It’s not often you get a chance to interview a World War II hero, especially one from the Allied invasion at Normandy, France. Bill Allen and his wife Idalee were gracious enough to spend a few hours with me today. This was particularly poignant, because my paternal uncle was with him on that fateful day.
Bill and Uncle Ed were new recruits to the Navy, and among ten’s of thousands of young Navy Corpsmen for the D-Day invasion June 6, 1944 – a mass medical mobilization for a predicted massacre.
After 6 weeks of basic training and another 6 weeks of corpsman school, they headed for Europe via Nova Scotia. Easter Sunday 1944, they left Halifax for Great Britan. Rough waters along the way were so intense, they needed bunk straps to keep from falling out of their racks. One Sunday morning they noticed it odd that there were no worship services. Since the ship had no Chaplain, Bill and Ed organized a group of 12 sailors that formed a fellowship on Coast Guard LST 523.
Shortly after arriving at Plymouth, England they hit the ground with a two week course in chemical weapons defense (the allies were unsure of Hitlers intentions, as the war intensified on two fronts for the Germans). The corpsmen drilled on Seabee boats practicing loading and unloading of the combat vehicles and supplies: (LST’s – Landing Ship, Tank*). One day they were instructed not to unload the heavy equipment after the daily exercise. They knew what was coming next.
LST 523 made four runs to the Normandy beach heaving over 15 foot ocean swells along the way. On the fourth and final sortie, off Pointe du Hoc, they came straight down on a German mine amid-ship.
Bill had just come top-side from the galley. On the bow, he began conversing with two Army soldiers. One of them suggested they grab a seat in an armored truck close by. Shortly after they sat down, the catastrophic mine explosion sent slices of metal and men in all directions. According to Bill, the truck sheltered him from the raining debris that were shredding men into pieces all around him. Gaining his senses, he jumped ship just as the end of the 328′ long boat disappeared below the water. It had been sliced in half by the explosion. A fellow sailor Jack Hamlin, was close by in a small raft. They made their way to an anchored Liberty Ship and taken aboard to relative safety.
At zero hour, my uncle Ed was on the other end of the vessel. Bill said Ed never talked about his experience, and Bill never asked. All Bill knows is Ed somehow made it to shore and to an aid station. That was 2.5 miles from where they were hit. At the end of the day, 117 soldiers and sailors were dead of the 145 aboard LST 523: 28 survivors. Of those, all twelve of the prayer group were in one piece.
After spending a month or two in Foy, England they shipped out via Scotland on the HMS Queen Mary, to New York and then to Norfolk. They were instructed to expect assignment to fleet Marines in the South Pacific, and were given 30 days leave. A month latter they boarded a train thinking they were headed west, for the far east. To their surprise, they ended up at the the Great Lakes Naval Base Hospital. They were both assigned state-side hospital detail for the rest of the war. Apparently, one of the detailing officers decided they had seen enough combat, after (4) D-Day landings, and one ship blown out from underneath them.
Uncle Ed went back to Murfreesboro and made a professional life in the funeral business establishing Roselawn Cemetery and Funeral Home. For the next 45 years, he cared for families all over Middle Tennessee with the same compassion, respect and reverence as his fallen comrades on the Normandy beach. In 1990, Ed died of a heart attack at his Church deacon’s meeting. Bill Allen was seated next to him and received his last goodby. The funeral was one of the largest in local memory.
Bill Allen is happily married, working part-time at Ed’s former funeral home, and doing God’s good work. He is a very healthy age 90.
Pharmacists Mate 3rd Class
More details of the mission can be found below. The Nova video can also be found on YouTube.
Location of the ship wreck off Pointe du Hoc
D-Day Sunken Secrets: Buy the video of the PBS documentary for $2.99 on iTunes (the LST portion of the video starts at 1 hour and five minutes).
Tennessean Article May 25, 2014
Murfreesboro Post August 13, 2013
* Landing Ship, Tank (LST), or tank landing ship, is the naval designation for vessels created during World War II to support amphibious operations by carrying vehicles, cargo, and landing troops directly onto an unimproved shore. – wikipedia
LST 325 was part of the invasion with 523 at Normandy, France. It is docked here in Nashville, Tennessee 4 September 2017. It is owned and operated by the LST Memorial.
USS LST Ship Memorial, Inc. 840 LST Drive, Evansville, IN 47713 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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