June 6, 2019

DOING SOMETHING:

THE BASEBALL SUPERSTAR WHO WAS ON THE FRONT LINES AT D-DAY (Sean Braswell, JUN 06 2019, Oxy)

"I was sick of hanging around all day. I wanted to be doing something."

Lawrence Peter Berra was signed by the Yankees as a 17-year-old and assigned to the team's affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia, near the U.S. Navy shipyard. The 5-foot-8 prospect quickly demonstrated his prowess behind the plate and in the batter's box, once driving in 23 runs in a doubleheader. But with his country at war, Berra, like so many other ballplayers of the day, including major leaguers Ted Williams and Bob Feller, put his baseball career on hold, enlisting in the Navy when he turned 18.

"I kind of enjoyed it. We had our own boat."

The young Berra signed up to join the "amphibs," even though he didn't really understand the concept. "They asked for volunteers to go on a rocket boat," he later put it. "I didn't even know what a rocket boat was." As it turned out, a rocket boat, also known as a landing craft support small (LCSS), was a 36-foot wooden-hulled vessel with steel plating. The seamen referred to them as "big bathtubs" -- bathtubs that came equipped with 48 rockets, one twin .50-caliber machine gun and two .30-caliber machine guns. It would be the LCSS' job to fire on the beaches at Normandy to help clear the way for the landing crafts. "We called it landing craft suicide squad," Berra said.

"I'd have to say I was involved."

Berra was next stationed in Plymouth, England, where for three weeks he and his fellow seamen waited. They didn't know when they were going out or what was coming next -- and they weren't allowed to share details of anything in their letters home. Early on June 4, Berra's LCSS set off aboard the USS Bayfield, a Coast Guard transport that was the smallest craft to take part in the invasion, the largest amphibious assault in history.

"I never saw so many planes in my life. It was like a black cloud."

Berra's boat was lowered from the Bayfield at 4.30 a.m. on June 6. Most stories about the invasion focus on the troop-filled landing crafts that poured their contents onto the Normandy beaches, but the tip of the spear for the invasion was actually the 24 LCSS crafts, including Berra's, that approached the German fortifications first and were the most vulnerable to enemy fire. Berra manned a machine gun and helped load the rocket launcher, but he couldn't help marvel at the spectacle of it all. "Boy, it looks pretty, all the planes coming over," he said at one point about the Allied planes overhead. "You better get your head down in here, if you want it on," the officer on his boat retorted.


"Nothing happened to us. That's one good thing."

Berra's boat received little fire from the Germans on the beach, and the crew spent the next two weeks helping relay messages and direct new arrivals. At one point, Berra's gun crew was directed to fire at enemy planes. They shot one down ... an American plane. "The pilot was mad as hell, and you could hear him swearing as he floated down in his parachute," Berra recalled. "I remember him shaking his fist and yelling, 'If you bastards would shoot down as many of them as us, the goddamn war would be over.'"

"Being there at Omaha may have changed my life a little."

Posted by at June 6, 2019 12:00 AM

  

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