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A Mile in Their Shoes

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© 2014, Aaron Elson

Tiger Burning

Angelo Crapanzano, LST 507, Exercise Tiger survivor

May 2, 1994

    Angelo Crapanzano: There were like 20,000 guys involved in Tiger, and I donít know if youíre aware of it but previous to Tiger, they started in January having these dress rehearsals, youíre aware of that? There were two or three before us, one was Beaver, I forgot the other names. So what happened is they never had any problems.

    So then we come along. One of the reasons, I think, I read this someplace, that the first three exercises had no problems was because when they had their exercises, the English Channel was pretty rough, the water, right. Rough waterís not good for E-boats. They want calm water.

    So what happens, when itís time for Tiger, the water was like a lake. So, these eight LSTs, weíre the T-4 part of this whole thing.

    Aaron Elson: Iíll tell you something, if you donít mind my interrupting. I interviewed today an antiaircraft gunner who was on the beach, he had been I guess in the first wave, he said it was the most beautiful day he had seen in a long time.

    Angelo Crapanzano: Well what the hell, it was April 28th. You know, the English Channel can be like a lake, and also it can be rougher and nastier than the Atlantic Ocean when it whips up. You can go from one extreme to the other. A lot of people donít realize how rough the English Channel can get.

    So what happened, like I said, there were eight LSTs, the first five LSTs came out of another port, Iím not sure where, and they went out into the Channel and waited. Now around dusk, the three LSTs, the 507 that I was on, and the other two were I think the 531, Iím not sure about the third, so when it came time for us to go out and rendezvous with them, they had two British corvettes to escort us out. When we got out there and lined up, right, the two British corvettes turned around and went back to England. That was No. 1. A lot of us were wondering why these ships were going back, where the hell is our escort.

    So we ended up really, there was one escort ship, it was about a mile in front of the lead ship, so the sides are wide open in effect. My ship, the 507, is the last ship in line, which is uh-uh, bad. Thatís how they hit them. But you know, the whole thing youíve got to remember is this, the important thing is that nobody ever even suspected that a thing like this would happen, No. 1. And the element of surprise was devastating. Plus No. 2, what made it bad is that itís 2 oíclock in the morning, itís dark, you donít know where you are. I mean, we didnít know where we were, maybe the guy in the wheelhouse more or less knew, because they read charts and stuff. So we lined up, and then, I have to tell you my particular part of this thing is that, wait a minute now, let me get this in my mind straight, all right, so we take off ó oh, the day before this operation, I received a tetanus booster shot. A few of the other fellows did too, not everybody, they go according to your chart. The last time Iíd had a tetanus shot was when I was in boot camp, that was the first time I ever had a tetanus shot. And when I got the tetanus shot in boot camp, I ended up sick and with a 104 ever. So they gave me this booster shot, and the next day, as weíre approaching to go out with this thing, I started to feel funny and I could feel my pulse going and I said, "Holy Christ, donít tell me Iím gonna get sick again." And I was a little concerned because I had the midnight to 4 in the morning watch in the engine room, the main engine room, because I was a motor machinists mate first class, diesel engine. I went to Richmond, Virginia to school. I went eight weeks to primary school and my marks were good, and they sent me to five weeks advanced school, and I got two stripes out of that, I was a petty officer second class coming out of school, and then I made first class when we went overseas.

    So anyhow, I knew I was getting a fever, I said "Oh my god," so I was concerned about it.

    Now this is the afternoon before this fiasco. And then itís approaching midnight, so I knew I had to go down to the engine room, regardless. So I went down in the engine room, and we were under way, it was midnight. When I went down my engineering officer was down there, his name was Smith, and I told him that, well I didnít tell him ó you canít ó when youíve got two big 12-cylinder diesel engines running full speed they scream. You have to wear cotton in your ears, and you cannot talk, you either read lips or motion, whatever, and I told him I donít feel good, I feel like Iíve got a fever. So he says, "Go up to the pharmacistís mate."

    I go up to the pharmacistís mate, and he takes my temperature, sure enough, 104. So he says, "What the hell are you doing out of your bunk?"

    I said, "Iíve got the 12 to 4 watch."

    "No," he says. "Go down and tell the engine room officer I told you that you should go to your bunk."

    So I go back down to the engine room, and I tell him, so he says, "All right, Iíll cover you." So I go up to the crewís quarters ó this is odd, I got this weird feeling that where the hell is my Mae West life jacket? Like somebody told me, you know, it never happened to me before, and we had plenty of general quarters drills. And when you have general quarters drills itís mandatory you wear your life jacket and if youíre topside youíve got to wear your hat. But we were down below, no hat, just the life jacket ... and I start looking for my life jacket, right, and theyíre thrown all over the place, on top of the lockers, under the lockers, and Iím looking, Iím looking, and I find it, itís all full of dust. My name, I had "Crappy" was on it, because everybody called me Crappy. Theyíve been calling me Crappy since grammar school, for Chrissake. So I grab my life jacket, I take it over to my bunk, and I lay it right on my bunk. And I lay down, I must have gone to sleep. And I donít know how long I was sleeping, but all of a sudden, general quarters was sounded. So I jumped up, and without even hesitating I grabbed my life jacket and started running for the engine room, and Iím lacing it up, and as Iím going down the ladder I hear guns going boom-boom-boom, 40-millimeter, I said, "What the hell is this?" So I figure well, itís an exercise, a drill. So when I get down to the engine room I said to my engineer, "Whatís going on?"

    Aaron Elson: So you went down to the engine room?

    Angelo Crapanzano: Oh yeah, I had to. When they sound general quarters, I mean youíve got to be dead not to go. I went down. So now itís about twenty minutes to two, something like that. So my job in general quarters was up in the front of the engine room where they have the enunciators for the wheelhouse, when they change the speeds, well, that was my job, making the change of speeds and then recording it in a log. Now that log is very important in the Navy, in case two ships have an accident or this or that, the first thing they want to see is the log and the speeds. And Iím getting all these changes of speed, saying, "What the hellís going on?" Full speed, half-speed, stop. Quarter speed. And Iím writing all these things, and the last thing I remember writing, because I know exactly when we got hit, I was writing 2:03, everything went black. This terrific roar, and itís so unexpected, you know what I mean. Who the hell thought, and I didnít know what the hell happened, but I got this sensation of flying up, back, and when I came down I must have bumped my head someplace and must have been out for a few seconds, because I felt cold on my legs. I come to. When I come to, this is pitch black now, because the torpedo went in the auxiliary engine room which is just forward of the main engine room, and the only thing between the auxiliary and the main is a bulkhead that thick [about an inch] that was steel, thatís it. And Iím standing up by that bulkhead because Iím in the forward part.

    Aaron Elson: Now a bulkhead...

    Angelo Crapanzano: A bulkhead in the Navy is a wall. Any separation, like a partition. So I come to, and itís black as hell, and then I says Iím in the engine room, and I knew the engine room like the palm of my hand. I knew I had to go forward and to either corner, and there was an escape ladder, either side. Thatís what I did. I ran to the ladder and I went up. When I got topside, I couldnít believe what I saw. The ship was burning. The ship was split in half this way, hereís the front and the rear was split in half like that, and burning, fire went from the bow all the way back to the wheelhouse. The only thing that wasnít burning was the stern part. And the water all around the ship was burning, because the fuel tanks ruptured, and the oil sent into the water. On the tank deck we had ten or twelve, no more, fifteen Army ducks [DKWS], and every Army duck had the cans of gasoline on them, and all that was going into, so it was like an inferno.

    And then the panic, the soldiers were going nuts, and you couldnít blame them because theyíre not trained for disasters, for survival at sea. Theyíre trained for land, for fighting. A lot of them were jumping over the side immediately without even waiting for the captain to say abandon ship, they went over, they were jumping off, a lot of the soldiers, the ship was so crowded with personnel, because every LST had about two, three hundred Army personnel with all the vehicles, this was a real dress rehearsal, thatís like the real thing. They had to do that for the guys to get used to the ships, where the heads were, how to go to eat. A lot of them ate their C-rations and stuff like that. Also, how to dog down their equipment so it doesnít roll and slip. It was so crowded that a lot of the soldiers were sleeping topside on their vehicles. When the torpedo hit, a lot of these guys got blown right into the water. There was even small jeeps that got blown into the water. Itís an inferno, and the only place, like I said, that wasnít burning was the stern. So I ran back there.

    Now thereís a bunch of guys back there, weíre all there together, and everybodyís wondering what the hell happened, what the hellís going on? In the meantime, while weíre standing there, the 531 gets two torpedoes and it goes down in about ten minutes. There had to be only, they claim that maybe ten or twelve guys got off of that ship. It went down fast. Two, I mean two, thatís bad. Now, the captain yells to the gunnery officer, "Empty the magazines of all the 40-millimeter shells" because that was in the rear, he was worried that it was gonna get so hot it would blow the whole thing. So we formed a line and they were passing, and we were throwing them over the side. You know how long that lasted? About ten minutes, thatís all. He said, "Abandon ship!" He knew that it was bad.

    So this is tough, because a thousand things are running through your mind at one time [choking up].

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