D-Day Story: Dr. Simon V. Ward, Jr.

The British liner RMS Queen Mary arrives in New York harbour, 20 June 1945, with thousands of U.S. troops from Europe. The Queen Mary still wears her light grey war paint. Seen from near Hamilton Avenue, Weehawken. 20 June 1945 (Photo: U.S. Navy)
The British liner RMS Queen Mary arrives in New York harbour, 20 June 1945, with thousands of U.S. troops from Europe. The Queen Mary still wears her light grey war paint. Seen from near Hamilton Avenue, Weehawken. 20 June 1945 (Photo: U.S. Navy)

I was born on a tobacco and cotton plantation in _______ of South Carolina in June 15, 1916. And finishing high school in 1933 in the midst of the depression. I came to Louisiana to play in Huey Long's band as he expanded LSU because I could get an education on a scholastic scholarship as well as a band scholarship and came to Louisiana for that reason and never left. I was in the military at LSU as a member of the band company and finished LSU in 1937. I had then been accepted as a Louisiana citizen and therefore, got virtually a free medical education at the LSU Medical School in New Orleans from which I graduated in 1941.

I then was pretty well ensconced into the City of New Orleans and took my hospital training at Southern Baptist Hospital here in New Orleans as an intern in 1941 and 1942. And on December 7, of course, while an intern, the bombing of Pearl Harbor took place and the war was on.

This was in the middle of my internship. Right after the first of 1942, as an intern, I had my first brush with the war. Possibly the closest brush that I almost ever came again. We interns one day were approached by a representative from United Fruit wanting people who were willing to take a trip on United Fruit as a ship's doctor.

And of course there was a great deal of activity in the Caribbean and Gulf with torpedoing of our shipping but this somehow didn't bother me particularly. So I signed up that I would take a trip with United Fruit. Months passed and I had completely forgotten about it until one day I was paged on the loudspeaker at Baptist Hospital and a very foreign gentleman introduced himself as the Dr. Prieto, the local United Fruit representative, and he wanted to inform me that my ship was in port.

Well, I had to do a double-take and quite a flurry of activity during the next few days to get my Z- card and so forth, and suffice to say that we did ship out in the early part of June, 1942 for Panama. Getting underway was interesting that night. I remember we were docked at the Julia Street Wharf and they were trying to get a company of sailors aboard enough to man the ship.

It was a merchant ship, of course. As fast as the virtual highjack of the ship's company and put them aboard as they sobered up knowing the conditions in the Caribbean and Gulf they would walk off. So by nearly midnight, we didn't have nearly a complete company so we left the docks and anchored just below New Orleans and the rest of the ship's company were brought aboard in boats so they couldn't desert.

So sometime after midnight, we sailed supposedly to pick up our convoy the next morning at the mouth of the river, but as we got at the mouth of the river, there was a submarine alert and all hands on deck except those men in the engines and no convoy, but we did sail coastwise and stay overnight in Mobile Bay in a secure area. We saw no submarine.

We then spent the next night in Panama City, Florida to escape the enemy and the next night in Tampa Bay, always expecting to pick up a convoy. There never was a convoy. From Tampa Bay we sailed between Yucatan Peninsula and Cristobol, on the way sighting numerous ships afire on the horizon -- the water was full of debris and life jackets, beat up life boats, saw everything in the water but bodies.

Must have seen seven ships afire on the horizon. Got to Cristobol safely, stayed less than 24 hours and sailed 9:00 in the morning, again alone, never having seen a navy craft at all or U. S. aircraft. Sailed coastwise for Ft. Abarios, Guatemala.

But, 12 hours out of Cristobol, we were torpedoed twice at 9 o'clock at night on my birthday, June 15, 1942, and all five lifeboats managed to get off. There was 29 men in the bow of the ship who were never seen again. The man who survived was the one in forward mast crow's nest as a lookout. The man on the bow was never seen again nor any of the guys sleeping in the hole.

Of the five boats, all survived, one was picked up, maybe two, one was at sea for five days. My boat had a motor and we did not see the submarine, but the submarine did surface and came alongside one of the lifeboats and demanded to know the name of the craft which was given, our ship, the S.S. SIXAHOA, which was given to the skipper of the submarine.

He asked did they know the direction to shore which they did, did they have food, yes they did, did they have water, but they didn't have any cigarettes, so he issued them two flat fifty packs of cigarettes in tins, asked for the master who was aboard that boat, but they lied and told them he wasn't, and the submarine went off into the distance.

But my lifeboat made it ashore to the little town of Bocas del Torro, on the northern coast of Panama, a United Fruit village, which had just about dried up because of the Panama blight and I stayed there for three or four days and had a glorious time.

I met a young lady just the right age and we picnicked up and down the beaches and had a wonderful time until we were picked up by an army supply tug and taken back to Cristobol where I crossed over to the Pacific side to the hospital where I saw one of my fellow interns who by this time completed his internship and was a resident there.

I bunked with him until we got a ride on a ship coming back to the U.S. through the Canal and set sail for the mouth of the Mississippi and New Orleans. Twelve hours out of the Mississippi, again there was an alert, a submarine at the mouth of the river, so we right-angle turned due east and went into Tampa Bay and I came back to New Orleans by bus and appeared about 6 o'clock one morning after an all-night bus ride standing up and it, of course, was rumored that our ship had gone down with all hands aboard and I had been given up for lost.

But then I completed my residency the following year at Baptist Hospital during which time I had begun trying to get into the service. I applied for a commission with the Navy and was turned down because of my weight. I was six feet tall and weighed only about 118 lbs.

And I applied to the Army and was turned down for the same reason. They simply did not want anybody in my shape. After two or three more applications and inquiries, I was finally told that the Navy might accept me.

I was interviewed and told that they would accept me with the commission of the Lt.J.G. if I passed the physical. So on the morning of the physical, I ate fourteen bananas, and drank a quart of milk and weighed in. By then I tipped the scales at 127 so they gave me a waiver which I never understood what I was wavering, that I was only 127 lbs. but with that weight with a stomach full of milk and bananas, I was accepted and given a commission as Lt.J.G. in the U.S. Navy Medical Corps.

I got my orders and was to report to duty in Corpus Christi, Texas at the Navy Air Station for introduction into the Navy method of doctoring. I drove out with a little car I bought for $150 and was able to get new tires on it because I was a doctor and they allowed me to buy tires. They were in rags. So it was four new tires on an old dilapidated little Oldsmobile Coupe.

I drove to Norfolk, Virginia for my indoctrination which lasted six weeks learning how to fill out Navy forms and that sort of thing. Then I got my orders to join the amphibious forces of the U.S. Navy with headquarters in Little Creek, Virginia, a suburban area out of Norfolk. I drove there and reported for duty with about 12 or 15 other young Lt. J.G. doctors all just having been indoctrinated only one of which had been with me in Norfolk.

We then spent the fall there getting lined up on Navy methods and Navy medical methods, some training with rifles and with .45 automatics and I then was assigned to the branch of the amphibious forces known at the LCTs or landing craft tanks, not landing ship tanks, the LST but LCTs which would hold theoretically five tanks or about a dozen or so trucks or 30 or 40 autos.

They were not designed for personnel because any personnel other than those running the boat would have to sleep on deck although we wound up, before the war was over, carrying almost anything.

LCTs are 105 feet long and there were 12 to a group and 3 groups or 36 boats to a flotilla. At times I was a medical officer of a group and at times there was no other medical officer in the two other groups so my responsibility was for the health of 36 boats.

There were 12 enlisted men and one ensign assigned to each boat. They were diesel operated. The older ones had the engine and cunning tower in quarters all in the middle of the back of the boat and later on over to one side.

There were two different designs of it. These boats were carried to Europe in two ways. They were sometimes set on the deck of an LST and carried over intact and sometimes they were cut into three parts and set on the deck of a Liberty ship and re-welded together when they reached England.

We got orders to go to New York to await shipping out. This was in early November, 1943. We went to New York, of course, by train. While in the Norfolk area, we spent a great deal of training in Chesapeake area. My group would go out and train formations of the boats and how to operate in various kinds of weather and the art of maneuvering the boats in single file or abreast and of course I was not particularly involved in all of this.

I was aboard to look out for the welfare of the men. Although I spent most of my time on shore. Going aboard the boat was really just a part of the training that the medical officer ought to have in how to handle himself at sea, of course. So in early November finally after we got our training since late summer, we got to Pier 92 in New York where we stayed about two weeks waiting to ship out.

My flotilla with its 12 men per boat and 12 to 36 boats, of which I was medical officer, shipped out on the Queen Mary. Again, we expected a convoy but we never did have any convoy at sea. The Queen Mary made it across on its own because it was so fast that they felt that with the zig-zag course, they could evade submarines and all during the war it did evade.

I believe there were about 12 or 14,000 of us aboard the converted Queen Mary. She was stacked up with bunks from bulkhead to bulkhead and from deck to deck, but reasonably comfortable, good food. Crossing took place in about four-ish days. We landed in Scotland at Firth of Clyde and my small group was then as we moved, I was moved with my original twelve boats whom I had gotten to know all the skippers very well and lots of the men and we were put on a train to go south to Plymouth.

We went down through the countryside of England, my first trip to Europe and were offloaded to go to our billet which was most confusing and we went east for a while, west for a while, each place we went said we were not supposed to be there so really it was almost an all-night truck ride, we were in trucks then, until we finally came to our correct billet which was the beautiful southernmost town in the British Isles, rather in Great Britain because the channels Isles are south of it which was in the town of Solcomb in the county of Devonshire.

I must say that I spent a most pleasant winter and spring in Devonshire. I learned to love the people, the countryside, the scenery was gorgeous, I've been back twice to take my wife, because I loved it so much and would have been perfectly happy to have lived there the rest of my life and still would.

My group of boats then operated out of Solcomb and there duty for the next six months was to practice landing the United States Marines and Army on the Slapton Sands which was an area just east of us on the south coast of Devon where time after time after time our flotilla of landing craft landed troops in rehearsal.

Each time that we were assigned to a landing operation, we did not know but what that might be invasion. We never were totally suspicious that it was, but we always knew that it might be. I was in a little particular situation then because there was a small navy base at Solcomb but my flotilla of boats was a separate unit with separate command from the home base.

But as the doctor, I was of little value going out with the boats on these trips and only made several of their repeated rehearsal landings, but my services could best be rendered, they thought, by staying in the little local hospital where the men at the base and the countryside around in that area were being treated and handled.

So a little hotel, St. Elmo Hotel, was commandeered by the Navy and as our hospital. And therefore, I joined the five doctors who were stationed at the base, I being somewhat of an outsider since my primary assignment was my flotilla of boats. But I lived most of my six months in the hospital with those other doctors who have been friends of mine for life.

In fact, St. Elmo Hotel is the absolute picture of the hotel in Faulty Towers. It could be the same setting, although I believe that is supposed to have taken place in the town of Torquee, which was about 35 miles east of us. I went to Torquee. I have since back to Solcombe on two occasions, visited and even lived in the reconverted hotel of St. Elmo and the whole place is very attractive.

I spent no time being a medical doctor to the local population. Except in a few emergency situations. They did not lean on us for help. We handled any troops that were in that area, navy, army or otherwise, but primarily the navy, the naval units there in Solcombe were primarily a CB unit -- repair and maintenance of boats and they could just about make anything.

Well, as I say, each time we made an "invasion," on Slapton Sands, we didn't know but what that might be the real thing. But not extremely suspicious until finally, I got my orders and me and me alone, to catch a train to Wales. The trip to Wales from Devonshire is up around the Welsh Channel, Bristol Channel, I believe it is, and I went to the town of Cardiff, and was assigned to the base there.

I was kind of a loner there. I was a doctor, had landing craft, but I didn't really know what they were planning to do with me. After staying there about a week, it became evident that I was going to be put aboard a Liberty ship. The name of the ship was the SS Woodward.

That Liberty ship was outfitted as a medical station, a supply ship and a repair ship. There were three units on it, each of which had its own sort of commander. I was in command of the medical division. There was a wonderful repair supply under the command of a Lt. Commander Murray from Philadelphia, and we had a great deal of supplies that we could give to the boats who would come to us for medical supply or repair -- those three things.

We had a Lt. Commander over all of the Navy operations on board that ship, as well of course as there was a merchant marine captain, mates and seaman who ran the ship as a ship.

Because I was to spend a good deal of time on the SS Woodward from then on. I knew we were doing the real invasion again, because I was given blood instead of plasma as a adjunct to my medical kit. And I knew that the blood wouldn't last, not as well in those days as it would now, so I knew the invasion had to be imminent.

Blood, of course, is a more valuable adjunct to a person in shock or severe wounds than plasma, although plasma can be a lot safer. But plasma will last for a very prolonged period where blood has to be kept at the proper temperature and does not last long at all.

Well, sure enough, this was in the first day or so of June, 1944. And we sailed. I did not see any of my boats at that time, and as far as I recall, did not ever see any of my own boats throughout my stay on the French coast. We got off the Normandy coast late in the day of D-Day.

There were armadas of ships, boats of all sorts just as has been shown in the movies over and over and over again. There was a great deal of gunfire on shore. It was days and days before I ever went on shore. Maybe a couple of weeks after that, before I put my feet on shore. Our ship was assigned to the British beaches sort of on loan. They had their own landing craft, LCVPs, LCTs, LSTs, of course the LSTs could probably look after themselves, they all had a doctor aboard, the LCT, had one doctor for a group or flotilla.

But they did not have the Liberty ships of the kind that I was on to look after the personnel and the landing craft so we were sent over to Sword and Gold as an adjunct to the British landing craft. So I saw actually more British personnel during the weeks and months of the landing than I did Americans.

I did not see any severe casualties of war. I treated the guys who got sick and who came to see me. I had five pharmacists' mates, and myself. We made up the medical team. We had minor accidents, illnesses, a fair amount of venereal disease.

If I had anything severe, I always had access to take them by small landing craft to a hospital ship of which there was almost always one in sight. They came over and anchored a few days and picked up a load of casualties and took them back. Lots of interesting incidents happened.

Our ship was being hit by flack falling from the sky. We never were hit or as far as I know even a close call of any enemy fire. We stayed anywhere from one to four miles offshore depending on where we were and what the tides were like.

There was a time when we ran aground and kept bumping on the ground beneath us, right severely to where our ship's captain was very much worried about us breaking up or suffering damage to our keel but we got off in a high tide and of course got into deeper water.

We mainly watched the boats and ships that brought the supplies ashore at the time of D-Day on D-Day and on the weeks and months following. We actually swung an anchor there for four months until late September before I was taken back to England. During that time later on after the Cherbourg had gotten secure and Normandy beaches had all cleared, I went ashore many times to take men that had problems that I couldn't handle to bigger hospitals ashore and that sort of thing.

I guess my most exciting thing that happened to me was one time in very foul weather when it was very difficult for small boats to dock against our bulkhead, I did an appendectomy on somebody that had an absolutely red hot case of acute appendicitis. I had no way of doing a blood count on him so I had to make the diagnosis purely clinical. It was a rather interesting experience. None of my five pharmacists' mates had ever been in an operating room for a major operation. So we had two or three rehearsals of going through the procedure and very rapid instruction period and we did it!

I did it under general anesthesia, having one pharmacist mate, drop ether, on an open ether mask under my direction. Another pharmacist mate did nothing but kill flies throughout the procedure, one more or less held me to the table because the ship was rolling terribly, and one assisted and one handled the non-sterile instruments. I mean it was a non-sterile nurse handling the instruments as they came back and forth from the autoclave.

But we found the diagnosis to be correct, took the appendix out, kept the fellow for two or three days, and when the weather was calm, shipped him off to a hospital.

As I said earlier, the flak would fall very heavily in the early days of the invasion and one of my big problems early on after we'd been on the coast for only a day or two that would illustrative of my activities is that one of our cooks, a very important man aboard ship of course, was out and when a big burst of shell took place above us, he looked us and apparently with his jaw sagging, one of his sets of false teeth fell out on the deck and he reached down to pick it up and the other set fell out both of which burst in two.

Well, to have a cook with no teeth was a minor disaster. So I visited a hospital ship in a small boat and took the teeth and told them my story and they took the teeth back to England on their next trip and we set out our signalman and watch on the bridge to keep a sharp lookout for that same hospital ship when it made its next trip over which it did after a number of days and much complaining by the cook and again I had a small boat take me to the hospital ship, picked up his teeth, and from then on our food improved considerably.

I remember another incident when one of the men who either lived aboard my ship or was on and off of it in small craft, probably the latter, came down with a classical case of gonorrhea. Again, no way of diagnosing by microscopic examination, because I didn't have a microscope, but it was a classical case in history and physical. So, I had never seen any penicillin in my life.

I was not given any penicillin, I did have sulphur, which I started him on, but I knew some penicillin would be a very helpful adjunct to his treatment. So I got a boat that didn't have too much to do and we start off from ship to ship to ship begging penicillin.

It was my only time to board some real British men-o-war, and I'll never forget the curious look they gave me when I would come board, asking for permission to board, ask permission for the officer of the deck to go to the sick bay to seek out a doctor and tell him my problem and ask him if he can give me some penicillin.

And I got 10,000 units here and 10,000 units there, and 10,000 or so from a hospital ship, all together making up I guess 50 or 60,000 units which I gave this man. We now of course give nothing less than units by the millions of units, but of course, the gonorrhea germ in those days was not as resistant to penicillin as it is now and as far as I remember, the man was successfully cured.

What I got was about 1/100ths of the dose that we would think of giving now. When things quieted down, I made several rather pleasant trips up and down the Normandy Coast. After Paris fell and was taken over by the Allies, I very much wanted to go to Paris, but it would involve being away from my ship overnight and I was never willing to do that.

I was given leave, though, at one time, and went back to England on a ride back on some transporting vessel, I think it was an LCI landing craft infantry. Went back over to England and spent a couple of days at Solcombe with my old friends down on the coast. They were still sitting there doing the same thing they were doing when I left.

None of the five other doctors at Solcombe St. Elmo Hospital had ever left. They were still seeing some casualties but never had any very acute activity in the war. I think they sort of envied me having been on the coast, and seeing some of the action.

Although to say that I took a great part in the Normandy Invasion would not be anything I would say. I simply filled my niche, I suppose. If I had a good word to say about anybody on my ship, it would have been the repair unit which was one of the three functions of our Liberty ship. Those guys could do anything. They could make a boat. They could make an engine. They were marvelous. And of course when they had spare time they spent it making trinkets for us like tin holders out of empty shells, mounted in mahogany, had a great deal of mahogany wood because the landing craft were very much made of mahogany -- the small landing craft. The LCTs were made of steel.

So after swinging in anchor for four months, seeing a good deal of medical problems, many of which I could handle myself and many I had to ship off if they were too serious or I had no diagnostic means of handling, I got orders to go back to England where I again, after a brief stay in London, visited my old base in Solcombe, Devonshire, and was shipped back to the States with the idea of being sent to the Pacific.

I came down from New York to Washington by train and got orders to return to Norfolk where I was sure I would be sent to the Pacific, but was sent to an on-guard base just three miles from the Little Creek base from where I had first shipped out to New York.

An on-guard base was the training of the gunner recruit which manned the small cannon mounted on the stern of each of our merchant ships during the war. And they had a group of about six or eight men called the armed guard which was manned that gun on each merchant ship and I simply was in the medical department of the base which looked after those men as they came through for retraining.

One of the most interesting parts of the constant training they were given were in spotting and identifying aircraft that were flipped on a screen at just a hundredth of a second and these men would have to learn whether it was a friendly or enemy aircraft.

After serving until the war in Germany ended, the on-guard school was turned into a discharge base where we had the examinations for men being discharged from the Navy and I served on that until May of 1946 when I was discharged from the Navy.

I didn't treat any battle wounds other than very minor things like the boys on the small crafts taking troops on shore might have suffered. Anyone who was shot or injured in the actual invasion would not have been brought to my ship. We did not have hospital facilities, diagnostic facilities, and frankly, what my duty was more or less command a sick bay for anything that happened to come up among the personnel anywhere in the location that we stayed at anchor.

So as far as ever seeing anybody with a bullet in him or a limb shot off, or anything like that, I never saw it.

Oh! The battle wounds that I ever saw and treated, and I did, were on Slapton Sands making the simulated invasion. Things happened there just as happened in the recent invasion of the Persian Gulf where our troops were fired upon by friendly fire.

And I remember having a man brought to me on an LCT where I was at that time. Not on a big ship but on one of my craft of desperately wounded. I got him started on, in-shock, I got him started on plasma and got him shipped to a larger ship, I forget what type it was. It wasn't a hospital ship where he could be cared for and I'm sure he died. Some rocket fire from friendly fire.

But as far as seeing it on Normandy, I did not. I don't have any other significant statement. Because we think of all the soldiers and sailors sort of knowing what the all-over picture was, in battle, but you don't.

You only see it thirty feet from where you are. And I had no idea what beach I was on. I had no idea I was on a British beach instead of American beach. I was just aboard my ship to do my thing.

And only later did it come out the all-over picture to see what I was... I can only say the little guy as I was, was a tadpole in the ocean rather than a fish in a small pond. You simply follow orders and do your thing from your small horizon.

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