The Dauntless Demolitioneers:
A D-Day Hero Remembers
By John B. Dwyer
The beaches were designed for death. Expecting an Allied invasion, the Germans had organized their defenses in depth. Gen. Rommel ordered a row of mined obstacles nicknamed "Belgian Gates" at the low-water mark at either end of Omaha Beach. Behind them were irregular rows of V-shaped steel stakes, every third one "decorated" with a Teller mine, intended to rip open landing craft. The third band consisted of rows of "hedgehogs," steel rails bolted or welded together, producing three-directional impaling hazards. Further inland, along the seawall, the Germans had laid out concertina wire and more mines.
Behind this in-depth death field were fixed-gun emplacements and pillboxes. German 88 and other artillery pieces, mortars, an array of automatic weapons and riflemen waited to greet the assault force.
Allied commanders, supplied with aerial photographs and other intelligence, were all too aware of the deadly peril those men in the first wave would face. Building on British lessons learned during the costly Dieppe raid, the U.S. Navy and Army combat engineers established obstacle demolition courses at the Amphibious Training Base at Fort Pierce, Fla., to train six-man Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs) and the 146th and 299th Engineer Combat Battalions so they could meet the daunting challenge awaiting them.
Jerry Markham was there on D-Day, a member of NCDU-46 at Omaha Beach. Sixty years later, the Navy Cross recipient remembers it very clearly:
"I was living in Jacksonville, Fla., when the war began, working as an engineer in the power department of a paper company. As such, I was exempt from the draft. But after several years with a lot of my buddies in the service I decided, with my engineer and construction experience, to join the SeaBees [Navy Construction Battalions].
"I was inducted into the SeaBees in New York City and reported for duty in February 1943. Along with the others who had joined, I boarded a cattle car at the train station and we traveled to Camp Peary, Va., the SeaBee training base."
In May 1943 Lt. Draper Kauffman, USNR, head of the recently established Navy Bomb Disposal School and holder of the Navy Cross for defusing an unexploded bomb after Pearl Harbor, was given a new assignment. Capt. Jeffrey C. Metzel of CNO Admiral King's Readiness Division told Kauffman that he'd been selected to organize and train a unit to destroy obstacles the Germans were expected to place at Normandy beaches. Given carte blanche authority, Kauffman first sought volunteers from his Bomb Disposal school. He then went to Mine Warfare School. Others wanting to join the new unit came from the Civil Engineer Corps and civilian firms whose work required demolition. But the bulk of the manpower for Naval Combat Demolition Units came from the Navy's rugged SeaBees, the construction battalions. They were trained at the SeaBee's Camp Peary Dynamiting and Demolition School.
Markham continues: "Instruction consisted of close-order drill, physical training, other courses and guard duty. Several weeks later I was sent to the water-purification school, which meant I missed most of that basic training. I was then put into the pool of men ready for deployment. One day I noticed a bulletin in the office asking for volunteers for prolonged, distant and hazardous duty. Volunteers had to be fit and 20 to 35 years old. Men with swimming, diving and small-boat experience were preferred. I had always been interested in diving, so I volunteered for Naval Combat Demolition Units.
"All 90 of us volunteers were taken to a different part of the base at Camp Peary. There were six Marines waiting for us who told us they were going to separate the men from the boys. The training was based on Marine Raider courses and it was very tough, very physical. At the end of it there were only 30 of the original group left. Most of them were shipped off to Fort Pierce, Fla. I was kept behind at Camp Peary to help with the diving training, but first I had to take that course all over again. I breezed through it.
"Then I was sent to Fort Pierce. There, unlike Camp Peary, officers and enlisted men trained together. We spent a lot of time placing demolition charges on obstacles. Hell Week came next. It was called Hell Week because we spent 18 to 20 hours a day for a solid, grueling week swimming, hauling our rubber boat around, paddling it through the ocean, making rock portages and other exercises. At the end of it we all felt pretty good about ourselves. We had developed a real esprit de corps. Now it was time to select the men for the different units, a process that I think was unique in all the service branches.
"First, the officers got together and picked who they wanted for their senior enlisted man. That man could accept or reject the selection. If he accepted, he was asked to pick four more men, who had the same options. In other words, the members of NCDUs were all together because they wanted to be. John Bussell from St. Louis was my officer and he was a fine young man.
"NCDU-46 then went through six to eight weeks of courses on explosives, various types of demolition charges, boat handling, seamanship, shallow- and deep-water diving, but the emphasis was on demolition.
"In December 1943 we were given a leave of absence and then reported to Lido Beach, Long Island, where we were given winter clothing for the Atlantic crossing. From there we went to Hoboken, N.J., to board one of the fleet of LSTs [328-foot Landing Ship, Tank]. There were 11 LSTs with an NCDU on each one. We made the crossing in January 1944 through high seas and rough weather. The salt spray froze on our clothing while we stood watch.
"We landed in Plymouth and traveled to the amphibious base there. Our unit was so classified and so secret that nobody knew who or what we were, so they gave us guard duty at the ammunition dumps. Even our officers stood watch. Then somebody figured out who we were and we got assigned to a Navy beach battalion. That's when our training for D-Day began. Six NCDUs, including ours, went to Wales and trained with Army combat engineers [299th Engineer Combat Battalion]. The Army engineers adopted us and we practiced obstacle demolition on Normandy-like beaches."
The first NCDUs had arrived in England in November 1943. By January 1944 all NCDUs were assigned to Rear Adm. John L. Hall's 11th Amphibious Force of Rear Adm. Alan G. Kirk's Western Naval Task Force 122, and attached to the 2nd, 7th and 6th Naval Beach Battalions based at Fowey and Salcombe on England's south coast, and in Swansea, Wales.
In the last weeks before D-Day, NCDUs and combat engineers practiced demolition at the U.S. Assault Training Center situated in the southwest coastal town of Woolcombe. There, the 146th ECB erected realistic models of the different kinds of obstacles the demolitioneers would encounter.
There were a total of 21 NCDUs and units from the 146th and 299th ECBs assigned to Omaha Beach. Five of the 21 NCDUs were held in reserve. Twelve NCDUs and units from the 237th and 299th ECBs were assigned to Utah Beach.
All demolitioneers at Omaha were commanded by Lt. Col. John T. O'Neill, CO, V Corps Provisional Engineer Group. Major Herschel E. Linn was in command of the Utah Beach Obstacle Demolition Party.
Army and Navy demolitioneers were organized into boat teams commanded by Army officers, which were assigned beach sectors. Once at the beaches, they became assault gapping teams of 25 to 27 combat engineers and NCDUs.
"After two months we were all assembled and told how to use the Hagensen pack. This was a foot long canvas sack, two feet wide, stuffed with 2lbs of C2 explosives with primacord running through it and a hook at one end to attach it to an obstacle. It was designed for what was called 'Element C' or the 'Belgian Gate' to sever the obstacle structure and collapse it.
"It was about that time that we learned exactly what our mission was going to be. We knew that our six-man NCDUs were too small to tackle the job. We were allowed to recruit three additional seamen to augment our unit and were assigned five Army combat engineers. The Army combat engineer teams had 26 men. Our assignment was to demolish a 50-yard-wide gap in the seaward band of obstacles closest to the water. The combat engineers would then move inland to do the same thing with those obstacles. They would then continue on to take care of mines at the beach exits.
"Omaha Beach was crescent-shaped and four to five miles long with cliffs 100 to 150 feet high beyond the high-water mark. It had five exit ravines. When the tide was running, it did so at one foot per eight minutes. That calculation determined our time of landing if we were to be put ashore on dry sand.
"We traveled to Portsmouth on June 2 or 3 and went aboard LCT-2049 [115-foot Landing Craft, Tank] with the combat engineers. Together, we formed what was called a 'gap team.' The LCT carried three Sherman tanks and a Jeep. There was no food onboard and we slept wherever we could on the steel decks in the rain. Our uniforms consisted of heavy fatigues, sweaters and long johns with regulation Army shoes and helmet liners. Officers carried .45 caliber pistols. We could carry our weapon of choice. I had a carbine during training but it stayed in my footlocker. On the night of the 4th we sailed. But the invasion fleet ran into a severe storm so we all were ordered back to port. By that time everybody was seasick.
"We sailed again on the night of the 5th. The 50-foot LCM [Landing Craft, Mechanical], which would take us ashore and which carried our extra explosives and rubber boats, was towed behind our LCT. As we proceeded across the Channel, now about three to four miles from the coast of France, I began to notice that the bow of our ship was very low in the water. So I went to the captain, a lieutenant, junior grade, and told him about this. Both of us then went and looked over the side. We saw a hole. Water was coming in fast. I went to Ensign Bussell who told me we'd better get off because we're sinking. We were able to bring the LCM alongside and transfer all hands aboard her before that LCT, with its tanks and Jeep, sank. After putting ship's company and tank crews on a nearby transport ship, we proceeded shoreward."
The order of landing for Assault Force "O" was: DD (dual-drive) "floating tanks" (many of which foundered and sank), tank dozers, infantry units and NCDUs. Due to strong cross currents, bad navigation and the confusion of D-Day's mortal chaos, that order was destroyed. Men and equipment were landed on the wrong beaches at the wrong time and upon arrival were met with scything artillery, machine-gun, mortar and small-arms fire. The 116th Regimental Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, went ashore at Easy Red sector, Omaha Beach.
"We were three minutes late for h-hour and got to Easy Red Beach on Omaha at 6:33 a.m., one of 16 gap teams put ashore that morning. Now we had been briefed that the Air Force would carpet the beach with thousands of tons of bombs. Big naval guns would lay on a massive bombardment just prior to our landing. Rocket ships would fire off their salvos. Most of the rockets were duds or fell short. Naval gunfire had little or no effect on the convex-shaped pillboxes. Most of the bombs landed too far inland to have any effect. The Germans had the beaches zeroed in and our unit ran into the strongest opposition. As we went in, we could see paratroopers who had undershot their drop zones in the water. We had to keep going and couldn't pick them up.
"By the time our LCM reached the low-water mark, which was dry, the machine guns opened up. The Army combat engineers were the first off the ramp ashore and they were pretty badly shot up. Then it was our turn. The seamen unloaded our rubber boat with the extra explosives. Each of us carried 40 pounds of Hagensen packs. I was the last one out. My job was to tie up the primacord from all the charges so they could all be detonated simultaneously. I carried the detonators under my armpit for safety's sake. All of a sudden a mortar round hit our rubber boat, killing one of the seamen. When I turned back around I saw John Bussell lying face down in the water. I turned him over. He had been mortally wounded by shrapnel. The machine gun fire was really heavy now. The only cover was the mined obstacles. The tide was coming in and we kept moving forward. Two more men from my unit were killed. Four were killed in all and one of the engineers.
"The crosscurrent was strong, and units to the left and right were being shot up pretty badly. I was able to pull together survivors from one of them and combine them with ours. Together we salvaged enough explosives to blow a partial gap through the mined obstacles. I spent the rest of the time trying to help the wounded reach the high-water mark dune line where there was a little bit of cover from the machine guns. It took three hours all told just to get there. At the dune line, I noticed four soldiers in a shallow foxhole. A mortar round had hit right behind them and shoved sand forward, practically burying them. I ran over there and helped dig them out, not realizing I had just run through all that machine gun fire.
"At that point I saw some destroyers coming in close to the beach. They fired into the mouths of the ravines, the primary exits. This allowed the combat engineers to move forward and start to work on the minefields so the Army could continue on inland.
"After the beach was secured, all NCDU personnel were assembled. We commandeered bulldozers and whatever else was needed to clear those beaches of all mined obstacles. It took us two days to clear 80 percent of them."
D-Day casualties for NCDUs amounted to 41 percent of their manpower.
"On the third day I started passing blood. Turned out it was from concussions of the severe explosions I'd been near since landing. I was sent to a hospital ship, an LST, to get medicine for it. The doctor took one look at me and sent me back to England. The doctor there told me that I'd probably been saved from a deadly blood clot by the greasy K rations I'd been eating. Ten days later I was back at the amphibious base where we'd last trained before crossing the Channel.
"Survivors of all the Naval Combat Demolition Units were assembled in England and then sent back to Fort Pierce, Fla. There, we were given the option of any Navy assignment we wanted or to join the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs). When Lt. Scotty Cooper, who had been our NCDU section commander at Omaha Beach, asked me if I wanted to be his senior chief for UDT-25, I said "yes" and then recruited 33 NCDU veterans for the team."
In June 1945, the commander of the Maui, Hawaii, UDT Base awarded Chief Jerry Markham the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism on June 6, 1944. Six other NCDU personnel earned Navy Crosses for their actions on that momentous morning. Fifteen Army combat engineers earned the equivalent Distinguished Service Cross. In the opinion of Jerry Markham, everyone on Omaha Beach that day was a hero.