Tuesday, June 6, 2017

D-Day - Brigham City man recalls Exercise Tiger, a 'forgotten' D-Day rehearsal

Fortuitous that I found where I tucked this article away...just at this time of year.

From an article in the Box Elder News Journal, Wednesday, May 25, 1994 of an interview with my uncle, Dean Freeman, about an experience he had 73 years ago.

The eyes of the world will turn to the beaches of Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day, but its dress rehearsal Exercise Tiger--a disastrous operation that cost the lives of 749 American servicemen--has almost been forgotten in history

Along with other veterans of the incident, Dean Freeman of Brigham City knew at the time why it wasn't reported.  It would have tipped off the Germans that the Normandy invasion was imminent.  "It was top  secret.  Nobody could write home about it," said Freeman.  "We knew we were going to go ashore in France, but we had no date or place."

                                                            Dean Freeman

But why Exercise Tiger remained classified information until 1974 was a mystery.  It was another ten years before Dr. Ralph Green of Chicago, a medical officer who treated some of the survivors, wrote about it.

Exercise Tiger, involving 3,000 ships and 30,000 men in full battle dress, was the U.S. 4th Infantry Division's final practice for D-Day.  The ships sailed into the channel to practice a landing at Slapton Sands in preparation for the real thing.

What began as a drill became a death trap.  Nine German torpedo boats operating out of occupied France happened onto eight LSTs (landing ship, tanks) that were part of the convoy.

On April 28, 1944, Captain Dean Freeman was on the upper deck of an LST of Convoy T-4, when shortly before 2 a.m. the two LSTs following it were struck by torpedoes.  He heard an explosion, that was all.

"I was the officer on duty on deck.  It was quite a ways behind, and I wasn't sure what was happening," said Freeman.  "We didn't know until morning.  The sound wasn't that unusual; every night there were German planes and anti-aircraft action."

With records declassified, now it is known what happened.  German boats, traveling at 40 miles per hour, darted about the lumbering LSTs which moved at about 5 mph.  Two LSTs were sunk and a third was damaged in 30 minutes.

The final toll of 551 soldiers and 298 sailors dead and 89 wounded made Exercise Tiger the most deadly U.S. training exercise during World War II.

"They went down within a few minutes.  There was one strange story.  One company commander and one sergeant were blown out the hole where the torpedo went in, and they both lived.  The explosion of the torpedo inside blew them right out the hole."

Most aboard the ships weren't so fortunate.  Of about 1,000 men in Freeman's battalion, 230 lost their lives.

"After it happened, we went back to the staging area for 20 to 30 days.  There was a building set up for a morgue, and a month was spent trying to identify what bodies had been recovered.  It was a terrible job," he said.

A number of errors worsened the tragedy.  Only one British ship guarded the convoy and a typographical error caused American ships to tune to the wrong radio frequency.

Men buckled flotation belts around their waists instead of under their arms.  Loaded with field packs, rifles, ammunition and steel helmets, many who jumped into the water turned upside down and were found floating feet up.

Since the operation had been a full rehearsal for D-Day, all but the men's personal gear had been taken along.  Military and payroll records went down with the ships, so it was a scramble to put those records together.

Freeman continued, "One odd thing, all those records of men and officers were in a waterproof box in one of the vehicles on the LSTs that went down."

"After landing on the continent we made new records.  about four months after D-Day, they brought the mail and there was the box, with records readable although it was burnt all over on the outside.  It was found floating down the channel to Plymouth Harbor."

On June 6, 1944, Freeman landed on Utah Beach with the rest of the 577th Quartermaster Battalion.  They climbed over the sides of the LSTs to LCVPs (landing craft, vehicles, personnel) which held 30 to 40 people.

When the LCVP got close to the beach, the front dropped and soldiers headed onto the beach as the engines went into reverse and headed out to sea.

Water was anywhere in depth from "knees to armpits or higher" said Freeman, who held his arms up to show how weapons were carried "any way you could."

"We had lifejackets, kind of wrap-arounds, with CO2 tubes to inflate.  We used those later as air mattresses in the bottom of fox holes," he added with a grin.

Utah Beach was all flooded for about a mile due to dikes erected by the Germans, so they waded for about a mile inland.  German pillboxes above had pretty well been taken out by shelling, bombing and paratroopers.

"Our assignment was to keep the beach open, so Patton and all the others could come in.  As an administrative and quartermaster unit, we were responsible for getting rations, gasoline, and ammunition to personnel in the field," he added.

He went on to Cherbourg, France, and later to Liege, Belgium, where he was stationed when the war ended.

Spending Thanksgiving Day on the train, he arrived home in late November 1945--two years from the time he departed for Europe in 1943.  It was the first time he had seen his son, born a month after his departure.  His wife Florence had remained in Logan with an aunt.

Although he had been a member of the local National Guard unit that went to war together, Freeman enrolled in ROTC at Utah State Universidy and was called up the day after his graduation in June 1942.  He attended officers school in Wyoming and Georgia prior to assignment in England.

Until an article about Exercise Tiger appeared recently, Freeman said, "I had never seen anything in print, except a little article a few years ago.  I guess there was a documentary on television on April 28, but I missed it."

Although he wouldn't have come forward with his story without urging by his wife, Freeman is glad Exercise Tiger is getting some attention and those who lost their lives are being honored.

On the 50th anniversary of Exercise Tiger, Americans went to Slapton Sands for services at the cemetery and then dropped a wreath in the channel for those who went down with the boats.

1 comment:

Conny Young said...

I have two uncles who were in the D-DAY invasion. Both were wounded. After a week they were still pinned down. Thanks for the article