who started his formalized musical career with Barnum and Bailey's Circus Band and continued it as the trainer of many a Massachusetts National Guard and American Legion Band. Master or Ceremonies for the road show was Chaplain EDWARD G. CARROLL of Washington, D. C.

3. OPERATIONS: In the workings or tne Plan Neptune, the
502nd, like otner Beach Head Port Battalions, encountered unanticipated obstacles and devised solutions which at times violated and in other instances added new chapters to the book on
stevedoring rules. Initially the operation was according to plan;
all ships began to arrive from the States which not only had no
gear for their discharge but which in some cases had been loaded
with the assurance that they would be discharged at fixed installations and with the heavy equipment of such fixed docks. Port Battalion ofricers who had been taugnt tnat booms must never be over-loaded discovered that the writer or that rule had not considered tne question of "calculated risk" as it may be necessitated on a Beach operation. Section leaders discovered that the books carried no description of the proper gear for some of theirpeculiar lifts into landing craft. They fougnt a battle of telephone poles during a period when that unappreciated commodity arrived in a succession of ships. Tney devised their own sling for handling bundles of pierced steel planking which proved to be one or the primary bugaboes or a ship-Dukw operation. They encountered and conquered the problem of sorting in the holds all cargo regardless of how badly it had been mixed in loading.

4. PAST HISTORY OF BATTALION:
Significant dates in the history of this Battalion are
as follows:
Activated, Camp Myles Standish, Mass.------------25 March 1943.
Sailed for ETO from Port of New York-------------13 October 1943.
Arrived, Camp Crookston, Glasgow, Scotland-------19 October 1943.
Arrived at marshalling area, Llanover, Wales-----15 May 1944.
Sailed for France.....----------------------------2 June 1944.
Arrived of French coast--------------------------7 June 1944.

From the Commanding Officer:
Kennie E. Hatfield
1st Lt., TC, Adjutant

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