©2003, 2009 Colin Charland, Chad Charland, and Claire Ashford
Boarding the troop ship SS DOMINION MONARCH, Port of Embarkation New York City, March 3, 1944
Goodbye and farewell New York City, U.S.A., and the Charland family. Bound for destiny and glory – Ha!
The time is 4:00 in the morning of Tuesday, March 3, 1944. The place is New York Harbor. Our British cargo ship – the "luxurious" troop ship "Dominion Monarch" – slips out of New York Bay to join her convoy somewhere out in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean destined for God knows where – the Mediterranean area, Italy maybe? Or else the United Kingdom? Bets were made. All of us who picked England, of course, won. I made $50 on that deal and I ain’t no gambler, but for some reason or other I won this one.
Fifty dollars and nowhere to spend it. If we were lucky on this trip and not torpedoed by a Kraut sub, I’d spend it in the United Kingdom.
In the port of embarkation in New York, we boarded the ship in total secrecy at night. No lights, no noise or fanfare. Sometime later we were allowed up on deck and to our shock, we were in the Atlantic Ocean surrounded by other ships in a convoy.
As we looked out to sea, we could see faintly the lights of the port of New York City far off on the horizon. I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. God knows when I would see New York City again and the Statue of Liberty with that upraised torch. God knows, maybe never. I fought the tears. Nineteen years old and here I was going to fight a war wherever that was. I only hoped that I’d do my duty as a good soldier and not fail myself or my pals and the Regiment. I had volunteered to join this man’s army. I felt I got my wish good or bad. Now it felt like sink or swim (a little humor here). I would need all the humor I could get in the next couple of years. In such a situation as this in the world, I felt there was more deadly business and suffering than humor. I don’t think there were many of our guys my age group in the company that felt like this until they were hit with it – the grim reality.
A lot of us in "G" Co. were going to be casualties, I knew. I wonder if I’ll be one of them. One couldn’t help but have this sick feeling. The trick now was to rise up above all this or you would "flip." Think of something else – girls, that’s it – girls – new girls – England – what fun we’re going to have – leave the old girls in the States for new and fresh ones overseas. Maybe the war wouldn’t be so grim and bad after all.
Thinking like this, a young kid kind of buried the seriousness of it all for a while. It made the whole event somewhat numb and distant. We would awaken soon enough.
As I remember, the first couple of days were a bit rough, weather wise. I did see some whales out at sea for the first time in my life. It was quite an experience. Maybe they’d join the convoy. There were quite a few of them. We were also surrounded by quite a few other ships. I had some field glasses so I began to focus on them. To our left was a freighter with all kinds of cargo on its deck; it looked liked vehicles of all types and some artillery pieces. In front of it was a oil tanker. Behind us was a small carrier with aircraft on it and an ammo ship, a couple of other oil tankers and a number of destroyers and corvettes to offer protection. I was hoping we wouldn’t have to use them and would get to England intact. I sure would have hated to be attacked and have our ship sunk before getting a chance to fight the Germans on land. What an unlucky end that would be, not to mention drowning or being food for hungry sharks.
Most of the days on board ship were spent in reading, playing poker, just gazing at the ocean and shooting dice. No one that I knew got seasick. The ship voyage wasn’t too bad; I saw a few dolphins leaping along with the ship which was fun to watch. Next day we spotted the wreckage of a ship that probably had been sunk. Boxes, wood crates, deck chairs and an oil slick covered quite an area of the sea. This created a lot of misgivings and concern. We all were more than impatient to get to the U.K.
We had the excitement of seeing the destroyers cutting in and out of the ships, watching for subs. The naval gun crews had some gun firing exercises with twin 40 mm Bofors on the gun mounts and other powerful weapons called "Pom Poms"; they sounded real rapid fire. My pal and I hoped a few German planes would show up for this reception.
We got a number of U–Boat alerts; several at night indicating that we were being followed by a U–Boat pack. The ship’s sirens would go off and we all had to put on those oversized life saver vests called Mae Wests and line up on deck, just in case of a torpedo attack. But thank God, we got through it okay. I didn’t relish thrashing around in that cold ocean water, especially at night, to drown or be eaten by a happy, hungry shark. Anyway, the fact that no ships in the convoy were attacked is a miracle.
Another incident happened a few miles off the Irish coast. We were visited by two Focke–Wulf "Condors," four-engine commerce raiders on a "welcome committee." These planes were used to attack transport ships. They were stationed at the French Atlantic coast for that purpose. We were on deck when the sirens started in and the Navy gun crew jumped to the 40 mm gun mounts and started shooting as they approached.
They came in between the ship lanes a few feet from the sea waves. They were close enough to see the pilots in the planes and gun turrets. This was my first view of enemy aircraft. Instead of being scared, I was really excited and amazed to see my first action. Bill and I were both very excited at all this danger. Boy! What a show! We didn’t realize how bad it could be. When both the planes reached the end of the convoy, they started up for altitude and then to head back again. Some of the Bofors 40 mms hit one of the aircraft in the wing, tearing it off. The other got a blast in the engine which started to smoke. The one with the torn-off wing crashed into the sea. The men cheered. The other decided this was enough and headed back to its base in France. We hoped he wouldn’t make it back. His engines were smoking badly. He was under intensive fire all the way by every ship and the escort of destroyers and corvettes.
We saw them fishing the survivor out of the drink. So that was the excitement for the day for me and Bill and pretty sure the others. Two or three days later, we pulled into Liverpool and then went by train to our base camp at Kidderminster near Chepstowe Castle, Wales, at a place called Kinlet Hall, a large baronial estate turned over to the U.S. Army for a camp.
From there we went into extensive and intensive training and maneuvers for the big day when we would prepare to do mortal battle with "the dirty satanic Kraut." Bill and I were itching to mix it up. Our training was really hard and took a lot out of us, but it really conditioned and toughened us up. I’ll swear Wales is full of hills, just right for forced marches, a 25-mile hike with a sixty pound backpack and all the rest of the gear. You talk about feeling bushed and beat! Running up and down those mounds would tax the strongest man, I’d wager. The U.S. Army really knew where to establish a training camp.
In our activity, we learned how to make booby traps (that was fun to do). Me and some others would set pranks with them but no one got hurt, Just scared to death. Also, they taught us how to neutralize mines. That was a real challenge, but was a very good thing to know in combat situations. This together with hand–to–hand fighting, bayonet, rifle range, mock battles, etc. was our schedule. We were sometimes too fagged out to go on pass. That’s how severe the training was. If I did this today, they’d bury me. Those Welsh hills are not little ones; they are huge and it rained just about every day.
At the end of May of the year 1944, we left our camp at Kinlet Hall and embarked by train to our new camp called Camp Race Track, which it was in peace time, near the port of Cardiff in Wales, for further training for the impending invasion. All passes and leaves were cancelled – for how long, we didn’t know. I felt like I was in prison.
The Army as usual didn’t tell us anything. We learned of things through the rumor mill which most of the time was in error, but sensational. It gave you something to pass the time of day. One rumor had it we were going to invade Norway or Holland. The guys who said these things were probably guys who didn’t know where these places were anyway. We, most of us smart guys, said France; others said they were canceling the whole thing and were going back to the States. That one brought a lot of laughs.
No letters could be written home or anywhere. I imagined how the folks felt when they didn’t hear from the members of the family. It must have been a terrible strain. I know my mother and the others of the family must have been worried sick with fear. My mom didn’t get news from me until the middle of June at the height of the Campaign. In fact, she heard first from the War Department that her son was wounded in combat then later she heard from me.
The camp at the racetrack was heavily guarded by the military police. So you see, no one could slip out without being seen and if they did, they’d get shot in the bargain by the MPs. Most of the time was spent in playing cards, shooting dice, reading, and in my case, drawing pictures – being an artist – and brushing up on my native language, French. The platoon leader, Lt. Brotherton, established me as company interpreter. The only one in the company of what, 150 men, who could speak and read French. Well, I had one advantage.
While here we had courses in orientation and visualization, German combat tactics, aircraft recognition and spotting, and of course, artillery, tanks and other Allied and German vehicles, maps and reading the compass, first aid, mines and booby traps, etc. So all this got rid of the boredom and being I was good at building aircraft models and had an interest in enemy and allied planes, I was made company spotter.
I asked the Lieutenant if by inheriting these two exalted positions, I would get an NCO grade. "I’ll bring it up to the CO" he said and laughed. I just mentioned it as a joke. Lt. H. Brotherton was a hell of a good leader. I always got along with him. He was a pretty brave man as well. He survived the war but died later on due to illness. He was from Texas. He promised to visit me after this war was over in New York City, but I never saw him again after that. It is a very sad thing that in war and especially in times of danger, you always lose men you valued as friends and had a lot of respect and affection for that you’ll never forget. There is an ancient Arabic or Saracen saying that "Affection and respect for a friend and a horse is eternal, but for a woman is temporary." A lot of people would deny this, but I read this once in a history of the Crusades. A woman would call this chauvinistic, of course.
Finally, the day we were all awaiting with a lot of anxiety and apprehension arrived. 2nd Battalion got all the companies together and announced we were all going to break up camp and ship out to the POE of Cardiff, Wales, in preparation to launch the long awaited invasion of Europe on the Cotentin Peninsula, Normandy, France. We would leave Cardiff on the SS Explorer, a converted freighter, go down the Severn River out to sea, around Lands End and then into the English Channel where we would arrive at the point of getting into the landing craft with other units and follow up to the main invasion which would end at Normandy at Utah Beach, what a weird name, which would be on D–Day on June 6th.
Our division, the 90th, together with other units and support groups would land on or about D+1 or 2 at Utah. We were the follow–up group and were expected to arrive on or about the 7th or 8th. We would embark on the ship on June 1st to allow us enough time to get there as the invasion was in progress. So this is it. We expected it sooner or later, but the news left some of us in some rude awakening. Some of us were apprehensive and nervous and others were really elated, though most of us were glad to finally come to grips with the damned Germans and get the job done as soon as possible. We were all confident of the outcome and then wondered what it would be like and how many of us would get wounded or worse still – killed. Everyone was lost in their own feelings. It was near lunch time and I had lost my appetite, but I remember smoking a lot. It was the old cliche again: Hurry up and wait. I thought this had to be the biggest event in my life and maybe a short one at that.
After the anticipated announcement, Bill and I and the others of "G" Company headed back to our barracks or Quonset huts made of corrugated steel sides with windows which reminded me of the Iroquois Indian Long House back in New York State during the early colonial days, except the Indian huts were made of wood and birch bark for the sides. I wonder why this piece of American Indian trivia came to my mind. Funny the things you think about which didn’t make any difference one way or the other – just a passing thought.
We ate lunch and then checked our equipment and last minute details and waited for the time, days maybe, when we would finally leave "jolly old England" for the serious matters ahead. Someone started to sing "There’ll be Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover," a popular war song when war broke out in 1939, and the old World War I song by Irving Berlin "Over There," "Don’t Fence Me in," even the Marine Hymn and other songs. Many of us felt a little affected by it and somewhat sad. Then someone sang "Oh, How I Hate to Get up in the Morning" and everybody laughed. Most everyone seemed lost in contemplation. I asked myself, looking around, just how many of us would be around the next few days – maybe not even me or Bill. I thought how short life is. It would be D–Day for a lot of us. I tried to shake the thought from my mind. I stretched out in my bunk and slowly fell asleep, a restless dead sleep.
On the morning of June 1st, we finally received the orders to pack up our gear, rifles, grenades, machine guns, etc. We were finally moving out to the port of Cardiff, Wales. Everybody piled into the train which would take us to our destination and the ship that eventually would get us to the war zone and the beachhead landing at Utah.
Everyone was excited and nervous, except for some iron-nerved guys, who were overjoyed with the news. I’m wondering how many of those overjoyed guys would change their tune when they heard those German guns and their reception committee. It amused the hell out of me. They sounded like a bunch of overjoyed kids going to a football game or high school dance. We finally boarded the train and off to the POE, Cardiff. We finally got there, disembarked and lined up at the pier where the American troop ship SS Explorer, a converted freighter, was waiting for us.
This was the big day for us all. It wasn’t a bad looking ship as ships go. It had big gun emplacements on the side armed with 40 mm Bofors and guns they call Pom-Poms which looked like six-barreled guns which fired one round after another in succession. They were manned by U.S. Navy personnel.
People waved at us as we prepared to get aboard through a big opening on the side of the ship with a gangway leading in. We filed into the ship two by two with all our gear, rifles, ammo, light machine guns, etc. I felt like a pack mule. It seemed forever for everyone to get on Noah’s Ark. Besides men, they took on some trucks, light artillery pieces and some light tanks, and supplies of all sorts in crates, etc.
We were in the hold of the ship and then assigned to bunks. Each company had their own area. No sooner had we loaded than we started out to sea. Later on, we were allowed on deck. The view was unforgettable. We were in the Irish sea, but it might as well be the North Atlantic as far as we knew. We could see the English coastline disappear from view. We had picked up some other ships in the convoy. There were American and British destroyers going in and out of the ship lanes on the lookout for U–Boats but none showed up.
That night I was so damned tired out, I lay down and slipped off to sleep. I woke up later and Bill and I went up on deck. It was pitch black. We couldn’t see a thing except for vague shapes of ships and the phosphorous spray leaping up in the waves. Every once in a while, we could see signal lights flickering off and on. I kept thinking if you were only lucky to fall overboard, they’d never find you. Bill said, "You’re so damned right. Let’s go below deck. We can’t see anything anyway."
On June 6th, I woke up in the morning with a radio turned to "Armed Forces Radio" giving the latest news of the Normandy Invasion and Lord Haw–Haw, the British traitor from Berlin. There was some good and bad news. The Fourth Division had made a successful landing at Utah Beach with minimum loses. The 82nd Airborne and the 101st and Glider Troops had air landed before D–Day to make way for the seaborne landings to follow on June 6th. The bad and ugly news was at a landing place called "Omaha," where our forces, the 1st Division and 29th, had a tough time and were bogged down at the beach landing. Casualties were very heavy.
What’s going to happen when it’s our turn to land at Utah? I hoped to God we make it and I wondered with anxiety what was happening to our airborne forces inland. All in all, everything was tense.
On June 3rd or 4th, we got into our Mae Wests (life preservers) and had a fire drill. Then with full gear, we practiced going over the rail of the ship and descended the rope hemp ladders just as if we were climbing down into the landing crafts. We were getting used to doing it in preparation for the actual landing, so everyone knew what to expect. It gave me a weird and scary feeling going over the side of the ship with the seas going up and down and wetting my legs in the channel. We practiced this every day till we got to the actual landing area.
We had to wear our Mae Wests at all times until we got there. This so far was uneventful. No U–Boat attacks, but I have a feeling we were being tracked. How could they miss a target this large, and no appearance of the powerful Luftwaffe. I kept thinking of the German Condor raid on our convoy during our trip to England back in March. I’m sure glad they forgot to show up or couldn’t. I looked up into the skies. I had binoculars so I focused in on them – they looked like British Sunderlands and PBYs. What a beautiful sight, those planes were. Especially the Sunderlands painted a sky blue bottom and off white. Well, we sure had our "lookouts" for us. Being an aircraft buff, I wished I were up in one of those planes instead of a member of the "Queen of Battle" or an infantryman, which was the lowest of the low "cannon fodder" and the "expendibles." Ha!
I told Bill while looking at the planes, "There go the specialists, the falcons of the air."
Bill looked at me and said, "You’re not satisfied with anything. You found a home in the infantry."
"Yeah," I said, in a tone of sarcasm.