Oral History - Support for Normandy June 1944
Recollections of Pharmacist Mate
Frank R. Feduik on USS LST 338
[Adapted from: "A Corpsman Remembers D-Day." Navy Medicine 85, no. 3 (May-Jun. 1994): 13-17.
I graduated from high school
in June of 1942 and enlisted in the Navy, something I always wanted
to do. As soon as I turned 17 I tried to enlist but my mother
and father wouldn't sign. Therefore, I had to wait until I turned
18 in January 1943 before I was able to join.
I was assigned to a new boot camp [a military camp where recruits receive basic training] in Sampson, NY. That alone was an experience because it was out in the middle of nowhere, frozen Lake Seneca. You had to knock the ice down to take a boat drill. Of course, when you're young, it's an adventure. You didn't care. You just went ahead and did it.
I was amazed when I was told I was going to Portsmouth, VA, to pharmacist's mate school. "Why me," I asked. I never had any medical training. But I think they assigned us to various schools by our last name. You know, those with names starting with A to D went to one school and E to G, another school. I can only say one thing. Six weeks of training doesn't give you much experience in anything. We just learned first aid. Actually, it was more giving each other needles [injections], how to apply tourniquets, things like that. We kind of joked about it. What are we supposed to do after we get out of here? But it didn't take us long to find out.
After Portsmouth I went to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital for a short time. I remember distinctly going to a psychiatric ward where there were a lot of Guadalcanal veterans. Boy, that was an experience. They were very young guys and they were completely gone. They were in another world; their eyes seemed to be staring somewhere into space. They were tied to their bunks and there were armed guards watching them. Our instructors wanted us to know what battle fatigue was and how to cope with it. It really depressed us.
Eventually, I went to New York and boarded the Queen Mary [an ocean liner converted to a military transport ship] on Easter morning 1944. Believe it or not, it was so congested that I slept in the big empty swimming pool. Actually, I never got up topside, staying in the swimming pool for 5 days. They utilized all the space they could. We never even unpacked our seabags. You just laid your head back on it and slept. The Queen Mary traveled alone because it was so fast [over 30 knots] no sub could keep up with it.
Once I reached England I was assigned to the LST-338 [Landing Ship Tank #338]. It had just returned from Italy, where it had been in the invasion of Sicily. When I saw this thing, I said, "Oh, God. This can't be my ship. It's ugly. What is it?" There was an old saying that if you were assigned to the amphibious fleet in the Navy, you had to have screwed up somewhere. I hadn't done anything wrong and I wondered why I had been assigned to this LST. I spent the rest of my overseas time on that ship.
LST-338 was the command ship for flotilla 12, group 36. Our skipper [commanding officer] was an old mustang [an officer who is commissioned from enlisted ranks]. His name was [Darrell A.] Stratton, a mean son of a gun. He had been promoted from a seaman to a chief warrant officer, and then made a lieutenant commander during the war. He was very gung-ho, volunteering us for everything.
We left England on the fourth of June  and the [English] Channel was unbelievably rough. They said it was the worst storm of the century. It was just disaster. Nearly everyone got sick. I was just lucky; I never got seasick. I felt sorry for the troops. I thought, "These guys have to be unloaded into these LCVPs (landing craft vehicles and personnel) and go into battle? There's no way they can fight in this condition."
However, the invasion was postponed and we returned to port. We left again the following day and the weather was a lot calmer. I was on deck during the crossing. Boy, it was dark. But we made sure we always had the English corvettes [small anti-submarine ship] in sight because they protected us from submarines. Every LST also carried a big [barrage] balloon [shaped like a small blimp] to keep German planes from coming in low and strafing us. We thought it was a joke because it was like announcing to the world, "Here we are under this big dirigible." When we got close to the beach, the Germans began shooting at these balloons. We had been told that if we had to, to cut the cable from the winch. So when they started shooting, every body cut the balloon loose. You should have seen that bunch of balloons taking off from those LSTs.
One of my more distinctive memories was the battleships in action on D-Day. I think they were the [USS] Arkansas (BB-33) and the [USS] Texas (BB-35). It was such a din! They were behind us as we were going in and these shells would sing their way right over the ship. Some of the targets, I would say, were 8 and 10 miles inland. Every once in a while you would hear or see a big explosion way inland and we knew they had hit an ammunition dump or something.
It was such a hectic thing, everybody firing this way, beach fire coming at you. They were firing at us from the pillboxes on the beach. You would hear the shells coming at you. You could hear them whirring by and when you saw them hit the water...well if you were in the wrong place, forget about it. Those German 88s were awful. Once you heard them bark and you were still alive, you knew they hadn't gotten you because that shell would be on top of you before the noise got there.
We did get hit by shrapnel [steel fragments from artillery shell bursts] every once in awhile. I do remember one incident when we got hit I was directly beneath one of the gun mounts trying to set up an aid station under gun number 4. As I was coming up the ladder, I heard this noise, and then heard a fellow who was in the gun mount, say, "Round and round she goes and where she stops nobody knows." Evidently, a piece of shrapnel had gotten into the gun mount and wound its way around until it exited. I couldn't imagine how cool he was.
On 8 June we got orders to unload our cargo on Omaha Beach (Omaha Beach, on the Normandy coast of France, was one of two American beachheads. Defended by the 352nd German Infantry Division, it was the toughest beach to crack). We didn't actually beach ourselves, instead using smaller LCTs (landing craft, tank) to unload the LST. I was able to hitch a ride on one of the LCTs. On Omaha Beach there was just chaos and confusion everywhere. I don't think we hit the right part of the beach. We saw a lot of people completely lost who didn't know where they were. I didn't see any Navy corpsmen or Navy aid stations. But I did see a lot of Army medics. They established their aid stations wherever they could. We saw bodies--some were our troops, some were theirs. I saw people with arms and legs missing, parts of bodies. You just couldn't understand it--guys not even making it to the beach, some of them impaled on iron rails [anti-boat obstacles placed by the Germans] that were in the water. Some were washed ashore. It was complete mayhem, terrible.
After unloading our cargo, our LST was filled with wounded. We treated the wounded, mostly by applying tourniquets and giving morphine. Then we would mark the patients as to what time you had given the morphine to tell when they were due for the next shot. I remember one soldier. I knew he was in pain so I checked him right out. His leg was missing. he had stepped on a mine right on the beach. I gave him a morphine shot and told him he would be okay for a couple of hours. He jumped up and looked at the stump. I don't know where he got the strength. He said, "I'm a farmer. What am I going to do?" I pushed him back and told him he would be okay. He just screamed. He was only 20 years old.
When we met the other ship we transferred the casualties over by hand. If you can imagine two ships bobbing with all this stuff going on and wondering whether this guy is going to slip off the stretcher between the two ships. But that's how we transferred wounded.
I think we went back to England that night. We were ordered to give the British a hand. So we went up the Thames River, loaded up with British troops and went to Gold Beach. This is where I got stuck on the beach. Our ship backed off before I got back aboard so I was left with the British troops. I ended up staying on the beach all night. I could see the small arms fire coming right at us. I thought, "I'm not a British soldier, I'm a sailor. I want out of here." I don't think I got any sleep that night. The next morning, an LCVP picked me up and took me back to the ship.
After I returned to the LST, we headed back to England. We made 60 more trips like that. Our captain, LCDR Stratton volunteered for everything so we got to carry all sorts of cargo and do all sorts of missions. However, there were a few jobs that really stick out.
Our snow weasel experience was such a comical thing. In December 1944, we loaded up with these strange little tanks called snow weasels. The Germans had broken through our lines during the Battle of the Bulge and we had to get those snow weasels over there. We dashed alone across the Channel at night. There was always a red alert on the beach because you didn't know whether there were any German planes, even though the Luftwaffe was about through. The skipper hollered over the PA [Public Address] system. "Open up the doors and get those tanks off. I've got a bunch of French soldiers getting on and they're going to take these out of here. We gotta get off this beach." The French soldiers didn't know what to do. He kept hollering. "Let's go." Since they didn't do anything I jumped into one of the first ones. Of course, I didn't know how to run a snow weasel. There were some controls, one for the left tread, one for the right tread. I just hit the button, started it and away I went. I don't think I got a hundred yards up the beach when I ran out of fuel. At least, I think I ran out of fuel. Well, everybody thought where I stopped must be the bivouac area where we were supposed to leave them so everyone else stopped too. We came back to the ship and started laughing. We didn't know if anybody came and picked them up. It was crazy--such chaos. It was funny things like that that made you laugh later on.
One of the strangest cargoes were railroad cars. We had rails welded onto the tank deck of the ship. We pulled up to the hard cobblestone ramps in English ports, built specifically for LSTs to beach themselves, and railroad engines and cars were wheeled right onto our ship. We also had special landing ramps in Cherbourg and Le Havre which had rails. We would go in and connect to these rails. The cars were then pulled by an engine right off our ship as if it was part of a rail transportation system. It was fantastic.
We also made about a dozen runs to bring German prisoners back to England. We would load hundreds in the tank deck. They were well guarded by guys with machine guns standing on a parapet. These prisoners were tough, hardened soldiers. One trip was especially memorable. One of my best friends from home, Andy Banko, had gone into the Army. We had said that when the war was over we would tie on a jag and have a helluva good time when we got back. After I got in the Navy, I didn't hear from him for about a year. And then I got a letter from him. He was over in Italy and he said something about going to take some mountain called Monte Cassino. I was elated that I had heard from him. I wrote him back reminding him of how we would celebrate once the war was over. Just after we picked up a load of German prisoners, I got a mail pickup in France. My letter to Andy had been returned, with "DECEASED" stamped on the back; killed in action.
One of my jobs was to make sure the lister bags [canvas water bags with spigots at the bottom] had water for these troops because we still had to treat them humanely. But to me, right then, the Germans weren't human. Here my best buddy had just been killed. These prisoners were arrogant, very arrogant. I'm looking at these POWs and thinking, "I'm giving you guys water and you just killed my buddy?" I had no sympathy for them because I knew what they had done.
We once even went up the Seine River deep into France. A few weeks after D-Day, our skipper, LCDR Stratton, volunteered for this special mission to pick up some French resistance fighters. So we had to travel up the Seine, behind German lines, under the cover of darkness. We didn't know how deep the channel was and had been told that the channel was mined. We poked our way up without a light and when we got to a certain area, we got a signal. There was just a mess of French underground soldiers who, evidently, had been fighting for years. They were starved, unshaven, and wearing disheveled clothes. They were the FFI, the French Forces of the Interior. We picked them up and got out of there.
Although I was a corpsman, I actually did quite a bit more. If they needed you to take care of casualties, you did that. If not, they would think nothing of telling us to help out elsewhere. You were assigned different places during battle stations [general quarters]. For awhile, I was assigned to a 20mm [anti-aircraft] gun as a loader. I was also on the annunciators which controlled the engines. The skipper was right above me on the conning tower. He would relay his orders to me. I had to repeat each order back to him. If he said, "All ahead one-third," I would say, "All ahead one-third, sir."
I also remember being sent aft [to the rear of the ship] to the emergency steering room. No body wanted to go aft because that's the only place a torpedo could hit you. Aft, the LST had a 12-foot draft [the depth of the ship below the water line] while up forward it was between 7 and 8. We thought a torpedo had to have at least 10 or 12 feet of water to hit a ship. When we traveled in convoy under a submarine alert it seemed that the ship was front-heavy. Everybody would be up forward even if they didn't belong there. We felt sorry for the guys who were aft on emergency steering. Once a torpedo hit an LST you were done, forget it.
After the war in Europe ended, I was told they would put me in [recommended him] for a chief petty officer but that I would have to leave the ship. I refused the promotion offer, just wanting to go home. After loading some cargo at Belfast, Ireland, we headed across the Atlantic. Don't ever cross the North Atlantic in an LST. Those waves were 60 or 70 feet high. We couldn't sleep without tying ourselves into our bunks. Often we would lose sight of the convoy because the waves and swells were so high. I would stand on the stern and watch the front end of the ship bend. I was surprised it didn't crack.
After a leave in New Orleans and home I found that I had been assigned to another ship, an LCI (landing craft, infantry), that was to participate in the invasion of Japan. This was not good. An LCI would be there right at the first firing--at H-hour minus one. I just didn't want to go back to the thick of the fighting. I was on the bus to go from Philadelphia to board the LCI in Norfolk, when the [atomic] bomb was dropped. I got on the ship but never went to the Pacific as the war ended. At that time I had enough points to get out. They assigned me to Lido Beach, Long Island [New York], and from there I went home.
I didn't like the amphibs at the beginning but I was proud I served on an LST. It was an experience. I was a young kid and everything was an adventure to me. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.