L.C.I. (L) #85
Note: Written by the Washington Times Associate Editor Coit Hendley, who was the Commanding Officer of the L.C.I. (L) 85 as it landed troops on Omaha Beach during D-Day. He earned the Silver Star and the French Croix de Guerre for his role there.
I was 23 years old, a lieutenant (jg) in the U. S. Coast Guard and commanding officer of the LCI (L) 85 (Landing Ship Infantry - Large). The ship carried four officers and a crew of 30
We started out from Orange, Texas in February 1943, where the ship was built, went to North Africa before the Germans were defeated there; invaded Sicily and Salerno, Italy, from a base in Bizerte; then went to dry dock in Tunis for an overhaul. By October 1943 we were headed for the port of Falmouth, England. That marked the beginning of the experience called D-Day
My ship the LCI (L) 85, was to beach at H plus 120 - two hours after the initial assault. As we approached, there was no immediate sign of trouble. There were flashes from various warships shelling the shore, plus a few black puffs of shell fire at the water's edge.
Closer to the beach we saw signs that the landing was not going to be easy. A great number of small craft were drifting out of control and shot to pieces. The entire beach area was covered with heavy smoke. The sector where we were to land was blocked by sunken LCT's and by a confused mess of small craft which were abandoned, broached or hung up on obstacles covered with mines.
The control vessel for Easy Red Beach hailed us as we approached the point of departure (10 minutes from the beach) and directed us to go in.
I was on the conning tower with Ensign Harold C. Mersheimer and an enlisted man, but I can't remember who he was. It might have been George Lott. Charles O. Mc Whirter chief quartermaster, was below me in the pilot oust with several other crew members. Mc Whirter was at the helm.
My executive officer, Lt (jg) Arthur Farrar, was on the bow. He was responsible for the ramps and forward winches and was in charge of getting the troops off the ship.
The engineering officer, Paul M. Petit, was on the stern in charge of the stern anchor, designed to be dropped as we ran in to the beach and used to get us off again.
I spotted an opening and headed in. But we grounded some distance from the beach.
Four tanks were on the sand directly in front of us. Three were burning and the fourth seemed to have been hit. Every now and then the fourth fired, but it was at long intervals. A thin line of troops was stretched out face down at the water line firing at the Germans.
Now there is a nice little thing about an LCI (L) that occurs at this point. It has to do with the man rope.
The idea was that as the ramps go down, a member of the crew dashes off the ship, carrying a small anchor attached to a rope (or small line as the Coast Guard called it). He makes it to the beach and plants the anchor and the soldiers have a line to help them wade through the water. They are carrying up to 50 pounds of gear and the men had been lost in other invasions when they stepped in holes and couldn't get back to their feet with all that weight on their backs.
Well, Seaman Gene Oxley had volunteered for that duty, Oxley went down the ramp and stepped into water over his head. The ship was stuck on some sort of obstacle, It was impossible to disembark troops at this point of the beach.
Oxley was hauled aboard and the ramps taken in. As the ship was backing away from the beach, a shell hit amidships and went into number three troop compartment.
"We could hear the screams of the men through the voice tube" Quartermaster Mc Whirter recalled.
That was the only hit we suffered on this beaching, but we didn't have time to make a count of casualties. The beach battalion doctors went to work.
The engineering officer managed to get the stern anchor in, but the winch spittered out and he never got it going again. We went down the beach about 100 yeard and there seemed to be one spot clear of debris. We beached again, this time without the stern anchor.
As the bow hit the sand, a mine went off just under the bow, splitting a forward compartment. We go the port ramp over and Seaman Oxley again took the man rope to the beach. This time the water was about chest deep. He crawled through the obstacles and hauled on the line until there was a strain on it. Several soldiers on the water's edge stopped firing to help him steady the line. One soldier with a bazooka was right under the bow of the ship firing rockets at a pill box up further on the beach.
The troops began to disembark. Shells had been bouncing near the ship the time we were coming into the beach. There was heave machine gun fire. We were unable to get the starboard ramp down because of the heavy fire on that side. Then shells began hitting the ship.
I remember waving to two friends - an Army officer and a Navy lieutenant - who were standing on deck just below the pilot house. A shell hit, killing them both and wounding a number of other men.
About two thirds of the troops managed to make it to the beach before a shell finished off the ramp. It went over the side taking all the men with it.
Lt. (jg) Farrar was on the ramp helping the soldiers when the shell grazed his left thigh resulting in a large flesh wound. When I was hit I looked back and saw a hole the size of my head in the hull where the shell had gone through the ship without exploding.
The ramp began to turn over. I pulled a wounded man up on the ramp and held on to him. We could not climb the ramp and got dunked several times. By this time another wounded man was clinging to the ramp. I tried to pull a third man up, but he had a death grip on a lower stanchion and I could not break his hold. After it became apparent that he couldn't be saved, I let him go. When the ship stopped, I crawled up and Hesselgren (Boatswain's Mate Rudolph D. Hesselgren) helped me get them on deck. One of the men was dead when we brought him on board.
I backed the LCI (L) off the beach again after the ramp went overboard. Small boats came along side and took off the remaining troops.
Fires had started in three forward compartments. Our damage control party put them out. The ship was listing from the water coming in through the shell holes and the damage done by the mine. I went down on the deck and made a quick check of casualties with Simon Mauro, our Pharmacist's mate. We had 15 dead and 30 wounded The other casualties were from the beach battalion.
Our radio man was in the worst shape. His name was Gordon R. Arneberg. A shell exploded in the radio shack, wrecking everything and cutting Arneberg's leg off. The crew dragged him out. I found his leg lying on the deck and kept walking around it. Finally, one of the crew with more guts than I had kicked it over the side.
I decided to get the wounded to a hospital ship and we slowly made our way to the transport area and went along side the USS Samuel Chase. We got the wounded aboard and the officer of the deck on Chase said I would have to take the dead back to the shore for burial. I told him we would never make it and we would never know who these dead men were. He relented and took the dead also.
We backed away from the Chase and a salvage tug (AT 89) came along side to help us. We tried to pump the compartments but the water was coming in too fast. She slowly settled by the bow and began turning over on her side. We scrambled up on the tug.
The ship floated for a short while with just her stern showing. The tug sent over a small boat with demolition charges to finish her off. That was the end of the LCI (L) 85.
The crew huddled together in one place on the deck of the tug. I sat down away from then. I found myself crying and a great feeling of guilt came over me. I felt that I was to blame for the deaths and wounding of all those men. It was several years before those feelings faded. (Transcribers note. As a rifle platoon leader with the First Infantry Division in Viet Nam, I can honestly relate to those feelings. When men under your command are killed or wounded, the sense of guilt and responsibility does indeed fade with time, but at least for me, they never completely go away.)
Gene Oxley, the seaman who had taken the man rope down the ramp, was left on the beach when we backed off the second time. He dug into the sand for a while and then climbed aboard an LCT which had unloaded and was backing out.
As the LCT got clear of the beach, one of her gunners turned his 20 mm gun on a pillbox up the slope a short distance. This pillbox came right back at him and in three minutes the LCT was sinking.
Oxley jumped over the stern and was picked up by a small boat that delivered him to the LCI (L) 93, another ship in the Coast Guard Flotilla commanded by Lt. (jg) Budd B. Bornhoft.
Bornhoft told me that his ship had landed at 10 a.m. and unloaded troops without being hit, possible because he went into an area where several ships were burning and the heave smoke provided cover.
He went out to the transport area and got another load of soldiers. This time he ran into trouble. When he was on the beach, 16 men from the LCI 487 came aboard after the soldiers were off. The 487 was burning a short distance away.
Lt. Bornhoft said the men running up the ramps must have attracted shore batteries. The guns found the range and 10 direct hits later, one man was killed and eleven wounded. They abandoned the 93 and she burned of the beach.
Oxley jumped off the stern, once again, and was picked up by a small boat from the Destroyer Doyle, which was close in firing at the beach defenses.
We all made it back to a survivors camp in Plymouth within a few days, including Oxley.
My father back in South Carolina was at a movie and saw a newsreel of my ship sinking and the announcer also said that all hands were lost. My father was stunned and spent a week trying to get information from the Coast Guard headquarters.
I worked for the Washington Star before the war, and sent them an eye-witness report about D-Day immediately after the landings. When my story arrived in Washington, the managing editor Herb Corn called my father to tell him I was safe.