Getting the Message Through: The 56th Signal Battalion in WWII

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My Story

(The following was written and compiled initially upon request of my good friend Patrick Elie for his site, D-Day: Etat des Lieux. You can find more stories and photos there)

I entered the US Army Military Service at age 23, in May 1941 at Fort Dix, New Jersey, as a Selective Service Draftee, and spent a year in basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, assigned to the 56th Signal Battalion.

After having served four years and two months, with three years constant European overseas time, from June 1942 to July 1945, I was honorably discharged in July 1945.

I participated in the D-Day Initial Assault of Omaha Beach on the Normandy coast of France in June 1944 while serving with the 56th Signal Battalion of the First US Army, Fifth Corps as a member of a communications wire team.  

At the close of hostilities our Signal unit had reached Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, assigned the US Third Army. A distance of 1305 miles in 335 consecutive combat days.

During my military service I was the recipient of the following United States Army Official Governmental Medals and Awards:


ETO Battle Campaigns

 

THE 56TH SIGNAL BATTALION AT OMAHA BEACH - NORMANDY
INITIAL ASSAULT

The First US Army was composed of two separate Corps, the 5th and the 7th. The 5th Corps was composed of two Infantry Divisions, the1st and the 29th. Each with about 10,000 troops. Advance radio and wire teams of our Communications Signal Battalion unit with a combat strength of about 200 initial landing troops were assigned to support the action by providing communications between the 5th Corps Headquarters and the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisional Headquarters. Selected wire communications teams, loaded on separate Naval LST craft, were assigned and attached to the two Divisional Infantry Initial Assault Groups. The landings were planned to be at Omaha Beach in the vicinity of St.Laurent-sur-Mer and Colleville-sur-Mer, Sectors FOX- EASY-DOG-CHARLIE. The assigned duty of our Signal Battalion forces was to also furnish a communications link between the various support troops attached to the 5th Corps; Hospital units, Artillery, Supply, Intelligence, Anti-Aircraft, Engineering, and so on. The method of transmission by telephone during the initial assault was mostly by stranded wire, placed on the ground surface, in ditches and trees. In addition, Short range Radio also was used. That was our mission during the initial assault at Omaha Beach Easy Red sector.

THE ENGLISH CHANNEL CROSSING - JUNE 5-6, 1944
My assigned wire team was dispatched from our station in Taunton, England in the early morning hours of May 23, 1944, heading for a location unknown by most, but somehow we knew that there was no doubt that this was going to be the awaited real action. Never before did we see such readiness and total security. Our unit arrived by vehicle convoy at a tented camp in the vicinity of Truro, England at 3:30 pm. After one year of training in the USA and two long years of stationed service in the United Kingdom, the waiting and apprehension of the beginning was calmly felt by all of us. After the complete isolation period, on June 1, 1944 at 7:30 pm, our advance unit boarded LST #54 at Falmouth Bay, England and sailed for France on June 5, 1944 at 1:00 am. All troops were provided with floatation gear and vehicles were prepared for a coastal watery landing. Here at last was the beginning or an ending of a different course. My personal feeling was that no matter the outcome for me, at least it was time for the happening and there was no way I could get back to my wife and family without this event getting underway. The thought of approaching the unknown and not surviving was lost in the anxious circumstance of the moment. The rehearsal beach landings with units of the Royal Navy Academy at Dartmouth, England located at Slapton Sands in Cornwall, England during the early Winter of 1943, were now a reality.

An LST is called a Landing Ship Tank and is about as long as a football field and 50 feet wide. The front end opens with two large metal doors for loading tanks and vehicles in both the lower deck and top deck by means of an elevator. Under ideal conditions the ship usually can reach the shallow shoreline and unload the vehicles directly onto the beach shoreline.] On June 5, 1944, after a few hours en route, due to rough seas and inclement weather, the landing craft ship turned back and the entire flotilla returned to port due to bad weather and departed early in darkness the next day, June 6, 1944 on the same course. As LST#54 approached the Omaha Beach site , DUKW Radio vehicles were discharged from our ship into the waters and as they approached the shoreline, immediately began to be under heavy enemy fire, inflicting loss of life, considerable vehicle damage and radio equipment. Upon direct arrival at the Omaha Beach disembarking location in the early morning hours on June 6, 1944, due to artillery fire and the lack of estimated land penetration by our forces, our ship was forced to anchor offshore less than a mile from the Omaha Easy Red beach. Many other landing craft began to build up behind us in the area, and as I can recall, only landing ships containing tanks were permitted to approach the beachead to discharge troops and cargo. This was our crossing of the English Channel aboard LST #54 and our DDay arrival at the assault site at the shores of Normandy at Omaha Beach - Easy Red Sector [Exit E-1] with the troops of the 1st Infantry Division courageously leading the way inland.

OMAHA BEACH EASY RED SECTOR - MY FIRST LANDING
JUNE 7, 1944, 1000 Hours

On this day, as we waited for our call to approach the beach for unloading, it was apparent that our unit was held back due to the lack of our troop penetration and that again, we would not be permitted to land on this day either. In order to get some information as to the conditions ashore, as it related to our communication activities and proposed Command location, one of our officers and I decided to board and go ashore on one of the Navy Higgins craft that was going back and forth from our waiting ship, returning loaded with wounded and disoriented enemy prisoners. We dropped down from the rope ladder onto the craft and began the approach to the beach. The water was filled with debris and floating youth in the recognizable OD uniform. The tide had not yet begun to erase the oil and diluted redness of life. As we stepped off and waded onto the beach, drifting sand partially covered the results of that first day of terror, both body and machine. There was no direct small arms enemy fire, only the explosion of occasional enemy artillery round which did cause concern. We proceeded to Exit E-1, up the hill, with the damaged GERMAN WN#65 armament concrete bunker to our right and headed for St. Laurent-sur-Mer which was our intended site.

After going about a half mile inland along with the troops of the 1st Infantry Division we quickly found out that this was no place for our communications skills and lack of confrontational training. Sniper fire was always a danger and hedgerows were not always cleared of enemy resistance. We finally gave up our unsuccessful search after about 3 hours and returned back to the shore. Truckloads after truckloads of our fallen comrades were being loaded and heading somewhere for close-by burial. No proper time for fear, tear or sadness, no time to think of why. We quickly found another landing craft going back to our LST #54 and returned in company with a few hapless looking German prisoners whose war was over. It was their own wartime ending in survival, but only an anxious beginning for us, with so many unforgettable unknowns yet to be.

OMAHA BEACH EASY RED SECTOR - MY SECOND LANDING
JUNE 8, 1944, 0945 Hours

The disembarking of our Signal units from LST #54 was made on June 8, 1944 at 9:45am. The vehicles were loaded offshore to Navy Rhino vessels which were US Navy motorized mesh rafts. After loading our unit with troops and vehicles, the craft headed for the Normandy shore onto the beaches to about 3 or 4 feet of water to the area of Omaha Beach, Exit E-1. There were no cleared avenues of shoreline landings for large LST craft available due to enemy place waterline obstacles. As we approached closer, to the beach area a small pathway between the enemy placed mines and obstacles had been cleared and no difficulty with the landing was experienced. The vehicles had been previously waterproofed and were able to make shore. No visible silent body remains of our troops were in the water or on the beaches, but debris was everywhere. Clothing, boxes and equipment floated by as we approached the shore. Damaged landing craft of all descriptions were partially submerged and resting on the bottom. Our vehicles were de-waterproofed at the shoreline and the wire laying communications began to be organized immediately amid occasional enemy artillery fire.

This was our crossing of the English Channel aboard LST #54 and our landing on the shores of Normandy at Omaha Beach - Easy Red Sector [Exit E-1] along with the troops of the 1st Infantry Division. Allied Navy battleships and cruisers offshore were firing rounds far inland and the overhead roar was for us a welcome encouraging sign. There was an abundance of smoke and fire on the immediate horizon ahead. Returning enemy artillery fire continued to strike the beach area, but had lessened considerably from the first days, as we had observed from the view in our anchored landing craft. This first evening ashore, while gathered in an apple orchard in the darkness of early morning hours just off in the St. Laurent-sur-Mer Omaha Beach area, a low flying enemy air raid, of what seemed like baskets of anti-personnel bombs dropped directly overhead, caused 28 casualties of wounded and killed, to our unit alone. Our baptism to the realities of war had begun in a very short time. The roar of the overhead plane engines, the ground explosions and the returning anti-aircraft fire, all occurring at the same time, produced a fearful completely deafening sound. Surprisingly, there was no time for fright or fear in most of the members of our group as we all tried to attend and gather the injured in the darkness. This was the thought and action of war we envisioned would be and were trained for, but until it actually occurs, the real affect and reaction is hardly known.

THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE - December 16, 1944
Our Signal Battalion arrived in the city of Eupen, Belgium in October of 1944 after passing through Bastogne and Luxemburg in September 1944. The weather was getting colder and as I recall the supply lines were overextended. Gasoline was in short supply along with other food and equipment.

Our unit was quartered in a large inoperative leather processing factory and we found the inside warm quarters quite comfortable. The smell from the leather storage was a bit objectionable, but not many complaints were heard. Our unit remained there for almost three months. On the early morning hours of December 16, 1944 the sounds and dull thuds awakened a few of us as we slept. It did not take long before the sounds became more distinct and were recognized as incoming artillery. As the swishing sounds became closer we all knew that the direction was “IN”. not “OUT”. The first thought was could this Be ???
Before long, some of the explosions were in our own back yard, damaging some vehicles in our motor section. Alerting orders were issued for defense, as enemy paratroops were dropping in the area which caused problems in gathering our forces. In a few hours, my wire unit was dispatched to leave Eupen and to retreat about 10 miles to the rear and await further orders. Wire communications damage to most of the Fifth Corps units in the area were disrupted and required immediate repair at all hours. Troop movement, activity of tanks and vehicles on and off the roadways made new wire laying impossible. The snows and cold wet weather made wire communications almost hopeless to maintain. The enemy air support increased and many daytime raids and attacks were made. Air activity of fighter planes increased considerably, with loss and damage on both sides.

The capture of a parachuting enemy pilot of one of the damaged Meschersmidt planes by a couple of us was made as he dropped in an open field. Almost at once, another Me109 roared overhead at about a few hundred feet to learn the fate of his fellow airman. Covered with oil, he was not injured in spite of some 50 caliber machine shells with tracers, directed his way as he slowly parachuted down. This was not usually done, however the news of the enemy massacre at Malmedy of captured American prisoners in an open field, prompted the bitterness in this reaction in some, I am sure. For the first time since the early stages of the initial assault of Normandy our position seemed troubled with the sudden strong force of the enemy and the news of enemy troop penetration, but the success in Bastogne was welcome. The position in the Eupen area held and as the weather cleared our air support was more successful.

CONCENTRATION CAMP AT BUCHENWALD, WEIMAR, GERMANY
APRIL 1945

In early April 1945, our unit left devastated Kassel, Germany, a very heavily damaged city. The destination seemed to be directly toward Leipzig. It was suddenly changed and our communications unit joined the Third Army forces and turned sharply to the right and headed south in the direction of the Czech Republic. As we neared the city of Weimar, Germany, it brought us directly onto the concentration Camp at Buchenwald. It was apparent that the German forces had hurriedly abandoned the enclosure and the restraining gates were open, and many of those forcibly retained at the camp were confused and milling in the roadways, heading in all directions. Most were beyond the ability of movement or willingness to travel and sat dazed by the roadside, with no realization of direction or purpose. Hardly recognizable as humans, most were dressed in the easily noticeable striped rags.

Directly inside the enclosure were human stacks of gaunt and emaciated exposed naked bodies in horrible positions of death, awaiting the oven fire of final destruction. The profound smell of death prevailed the area. Too late for long awaited freedom or recovery for those piled as refuse, but the motionless mercy of death had ended their suffering. As we stared at this, our sacrifices and the price of war seemed justifiable and our purpose made clear. The feeling was in all of us that the end was near for enemy resistance. As we quickly left the area the forward troop progress was almost without interference or enemy contact, as we headed for Czechoslovakia. Our arrival in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia during the darkness of May 6, 1945 was almost one of complete triumph. German troops were surrendering by the hundreds preferring to be in Allied hands. It was our own first meeting with the Russian troops. The welcome word of the end of hostilities a few days later was a happy one and we thought of the long way home, after three long years away from the USA for most of us.