Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A short history of the 11th Port in WWII

A fellow WWII history buff in Wales forwarded a letter to me written by an American veteran. Bob Schultz was a member of the 11th Port. Like the 13th Port, this unit managed the supply operations at various seaports during the war. The Omaha Beach port battalions described on this site were under the command of the 11th Port. I am quoting Schultz's letter here. I have added a few of my own notes in brackets:

The 11th Port was established by the department of defense [during WWII it was called the Department of War] as the 11th Port of Embarkation at Fort Lawton, Washington in July 1942. Fort Lawton was located on the north outskirts of Seattle and it was set in a large grove of pine trees. Their function there was to learn the operations of a port authority by working at the port of Seattle.

The job of a Port authority was to administer all the different types of services that would be required for the efficient discharge and forwarding of cargo brought to the port by ships.
In the case of the 11th port, we were divided into various sections such as: Signal, quartermaster, engineer, medical, adjutant general, veterinary, stevedores, etc.

The port worked in Seattle until May 1943 when it was ordered to move to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey in preparation to shipping overseas. We stayed in Camp Kilmer for about two weeks which enabled us to get to New York City a number of times to see what the “Big Apple” was like.

Next we were put aboard the Queen Mary for transport across the Atlantic. We traveled all alone without escort, I suppose because of the speed and maneuverability of the ship [the danger was possible attack by German U-Boats]. In my case, I was able to get up to the top deck of the ship and laid down alongside of one of the big funnels of the ship and observe the stars in the sky showing how the ship was varying its course to avoid just going in a straight path. We landed in Greenock, Scotland in the morning. Departing from the ship, we walked across a short concrete walk to a waiting train and were transported down to England.

In England we were off loaded into a large field just outside the little town of Shirehampton, The next day we were addressed by some officer who brought orders that sent some of our men to other ports in England like London, Liverpool, and some other ports in England. The balance of the group were assigned to the ports around the Bristol Channel, like Swansea, Newport, And Avonmouth (port of Bristol). We also worked at the ports of Barry and Cardiff, I went to Avonmouth which was the next town from Shirehampton, just outside the entrance to the docks. We just marched down the road to our camp.

Our camp was a former British camp and consisted of wooden buildings, which was rare in England do to the lack of forests. However our mess hall was masonry as was our recreation hall and camp office.

The men at Newport were housed at a place called Malpas and lived in Nissan huts, I understand that the fellows at Swansea were housed in a Masonic Hall. As I was only at Avonmouth, I can only put down what I am aware of.

Our usual work was to go down to the docks in the morning and set up a table in the shed alongside the queue wall and have the British “Dockers” start unloading the ship. We would follow the manifest of the ships cargo and check the coded containers to have them loaded in rail cars (freight cars) or lorries (trucks) and forward them to various places in England for storage until they were needed. While working with the local people, we were able to get the refreshments supplied by the British Canteen service. Sometimes they had a very good cheese sandwich. We would go into one of our offices where there was a coal stove going and toast the bread which also melted some of the cheese and made a very good sandwich. This went on until April of 1944.

During the time we were working at the Bristol Channel ports we were joined by a new commanding officer, Col. Richard Whitcom. He came to us from a port in Iceland, I believe, and he brought 50 of his top 3 graders with him. They were good people, but it cut off the promotions of the original 11th Porters. However, we worked at jobs that should have had higher ratings and got the job done.

Around the end of April 1944, we were all transferred to Newport, which was our headquarters and we were billeted in a place Called Malpas, in Nissan Huts. After a short time we were transported to the Welsh town of Aberdare, in Glamorganshire. There we were marched down a street and caused to be billeted in the homes of the local residents, two to a home. I expect that the owners had agreed to provide their homes in advance [actually, the British government required that residents house the GIs]. It was a very pleasant experience to be able to live with these people and observe their ways, learn their style, observe the proper way to make tea, etc. We went to this location so we could get toughened up be marched up and down the “mountains” that were in the area, we also took some shooting instruction. Some of our men were sent down to the South of England where they became part of the Engineer Brigades that were to accompany the invasion forces.

Around the 1st of June we were put aboard a train and send down to Southampton in a well guarded camp. We were issued Gas Clothes, (oil impregnated dungarees) [to protect against German poison gas] and French money, there was no question then where we were going. We were given our “last meal”. A wonderful dinner, told that we not to take off our clothes. There were canvas bunks to sleep on but we had to stay dressed. The Invasion was to take place on June 5th but because of the weather was postponed to the 6th. We were all ready but when we woke up on the 6th, we were sitting in the fields where there were speakers describing the invasion action. This went on all day.

That night we were transferred by truck to the port of Southampton and boarded an LSI. That is a Landing Ship Infantry. This ship had two ramps forward that could be lowered and men could go down the ramps to the water. The next day we were looking at the operations at Omaha Beach and began our landing. The ship shot a couple of ropes with anchors on the end towards the beach. We were to go along this rope until we got to the beach. Some of the men had some trouble as the land under the water was not level and there were big dips. I know of one person who almost drowned and was sent back to England. However, we all got ashore and started to walk in single fine up the slope to where we were supposed to be. We were told that the fighting was about 3 miles inland at that time. It was necessary to walk within taped lanes to avoid any land mines that the Germans had planted.

We saw many bodies on the beach and the army had hired some free French people to pick them up. They had piled some of the in a pile like a cord of wood. About three feet high. I expect it was to prepare them to be returned to England. It was scary to realize that a few hours ago they were alive and ready to do their job. That picture stayed in our minds for a long time.

Our position on the beach was at the extreme right and we had come in some distance from there, so we had a little hiking to do. It was a very hot day and the Gas clothes were terrible, so most of the men took them off and therefore felt a lot better.

When we finally got to the proper location, we had a road that we were able to take that brought us up to the main road along the coast and to the chateau called “Chateau de Vierville” This became our headquarters while we operated on the beach. There is a plaque on the gatepost of the chateau indicating that this was the headquarters of the 11th Port during the invasion. We went on a little further down the road and into a field where we established out camp and pitched our tents and set up the kitchen. We lived in this field for about a month. When we arrived in this field there were animals that had been killed along with a few dead Germans. In due time they were removed and we had the place for ourselves.

After about a month our unit was moved to five ports on the peninsula towards Cherbourg,
The ports were Grandcamp, Isigne, Carantan, Barflur, and St. Vaast. Carantan was our headquarters and there is a plaque on the wall of the school there where we had our office.
At these ports we were able to receive small ships and barges containing cargo that had been offloaded from ships out in the deeper waters. Most of the ports had been damaged by the Germans by wrecking their gates to the unloading area so the water could not be held in the unloading area at low tide and the vessels just sat on the bare bottom. We operated these ports until November when we were sent to Rouen on the Seine River about 50 miles East of Paris. [The 490th Port Battalion worked in Rouen under the 11th Port]

When arriving at Rouen, we observed a very great number of German vehicles all burnt, at the edge of the river. It seems that our bombarding of this area had cut all the bridges and they were unable to move their vehicles to the north and so in order that they did not fall into our hands, the burnt them up and left them there. We soon constructed bridges and started working at the port where large ships were able to navigate up the river to Rouen. At this location we also established the replacement camps called by cigarette names, like lucky strike, chesterfield, etc. We were balloted in a former school which was called “Echole Normal” on the left side of the river. Rouen had taken a great amount of bombing and was in really bad shape, especially along the river and port.

As V-E Day came on May 9th, we were ordered back to the U. S. early in June. For customs inspection, they had us put all our belongings in the middle of our building and then loaded them into a truck for transfer to the ship. After the belongings had gone, we climbed into open cargo trailers and were transported to LeHarve where we jumped off the trucks and walked over to the Navy Troop transport which brought us back to the country.

We went to Fort Dix and were granted a “delay en route” of 30 days and then allowed to return to our homes for this 30 days and then to reassemble at Camp Plauche, in New Orleans, LA. When we arrived there it was a very HOT day and we had to fight the mosquitoes. Later in August, with the A-Bombing of Japan we were hopeful the war would end then but it did not effect us and we were loaded on a train to go to Camp Stoneman at Pittsburg, PA. A shipping had been prepared and we were scheduled to get on a ship within days when an order was published that stopped the shipment of men who had a certain number of “points” and almost all of us had more than enough points to qualify. With this situation our outfit was converted to Station compliment” and started to prepare for the arrival of men from the Pacific and resupply them for return to the country.

I understand the “our leader” Col. Richard Whitcomb, Continued on to the Pacific, possible with some of the 11th port members that were left. It was said that we were scheduled to take over a large port in Japan and perhaps our Cornel got the Star of a General that he worked for.

In any event, we did a good job for the War effort and helped in a successful conclusion.

P.S. In 1955 Jim Lynch and George Milne got together and had the first reunion in Chicago. It was decided after that that we would get together every 2 years. In this way we went to many of the cities in the US. Someone in that location would set up a program and a hotel and we had a grand time. Later some of the “kids” would run the reunion. We saw many cities in the US and in 1974 we took a group to Europe and visited all the places where we had been.