Friday, December 31, 2010

1st ESB Utah Beach Monument in Winter

In December my friend Dave Ashe snapped these photos of the 1st Engineer Special Brigade monument on Utah Beach. The monument was built in 1945 on top of a concrete bunker, which had been part of the Germans' Widerneststand "resistance nest" 5. The sides of the monument lists all the units that were part of the 1st ESB in Normandy (see see previous post). My grandpa remembers donating some of his pay toward building the structure.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

WWII US Army Harbor Craft Companies in Europe

Above photo: tugboats in the port of Antwerp, photographed by my grandfather in 1944.

In researching WWII US Army port battalions I became familiar with other Transportation Corps units that served in port supply operations. The Army was were never very comfortable coordinating with the Navy, and it didn't want to rely completely on civilian boat workers. For the Normandy invasion the US Army created the harbor craft companies to man it's small supply craft, mostly barges, cranes, and tug boats. The War Department Field Manual FM 55-130: Transportation Corps Small Boats and Harbor Craft, published in 1944 gives a short description of the Army harbor craft company:

"The harbor craft company is a military unit organized for the purpose of ferrying cargo from freighters and transports arriving in theaters of operation. The vessels may either be riding at anchor offshore in the open sea or, which is more likely, anchored in a harbor. Cargo from ships is loaded by Transportation Corps port company personnel onto the barges. Tugs, tow boats, or marine tractors then propel these barges to the shore for unloading. Any cargo too heavy for the vessel's gear lift is handled by the 60-ton floating crane."

Harbor craft companies took part in the Normandy supply operations. Destination -- Berlin! The Transportation Corps will furnish the necessary transportation! was small booklet published by The Stars and Stripes. It mentions the contribution made by the invasion's harbor craft companies. It begins by marking the accomplishments of the 334th Harbor Craft Company:

"During August 1944 alone they performed 1403 channel operations. These army sailors towed 150 vessels and 288 barges into harbors, made 117 ferry trips, and threw in five salvage expeditions for good measure."

As with the port battalions, these rear area troops often came under enemy fire. The same Stars and Stripes booklet describes an incident in the supply of Cherbourg:

"The men of the harbor craft companies had a big hand in making Cherbourg a success. Harbor craft companies are an invention of this war and this theater. The first six companies were activated at the Charleston POE in May 1943. During the last war the Army depended on French civilian tugboats, but this time the enemy made that impossible. The Army had foreseen this situation and was prepared.

This is typical of what these companies were up against at Cherbourg: the crew of one ST-75 in a July 18 convoy from Southampton to Cherbourg was made up of men from the 328th and 335th Harbor Craft Cos. In a dense fog this ST-75 and five other boats became separated from the convoy about midnight. Fired on when be approached the shore on the following morning, the ST-75's ship's master set a course to the north. Before he could clear the Channel Isles, enemy shore batteries opened fire.

The first round took off the foremast. Seven of the crew went overboard. One soldier-sailor refused to abandon ship and went down. A sergeant was so badly injured that he later died. An officer was severely wounded in the leg. The survivors clung to a rubber raft until nearly dark the next day, when they were picked up by a British destroyer and returned to England."

In September of 1944 the immense port of Antwerp was captured by the Allies and it opened to shipping in November. Joining my grandfather's port battalion there were the 334th, 339th, 344th, 345th, and 352nd harbor craft companies. The port had been closed during the German occupation, and the Allies allowed very few civilian ships after its liberation. Consequently, there was a huge population of unemployed Belgian port workers available. The Allies hired the civilians to unload and transport the flood of military supplies. Soldiers from the harbor craft companies and port battalions were then free to perform other military duties in the port. My grandfather and many men from the harbor craft companies served guard duty on the supply ships, docks, and in the warehouses. They protected Allied supplies from black market heists while under a constant barrage of German V-bombs.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Longshore Soldiers Book Description
and Table of Contents

Through firsthand accounts, historical photographs, and original maps, Longshore Soldiers recounts the wartime experiences of Cortland Hopkins and ten other port battalion veterans. As part of the US Army's Transportation Corps, they were responsible for ensuring that thousands of tons of military supplies were packed, unloaded, and delivered to the front lines. Moving from training stateside, to supply operations on the beaches of Normandy, to dockwork in the massive, high-risk seaport of Antwerp, Belgium, and finally to deactivation, Andrew Brozyna offers a compelling narrative of what daily life was like in this remarkable yet often overlooked service. Perhaps most importantly, Brozyna's use of personal histories as the basis for examining the logistics of WWII's European theater ensures that readers never lose sight of the individuals involved.

Read a sample excerpt.




Image sources

Chapter 1. Schenectady
An introduction to Cortland Hopkins, grandfather of the author, and his hometown.

2. American Locomotive Company
Cortland take a job welding M-4 tanks and the secret M-7 "Priest" mobile howitzer.

3. In the Army Now
Cortland joins the Army. An introduction to the 519th Port Battalion, Fort Indiantown Gap, and the other veterans interviewed by the author.

4. Boston
Training, supply work, and anecdotes from Boston harbor.

5. The Atlantic
A description of the voyage to England

6. England
Stories from the GI's interaction with the people of Bristol.

7. The Invasion
Preparations for the invasion and the morning events of D-day.

8. Utah Beach Dangers
A description of dangers faced by the supply troops on Utah Beach: German snipers, weeks of artillery fire, and attacks by air.

9. Beach Work
An explanation of the duties performed by the port companies, an unprecedented method of unloading supply ships at sea.

10. To Antwerp
The liberation of Antwerp, the Battle of the Scheldt, and the port battalion's move to Belgium.

11. The V-weapons
A discussion of the Germans' V-1 and V-2 rockets, the bombardment of the city, and its effect on the civilians and military servicemen there.

12. Work in the Port
The duties of the American supply troops in Antwerp: unloading ships, guarding the docks, and traveling through Belgium as train guards.

13. The Ardennes Offensive
The effect of the Battle of the Bulge on American supply operations in Antwerp.

14. War's End
A description of the leisure activities in Antwerp that kept the GIs out of trouble after Germany's surrender: sports, dancing, and tours of Europe.

15. Homecoming
Cortland's last duties in Europe, his last brush with danger, his return to the US, and marriage to his sweetheart.

The port battalion veterans after the war.

Appendix A: Battalion Honors
The military decorations awarded to the 519th Port Battalion by the US, France, and Belgium

Appendix B: Company Rosters
A list of names of the men who served in the 519th Port Battalion

Appendix C: 519th Port Battalion Insignia
A description of the shoulder patches and uniform insignia

Appendix D: 519th Historic Data Report
A copy of the official battalion history written by 519th HQ in 1946

Appendix E: Timeline
A list of important dates in the battalion's history

Appendix F: Port Battalion Organization
Organizational charts of a standard WWII US Army port battalion, headquarters, and port company



Thursday, December 23, 2010

A GI's Christmas in WWII Belgium, 1944

Belgium was especially cold in the winter of 1944 / 1945. Chilled rain fell on the coast near Antwerp and snow showered the interior of the country. Coal to heat people's homes was very much in demand. It was common for a train carrying coal to Antwerp to loose tons of it's cargo due to pilfering. Trains in Allied service were better protected. Military supply routes from Antwerp to the front lines were guarded by port battalion troops. Don Hemphill, in the 284th Port Company, 517th Port Battalion was one of these train guards (the guy in glasses pictured above).

These photos were snapped in January, 1945 by a man in his guard detail. It must have been an unusually warm day since he is seen without a jacket and the girls aren't bundled up. Hemphill and three other GIs had been guarding a train to the supply dump at Charleroi, close to the front lines. As detailed in chapter 12 of my book, local Belgians usually hung out at the station to offer the Americans a place to stay. It was often several days or even a week before the guys found a truck headed back to Antwerp. Don and I got in touch after my book was published, so I am happy to add his story here.

After this particular train run Don and his fellow guards were invited into the home of the Diesbeck family ("Disbecq" in French). They lived in the suburb of Marcinelle, just outside Charleroi. Eleven-year-old Renie (the young girl pictured with Don in the white socks) had an interesting story to tell the GIs. Don shared with me her dangerous activities during the German occupation: "Mr. Diesbeck was a baker and several people could visit his home without raising the suspicion of the Germans. Reine said that often she would carry guns to school in her backpack to be passed on to the underground." Men from the Belgian resistance delivered weapons to the bakery, Renie brought them to school, and passed them on to other resistance men before she came home. To this day Don and Renie still exchange Christmas cards.

Don recently shared another train-guard story taking place on Christmas, just a few weeks before meeting the Diesbecks: "We were somewhere on the Belgium-German frontier, cold and lost. Oh! It was so cold, and it was snowing. Night found us in a railroad yard, and one of the men said he could smell smoke from a coal fire. Aware that we had an opportunity to get warm, it did not take long to find that this smoke came from a small building, approximately 12 x 20 ft., that was part of the yard complex. After we made our way inside, we found 25 or 30 men who were in the same predicament as we were. These men were silent, and it did not take long to find the reason. We could hear the voice of a soldier, seated on his helmet, beside a small stove. This soldier—with the aid of a flashlight—would read from a Bible, explain what he had read, and answer questions that came from the men around him."

"I do not remember why we left that warm place, but I do remember there were men in that building who came to know Christ, and something there touched us all. Outside the ground was covered with snow, the air was cold and crisp, the silence was overwhelming, and the sky was filled with stars. There was one star, in the East, that seemed to be the brightest of all. Five men, a long way from home, knew something special happened that night."

Last year I posted a story of a GI's Christmas party in Antwerp from veteran, Dave Weaver.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Color photograph of 1st Engineer Special Brigade

I believe this is the only color photo in existence showing troops from the 1st Engineer Special Brigade. It was sent to me by my friend David, a fellow WWII researcher. This photograph was snapped on Utah Beach, Normandy sometime in the first few weeks after the invasion. Note the barrage balloons floating above the supply ships in the background. German fighter-bombers continued sporadic attacks on the beach throughout June. Those balloons deterred low-level attacks. Speaking of which, check out my articles about the sinking of the SS Charles Morgan. My grandfather's company was onboard when it was bombed on June 10, 1944. By July, the air attacks stopped, making the balloons unnecessary.

The smiling soldier holding the letter is a technician, 5th grade (note the shoulder patch). This was the same rank held by my grandfather at the time. I think the most interesting thing to see in this color photo is the blue helmet marking. The arc scene on all my black and white photos seems to be white. The 519th Port Battalion veterans all assured me it was blue, which is born out in this image. The troops attached to 1st ESB all had this marking.

The port battalions attached to the 5th and 6th Engineer Special brigades (on Omaha Beach) had helmets with white arcs and the blue and yellow amphibious insignia painted underneath. See image below:

This black and white photo was sent to me by Charles Morris. Charles served in the 284th Port Company, which was attached to the 6th Engineer Special Brigade for the Omaha Beach invasion. The men stand in front of a scratch-built shelter made from discarding packing boards. The shot was taken on Omaha Beach in June, 1944.

Monday, December 13, 2010

History of the 13th Major Port, part 3

This is the last part of the 13th Port history as presented in the 1946 publication, The 13th Port: 1943-1946. Click to read Part 1 or Part 2.


To be selected to open and operate a great port such as Antwerp, was a high honor. To do this when upon this port depended the supplies for most of the American troops facing the Germans, was a great responsibility.

The two maps following give a fair idea of the importance of the Port with reference to the fighting front. The Canadian First Army and the British Second Army were supplied through the British section of the Port of Antwerp through General Montgomery's 21st Army Group. The American 12th Army Group, comprising of the Ninth, First, and Third Armies were supplied by the American Section of the Port. The American Seventh Army which had come through Marseilles was supplied through that port.

On September 23, 1944, General Eisenhower wrote to General Marshall, Chief of Staff, as follows: "Right now our prospects are tied up closely with our success in capturing the approaches to Antwerp. ...if we can only get to using Antwerp it will have the effect of a blood transfusion."

In his Biennial Report to the Secretary of War, General Marshall says of Antwerp: "By 27 November the Port of Antwerp was in operation but was under heavy fire of the vicious German V-weapons, which fell at one time at the rate of on every 12.5 minutes causing thousands of Allied civilian and military casualties, and cast grave doubt for a time upon the advisability of continuing the operation of the Port."

And later in the same report, General Marshall goes on to say: "With the promise of a large increase of supplies through the Port of Antwerp in late November, General Eisenhower in mid-November launched a changing offensive to penetrate the Siegfried Line."

We who were there know what it took to get ships unloaded and cargoes started for the front. But many of us were too busy to see it clearly as others did.

Friday, December 3, 2010

History of the 13th Major Port, part 2

A sergeant of the 13th Port guarding Falmouth's docks.

At Plymouth we took over the British port known as Raglan Barracks, where we had a few British troops, come British Navy, and an ever changing group of Port Battalions, Port Maintenance Companies, Harbor Craft Companies, detachments of civilian tug-boat Captains and Mates.

At Plymouth we assembled "Sea Mules", unloaded tug-boats from the decks of Liberty ships, unloaded supplies galore for the American Army and Navy and for our British allies; and supervised operations elsewhere.

At the time of the invasion Plymouth outloaded Liberty ships carrying combat vehicles and crews to the "Far Shore" and handed American wounded and German wounded and Prisoner of War.

TRURO, TOTNES, HAYLE: The Barge Program
In February we learned that we were supposed to be in charge of constructing 400 wooden barges and 400 steel barges for the invasion, with a deadline of June 1944. Prefabricated materials were being shipped from the United States. We were to assemble in ship-yards in England. The project was supposedly started in October 1943. Through some oversight nothing was said to us about it when we arrived in January 1944.

Investigation showed that materials were clogging the English railroads so that embargoes were threatened. The ship-yards to assemble these large boats were still to be constructed. And through some miracle the 13th was supposed to do iin three months work which had been planned for eight months.

Between February and June 1st, ways were constructed at Totnes, Truro, and Hayle. All the wooden barges had been constructed and launched. And all of them would have been completed, except that steel did not arrive from the United States.

Steel was unloaded at Plymouth and Falmouth. At Totnes when carpenters were unavailable for constructing wooden barges, a colored Port Battalion took over and turned them out faster that the English carpenters had been doing. At Truro a Railroad Maintenance Battalion helped out wonderfully in making the steel barge program a success.

The successful completion of the barge program before D-Day was an achievement in which all members of the 13th took pride.

Falmouth was operated by us from early in 1944. First was the job of unloading steel for Truro and shipping it by barge up the river. Then handling Naval stores—from heavy pontoon sections to tailor's thread.

When the 13th Port took over at Falmouth, we were told it could handle a maximum of four vessels and 2,000 tons per day. Instead we stepped it up to nine vessels and 4,500 long tons a day.

As D-Day approached, our job was to outload men and vehicles for the invasion. By ten days after D-Day 11,000 vehicles and 34,000 men had been outloaded at Falmouth. The original schedule at Falmouth called for handling 44 ships. Actually we handled 84.

From the start operations at Falmouth were carried on under high pressure. The small group of officers and men who served at Falmouth did an outstanding job, for which the 13th Port received great credit from the Navy and the Army.

Fowey is an interiguing old port on the Cornish coast which was assigned to the 13th Port as an outloading point for all kinds of ammunition for troops in Normandy.

In peace time it is a loading point for clay used in making porcelain and chinaware. In the early stages of World War II the English had used it as an ammunition shipping point for English troops on the continent.

The American Army was told that its limit was 350 tons of "ammo" per day. They hopefully doubled the figure and handed it to the 13th Port. The 13th, in turn doubled the figure and shippe dmore than 1400 tons in a single day. The limiting factor was that there were never enough ships available to take the stuff!

Fowey was supposed to operate till D plus 90. Instead, by about D plus 45 it had outshipped all the ammunition it was supposed to handle, and the 13th Port closed shop and returned to Plymouth, ready to go to Europe.

Read Part 3