Oral History-Invasion of Normandy, 6 - 25 June 1944
Recollections of Lieutenant James West Thompson, USN
Recollections of Lieutenant James West Thompson, USN, a Stores Officer on LST-505 at Omaha Beach during the Normandy Invasion.
Adapted from: James West Thompson memoir "LST
505 in WWII," provided by RADM Thomas G. Lilly, SC USNR
(Ret) and reproduced by the Naval Historical Foundation Memorial
Program in 2001. Posted on this website with the author's permission.
The [tank landing ship] LST 505 loaded up several days before the invasion at Plymouth, England at one of numerous concrete loading areas known as "Hards," especially constructed for use in this area of hugely varying high and low tides. We took about 445 officers and men and spent a number of days in this crowded condition. We did not know when it began, but all of our outgoing mail to families back home had been held up for some time. Living conditions aboard ship were not at all happy. Our tank deck and main deck were both filled with various trucks and motor vehicles but did not include any tanks.
Finally on June 4 we set out for the landing in France. The weather was heavily overcast and the seas rather rough, and we had not proceeded far before we received orders to return to port at Plymouth. There we waited until the next day, when we again set out on the same course to the east. During the night we turned south toward the French coast, and I can remember making out the Cotentin Peninsula in the dim light, off to our starboard. Finally we arrived in Normandy off Omaha Beach, where we anchored about 2 ½ or 3 miles off shore. We located our position as off Colleville- sur-Mer by being able to see the steeple of the village church there.
We could tell that a lot was going on ashore when we arrived. I think that we got there about 1:00 p.m. on D-Day, but we knew almost nothing of the facts. We were at General Quarters when we arrived, and my station then was on the stern. I remember looking over the side of the ship and seeing several bodies pass by close to the ship. One was a young sailor whose blond hair was long enough to be streaming back in the water. The whole thing took on an air of grim reality. Once anchored, we tried to see what conditions were on the beach, but we could make out very little. We could see explosions on the beach, and we could see smoke rising from various sites, but we could know very little of what was going on shore. We could see many small ships and craft in the water just offshore, some under way and others obviously wrecked. All we knew was that things were serious. We knew that the authorities would call for us to go in and land on the beach when they were ready, but we had no idea when this would be.
Late in the afternoon of the first day we saw an American destroyer move close in to shore just off a draw or natural drainway which led inland from the beach, breaking the rim which lined the beach. It was to the east of our position and contained what was left of numerous buildings which had occupied the area. Apparently the Germans had moved back into these ruins and were firing on our men on the beach. The destroyer got into position and opened fire with all of its guns on one side, and they were fairly large naval guns and capable of rapid fire which plastered the ruins in the draw. I remember feeling how I would have hated to be one of the Germans located there.
A wounded American army officer was brought on board for treatment by the doctors we had on board. He was placed on the dining table in our officers' wardroom, but his wounds were serious, and proved fatal. Days passed before we were ordered to go in and unload. It was obvious that those in charge did not want to risk loss of large ships like LSTs, but instead sent in LCVPs [landing craft, vehicle, personnel], LCMs [landing craft, mechanized], LCTs [landing craft, tank], and LCIs [landing craft, infantry] during the early stages of the invasion. All six of our LCVPs and their crews were detached for early operations, and it was a good many weeks before they were returned to us in England. We were really glad to have them back, and they certainly were happy to be home again. Fortunately they had suffered no casualties.
Following our initial trip to Normandy, we made numerous round trips from England to the beaches. We would go in at high tide, open the bow doors, drop the ramp so that trucks, vehicles, and tanks could drive off onto the sandy beach. We made several return trips to Omaha Beach, one trip to Utah Beach near the base of the Cotentin Peninsula, and one trip to the British Beach east of Omaha. On one trip we carried wounded American soldiers. On another trip we carried 245 wounded German soldiers. They were accompanied by several German doctors to care for them. There were about 12 or 15 wounded who had us puzzled. They obviously were not German, but orientals. We could not explain their presence in German uniforms, but we learned that they had been Russian soldiers from the Asiatic parts of the Soviet Union. I am sure there were many White Russian soldiers among these wounded, but we could not tell them from among real Germans. Many of these soldiers had developed a hatred for Stalin and wanted to overthrow him. Many others turned to the Germans to escape the horrible conditions the Germans had in their prison camps. The Germans tried to treat American and British prisoners fairly well, much better than the Japanese did, but they regarded the Russians and other Slavs as subhuman and made little effort to care for them. The result was barbaric conditions and an enormous death rate.
On one of our trips to Normandy we were traveling in convoy at night when time came for me to go on watch. I relieved the officer of the deck, and almost immediately our convoy began to intersect another convoy. We had to twist and turn, change speed, etc., and of course I sent immediately for the Captain. But he had been inside a lighted room and could not see when he arrived at the Con. I had to guide the ship as it wound its way through the other convoy, and I was just about worn out when it was over.
Once when we were back in England, we were anchored in the Solent, between the Isle of Wight and the port of Southampton on the mainland. We got orders to move to another location for loading, and the Captain came up and got under way to move. A stiff wind was blowing onto the starboard side as we moved. A British cruiser was anchored off our port side. I saw that we were being set down on the cruiser, but expected the captain to allow for it. I stood it as long as I could, and then spoke up: "Captain, don't you think we are being set down on that ship?" He responded, "Yes, 10 degrees full right rudder." Almost immediately he started giving rudder changes to full right rudder. It was too late. We banged into the cruiser, and badly damaged one set of davits. The LCVP was still in France, so no boat was lost.
I had a real scare one night on a trip from England after the Germans had started their V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks on London. There had been rumors of German secret weapons, and while I was engaged in constantly sweeping the horizon as officer of the deck, searching for anything of danger, I was horrified to see an apparition of light coming up over the eastern horizon. I had never seen anything remotely like this very long, thin sliver of light, and I felt my cheeks turn pale. It had to be some new German surprise. I was about to sound General Quarters when the light had moved enough for me to realize that it was just a new moon, with only a narrow slice showing. Had I sounded General Quarters, I would never have lived it down. Refraction of light on the horizon distorted its appearance.