This is Joseph Henry Esclavon, my service number was 6244793. We arrived in Plymouth, England in the last part of December, December 23, 1943. We thought we were going to have a terrible time in England because all we were used to were seeing these Arab women with their faces covered up and everything and we were really startled when we got to England and found out that the people there were just like those at home. That really helped make it a great day.
Then we met some people there and they invited us to their home for Christmas. Two Americans, two Scots and two English servicemen and we really had a swell time there and that is the way I spent my first Christmas in England.
The people there were just beautiful and some people don't seem to know what a terrible time the English people had during the Blitz. But I'll tell you now that you could go uptown to Plymouth, England, that's where all the dry docks were and that's why the Germans tried to knock it out. So their ships couldn't be repaired. But they failed because those little Spitfires were pretty deadly fighters and they kept their porch pretty clear there.
They were still using the dry docks to ships and stuff like that when I left them there. And that is where they would repair them. And then, oh, about the first part, that was about February, they called us all into a big room and they swore us to strict secrecy that we would be shot if any of this was divulged to the public and they (public) was to know nothing about it.
They would come up and grill us and of course we never said anything and we would have to threaten to knock them down or something to go away and leave us alone. But I guess we convinced them because there was no way that we would give out anything on this DD drive tank -- "Duel Drive".
There was a 30 ton Sherman tank with a big canopy built around it. It had a periscope built into it. It had a bilge pump in it and this periscope would guide them to the beach. And it was really an effective weapon. And we trained with those on Slapton Sands all summer long and one of them broke down.
They had a rope that we could hook onto it and tow it in. And my boat would make about 8 or 10 knots and when we hooked on to that 30 ton tank with this big 9 foot high canopy around it, we found to our surprise, that running with three 225 horsepower supercharged diesel engines that it wouldn't hardly move that tank. So we just had to wrestle with it and just keep pulling on it til we got it to the beach.
Then a big bulldozer come out and hooked on it and pulled it on the beach. But we trained there until we were real efficient in putting them out. They had to have special ramps so you wouldn't drag the canopies off of it or anything. And it was a very good thing. And I'm glad that we had it and not them.
The Army had gunnery practice off our landing board, the LCT and they were shooting targets. It looked like it was impossible because you barely could see with a pair or binoculars. But they would shoot at them and we would wait, it seemed like ten minutes.
Finally the big projectiles from those cannons would hit, on the first shot, they knocked this target out the first shot. Then they went to the second target and one of them missed so they made him do it again. At that time, I guess we was, gee, thousands of yards from the beach. It was clear and they hit that darned thing and knocked it out. I just couldn't believe that people could do something like that -- knock something out that you couldn't see.
So I gained great respect from the men in the Army training with our DD's. Our dress of the day was just plain denim blue jeans that the U.S.N. issued and a little sock cap that we would wear and that was just great, even the officers would wear those jeans like that so they wouldn't stand out from the crew showing that they was officers.
We trained all summer with these DD tanks. We went into some port, I don't know the name, I can't remember it, but we went in and dropped our ramp on the beach and all the boats was just loading up and getting out just as fast as they could. And right then we knew that something was in the air. No one said so it was the first part of June. But we knew we were getting ready for something because we'd been through it three times before.
After we loaded up the tanks and everything, we went out and in the harbor and we anchored out there and as the LCTs in my flotilla would be loaded, also LSTs--they'd hold about 60 or 70 tanks--when they would load them up, they would run them out from docks. They also had big ramps and doors on it to let their troops and drive their machinery off, tanks and trucks and stuff.
Loading up, silence kind of fell around the harbor. Itseemed like you could penetrate it with a knife. People knew that we were getting ready for something, but we didn't know what. We had to get prepared and just wonder where we were going. It gave you a terrible feeling knowing that you was fixing to make a landing somewhere because we had met so much opposition in the other landings we had made.
We made four invasions and two invasions from Africa, and we knew what to do, what to get prepared for and we filled all our fuel tanks up, all our water tanks, got a good supply of food and ammo, all in preparation because we didn't know where we were going or how long we would be there. And that was some of the preparations that we got ready for.
The sailors that were loading up there-- their voices weren't loud. They were sort of talking in a hushed tone, like it was something anonymous that was coming up and they didn't understand what it was and you could tell that the people had fear in them from the way they talked because ordinarily the old GI, he's a boastful dog and he would just be popping off all the time as the Navy would.
But we didn't have the least idea that we would be making history when we went where we were going and we got there.
Eating was very scarce. We didn't eat much on a trip like this. The cook cooked up as much as he could and we stored it in this big ice box. (All through Africa, we didn't have an ice box.) Then we started leaving Africa to go to England, then they put us a doggone ice box in there. And it was certainly a convenient thing to have.
I was a first class mechanic, diesel engineer on a tow boat and we were hauling oil into Texas City to use to make fuel and all kind of bunkers and stuff like that for our ships and our airplanes.
And then when I read in the paper where the Sutherland brothers had gotten killed, I just couldn't hold myself back. I felt like I was just obligated to go and the wife, went right along with me. She knew how I felt, I suppose, and that's the way that worked. My brother, J.D. Esclavon, he went in the same time I did because he said if I was going, he was going.
So my wife had to sign for me to get in, and mother and dad had to sign for J.D. Esclavon to get in. And J.D. Esclavon and I were two of the closest people in the world and we still are and I visit him every year in Colorado now.
After the Sutherland brothers were killed and I talked to the wife about it, we decided I would go ahead and join the Navy and I would never be a dogface and have to sleep in the mud and eat cold food and stuff like that. That was a promise that I made to myself not knowing whether I could really keep it or not.
But fortunately it turned out that I did to keep that promise by not being a dog face. We signed up in Houston, March 1st, and they shipped us to San Diego and that's where we took our training -- in San Diego. And I made a diesel school on a mechanical aptitude test. I beat out people with college degrees by using plain old common every day American sense. And that is how I got to make the first diesel school in Chicago at Navy Pier.
And then after I graduated from that, my grades were so good that they sent me up to the GM plant in Cleveland, Ohio. I trained on the engines there on the assembly lines. I graduated from Navy Pier and I went to a diesel school, working right along the assembly line, putting them together and I found out that it was really worth its weight in gold because we were about to be kept out of one invasion by an engine blowing up and I got down there and worked on it all night by myself, and got the thing running at 5:30 the next morning.
That helped us put six extra tanks, a truck and reconnaissance jeep for the Sicily Invasion. After we got through with our school and everything, I never did get a leave. They sent us to Little Creek, Virginia and there we trained on those old LCTs, hitting the beach, letting out tanks, and all kind of stuff like that, just day after day after day.
Then they opened another one up in Solomon's Island, Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay. We spent months up there training on LCTs, learning to hit the beach and to do tricky things that you had to watch for, and we really got good and familiar with all of the gear that we had to work with so that we would make its contribution down the line when needed.
After we trained at Solomon's Island, Maryland, we don't know what happened to our ship or anything when they moved it, but they shipped us up to New York to a Navy Pier. And we stayed up there for a few days and then one night they come into the barracks and they said "Pack your gear! We're moving!" And we did.
We went from there and went to Pier 19 I think. It's where that old Normandy cruise ship was sunk, that's why I remember it. We loaded onto a big LST. Our LCT was already down on deck and tied down and we were ready to hit the wild blue Atlantic Ocean, and it was wild. Because 29 days traveling, zig-zaging before we could get to Africa and me and Frankie Powell and Dean Chapelier was on the same boat as Harold Shook.
Frankie Powell was a signalman. He was flags. We were the three of the oldest amphibious force men in the European Theater of War. And we got all our gear aboard and everything and on deck it was very hushed. No one was making any noises, no one was talking loud. It was like we knew something real dangerous was coming up but we didn't voice it to each other. We kept it to our own selves.
And then on June 4, we left Weymouth Harbor where we were anchored, and we put out to sea and they had a little patrol boat to lead us, and they pulled a paravane in the water and it would throw a phosphorous glow into the water and that was the way we would keep up where our lead guide was and we kept pretty much in a tight pack.
Then after we got into the open waters, it was so ungodly rough, you couldn't stand on deck. You had to hold on. I don't see how the tanks kept from sliding. I guess the weight of them, they told us to go back into Weymouth Harbor and our guides turned around and we went back into Weymouth Harbor and we got there the morning of June 5 because we just wallowed around out there in the Channel all night it was just about to roughest voyage I had ever made on one of those LCTs.
But, they were made up of just dozens of steel boxes welded together and they had a hatchway in each one of them. And we had fresh water in one, diesel fuel in the other one, and that was how we carried our supplies.
The first five days in June, we were awfully uptight, because the way the traffic was in England and tanks running, big trucks all loaded, we knew that something was coming up then. We would go to Weymouth Harbor at night and spend the night there and start all over again the next day.
After we ventured out into the Channel the night of June the5th, I believe it was, maybe it was the 5th, I can't remember. It was so rough, so we went back and tied up in Weymouth Harbor. Then that night we had a terrible air raid. The big Heinkel bombers plastered us and sunk some of our landing barges and stuff.
We rode that out and the next afternoon, kind of late, well, this picket boat come around and tell us to get ready and get underway. They weren't hollering it, they didn't call it on the radio or nothing. They just went to each individual landing barge, LCT, LCI and LST and they were telling them to get ready to get underway.
Then the Armada moved out from Weymouth Harbor which was one heck of a big place. And we got out into the open harbor. Otherwise, our invasion would have been the morning of June 5. But this storm and all caused them to have to cancel it.
Our signalman was a regular Navy man, Frankie Powell, and he had come off of a big cruiser, the USS Milwaukee, a heavy cruiser, and they let the Russians have it right out in mid-Atlantic and moved everything of theirs off and let them have that ship when the war was so hot and everything, and he ended up amphibious force.
But that was our gain and their loss.
The next morning, June 7th, just at daylight, our lead ship, ran the flags up and Frankie Powell said, "Well, when they two block that flag, that's when we are supposed to make a 90 degree turn to the starboard. Right" And we didn't know where we were or anything. And when they 2-blocked the flag, we made a 90 degree turn to starboard right, and that put the LCTs side to side with several hundred feet in between them so we could go into the beach because one was supposed to hit EASY RED, one EASY BLUE and one EASY WHITE and that is how they designated the beaches that we were to hit.
I went to Utah Easy Red. When it took the 2 block flag, we went into Omaha and we got in pretty close and then this little boat that was coming alongside, and he said, "Fellows, I've been here all night and I've been destroying mines, pulling them out of the way and clearing the harbor. Now, don't get out from between these two orange buoys floating in the water, stay within 'em because if you get out of it, you're going to hit a mine that's going to blow you up.
So that is the way we were initiated into Normandy Beach on D-Day 1944. And it was wasn't daylight yet, and we just went along real slow, going on in. I dropped a ramp part of the way down so we could disembark our DD tanks, and we got up pretty close to the beach and it was nearly H hour on D-Day. They were supposed to go in with the troops at 6 o'clock and we went in at 5 o'clock.
When we were beginning to get in pretty close, well, big shells began to land around us. Shrapnel would hit the side of our landing barge. But we kept going because we had to give our men and the tanks the best possible chance of getting to the beach.
It was so rough that we were scared none of them would make it. And we went on in the beach as close as we dared. We were probably only a couple of hundred yards from it. And that's when we let our tanks off and they headed for the beach and daylight broke and they knew what beach they were supposed to go in on and also they steered these DD tanks in and we turned around and went back out into deeper water to give our tanks a chance to go on into the beach to make their landing.
The tanks went on into the beach and it was two of them that didn't make it. The water was so rough. And that's why we had to go in as close as we could to give them their chance because they deserved it. And we lost two of them and we picked them (bodies) up and we stacked them up on deck and we had about eight bodies that we carried around for several days because it was so hot we couldn't get into the beach. They were real nice people on those tanks.
After our tanks were put into the water, they started on in and we went back out. We turned around to go back out, daylight was breaking and Lord, Lo, and Behold, I have never seen so many ships in one bunch in all my life. It was ... you "couldn't describe it!"
Everywhere you looked you'd see a ship, and some of them would be different shapes, all different sizes, because you had everything from a little ole' 36 foot landing barge on up to the big destroyers and stuff like that.
The ole' Texas was out there and she had been shelling the beach and I kept imagining that it kind of shook the Germans up because it did mean that when daylight broke, and we could see what they had stacked up out there in the Channel, it was just unbelievable. It was such a fantastic thing to know that that many ships could gather together and just during the dark hours and all meet there at the same time at the same place coming from all different parts of the English Channel!
And it was just, oh, Lord, it was just undescribable to see all those ships! So I can imagine from that what the Germans thought about it when daylight broke and they could see out there and see the ships out there that were fixing to get straddle of their damn necks.
The Texas and other war ships from England and some of them were French, I believe, and they were all different sizes and they were firing into the beach trying to knock those gun emplacements out and they did a pretty efficient job of it, but it was still awful hot. After we put our tanks off, we went out into deeper water and went up alongside a big luxury liner painted grey and we loaded approximately 350 GIs on my landing barge and then we broke away from them and we carried those troops into the beach.
When we got into close to the beach the second time was the first time we had been able to see the beach because when we first went in it was dark and three Spitfires were flying over and in just a blink of an eye, that German flak went up and picked one out of the air, two out of the air, three out of the air, and they'd just go down in flames.
They were ungodly accurate with their accuracy in shooting down our planes. When we got into the beach, the ships that were piled up and shot to pieces, it was just absolutely unbelievable that this thing could happen like this in just A Hour or so from the time we put our tanks off until we were back in with a load of troops because they come off the ships pretty fast and some of them were just on fire.
Some of them were torn all to pieces from those big high explosive shells and it was just, your mind would look at it and see it, but your brain couldn't grasp the multitude of ships that were already on fire and sinking. Some of them had hit mines and blew the bottom out of them and they would just sit right there and go down. Then you would have to go around them to get in.
And then they had big barricades drove down into the sand. If you hit one of those, it would tear the bottom out of your landing barge. That 125 foot landing barge of mine, it didn't draw but just a couple of feet of water, even with six tanks on it. It was just unbelievable how that shallow water and those people had shot those ships all to pieces. They were really accurate with their gunfire.
Their explosive shells were just deadly when they hit. They would just tear up whatever they hit. Well, our landing barges were so thick that these big breakers would come rolling into the beach and pick up those LCVPs, those troop carriers, and it would just lift them up into the air off of the bottom and then when they would drop, they would split wide open and the men would just have to swim away from it. They were in shallow water where they could walk.
Most of them just went ahead and walked away. But you would look at the beach. Everywhere you looked, there were dead men. It was real depressing. We didn't realize that that many men were killed on that beach. And they had one great big machine gun nest that they had dug back in the side of this big hill. And the old Texas went in there and lobbed some of them 16 inch shells in there with high explosives on them. And they just caved all in the side of that big hill in on the guns, Germans, and everything at the same time. So I guess it's well preserved by this time.
We were getting deadly fire on that white beach at the very end. There was a big mountain at the back of it. And they had a big gun emplacement down there. And they would have 12 or 14 inches of concrete. Then they would have an inch of steel, then 12 or 14 inches of concrete and with more steel in it. The vents in it were all zig zaged. They were pretty shrewd people, I'll tell you.
The Texas battleships would fire at that thing gun you'd just see a big red flash of fire and black smoke would boil up in the air. And they kept shooting and this gun kept firing back and we couldn't understand why they couldn't knock it out with those 16 inch shells. They weighed approximately 2000 lbs. from what I understand. And that's a lot of weight.
You could follow the trail of the projectile from the muzzle of the gun until it hit the beach and it was a pretty fascinating thing to see. And everyone was just dumbfounded because we were knee deep in death and expecting it to jump on us just any time. It was so uncomfortable to feel that way. When we started back out, we picked up some dead men and Dean Chappelier walks up to me and says "Hey, Tex, do you recognize those people?" I said, "No I don't, Dean." Chapplier said, "Those are the ones we trained with in Slapton Sands."
Apparently, their tank sunk before it got into shallow water. And that's the bodies that we carried around for several days before we could get a chance to put them ashore. People were very conscious of these men that were dead. I guess for the grace of God, it wasn't one of us because no man received a wound on my landing barge through any of the invasions I was ever in. And it turned out the same way at Normandy on D-Day, June 6th.
By 8 o'clock I guess we had already carried our tanks in and we carried a couple of loads of soldiers, infantrymen, into the beach and we would get them in and let them off and some of them would try it and I guess they was just unlucky, I don't know, and it was their time, because a big shell would hit them and just burst them wide open and then they would hit mines that would tear them up too.
The carnage on the beach was just awful. It looked worse than a garbage dump with old wrecked cars sitting around everywhere except they were boats. And some of them, the tanks had the turrets slapped off of them from shell fire and the shells were so powerful they would hit and just tear them up.
Some of them had a special type of gun or bullet or something and they would hit those three inch tank canopies and it would burn a hole right through them. It was so amazing to see something like that, that would go through three inches of solid steel.
Sometimes the water was so shallow that when we would go to take troops in, we would hit a sand bar from the wave action on the beach because it was terribly rough and we would have to let our men off a hundred yards of so from the beach because we couldn't get over the sand bar and they would struggle into the water and you could see the machine gun bullets hitting in the water all around him and sometimes it would be low to the left or right and they would correct that firing until they were just dumping every damn shell right in on our soldiers.
They dropped their guns and just fell into the water there and then the wave action from the rough water would wash those bodies up on the beach and some of them would be half covered up with sand.
It was just unbelievable, sitting here now, I can't hardly believe that this thing happened. Because my mind just got used to thinking about it since I've been making these tapes for you. I can remember things now that I thought I'd forgotten and sometimes I wish I would forget them. But then, people don't have that kind of luck all the time.
Now that I'm on it, I was worried that I couldn't fill up a one hour tape. Now I'm afraid I'm afraid I won't even be able to get in on an hour tape. But that's all right. We don't care, do we?
The shell fire was so intense that our men would hit the beach from those landing barges and they would only go up to where they would find shelter and protection under a little sand hill. And that's the way they would do. And they were scared to move because they knew they would die if they did and everybody was trying to get them to get up to move on in.
But it just took so much more grit than a person would ever realize that it would take to get up under imminent fire that way and go onto the beach. But they would have been safer if they would have done that. But then, fear would overrule lots of them and I was pretty well full of fear myself. And this made my fourth invasion.
I'd seen people killed before, but it never did get to me like Normandy did. A big tank trap dug out there on the beach up just a little ways. I guess it must have been 15 or 20 feet deep and it was real wide and I guess they thought that our tanks would run off into them before they discovered it was there. I think a few of them did.
But then it didn't take our ole' CBs with those big giant bulldozers with just a damn short while to just go in there and cover that up. Even though it was late in the afternoon before they finally got most of it covered up where a tank could travel over it.
It was a full time job, there's no doubt about that. Those jeeps, half tracks with 20mm pods on them. Tanks, and big stakes trucks and bodies just completely littered the whole beach. You couldn't hardly step that you didn't step on a body. And like I mentioned before, I heard somebody say that we lost 7000 men. I don't know if that's erroneous or not. But I do know that we lost a heck of a lot of men there on that day. And there was no way that you could get around it or anything else.
You just had to go in and try and some would make it and some would just drop right there. They didn't make it. When darkness finally come on us for the first day, we were still getting a lot of heavy artillery and stuff from the Germans and we couldn't figure out where it was coming from. We knew that they had a hidden emplacement somewhere and back inland, they had pill boxes and they was hexagon shaped and on each pill box side that was flat, they had a picture of the beach, how many yards and feet and everything it was.
If they elevated this mortar so high, to the left or right, they could tell just exactly where it would hit on that beach down there. And they were probably a quarter of mile back inland. But they could still drop mortars on us with ungodly accuracy and we couldn't figure that out until later when we found the pillboxes and the GI Joe had already destroyed them by throwing a hand grenade in them.
They were made with natural green vegetation woven through chicken wire and half of it was secured. And they had hinges on one side of it where they would get in it and they would raise that up and let a few rounds go and pull it over them and you couldn't see it if you was ten feet from them they were so cleverly hid.
Sometime the first day, June 7th, they knocked this big gun emplacement out down there on White Beach and that gave us such a terrific release and relieved us all because we weren't getting that big shell fire from down there.
But some gun was hidden somewhere that just kept tearing us up every time we would hit the beach. They would knock out anything we would put on the beach. We were so busy hauling in troops and equipment for them to fight with and trucks -- all that kind of stuff. Big artillery. That I just don't remember when they finally broke out of the beachhead to penetrate back inland.
But I do know that on the second day, early in the morning, I was standing on deck, and when one LCT would go in, two would go in, three would go in, then they would open fire, never a single one. So we learned to go in just one at a time and soon we did empty up and pull off with their anchor. Well, another one would hit it. And that's the way we run it, kind of staggered like that, so we would have a little more security in going into the beach and all.
I was standing with the binoculars up on the conning tower, and I was looking at the beach. And I saw an LCI 90 go into the beach, and when they went in, a big explosion on the starboard side at the engine room right at the water level hit that thing, tore out the other side and it sunk right there.
Ninety-one hit the beach loaded with troops, and infantrymen and when they would hit the beach, the same gun would turn loose another round or two. And they sunk 90, 91 and 92, just jammed up right side by side on the beach. And as they would run down the gangway, the machineguns would just cut them down like you would shoot blackbirds out in the rice field that were destroying your crops.
Nobody seemed to have any mercy on anybody and nobody gave any ground. And that was the key to the whole thing. Nobody gave up. Just scared to death that they would still go on and continue to try and work their way back in. And had encouragement from the officers and everything and that helped, too.
They would just cuss them out and tell them get the hell on into the beach and stuff like that. They didn't mean to be cruel. They needed to move them in, because fear had such an ungodly hold on them, that you just couldn't seem to get up on your own initiative and walk into a deadly fire that you knew was going to take your life away from you. And that's the way it was all that first day.
In the morning of the second day, we were still getting torn up pretty bad, all through the night, all through the day. They would just lob those shells in there, and they all seemed to come from one place. So I took the binoculars and got up on the conning tower, and I started watching. And I would see the shells hit.
The LCT would hit the beach, or LCI or LCM, landing craft medium, they carried quite a few troops on them, they were 50 feet long, I believe. I noticed that the shells seemed to be hitting almost in the same place all the time. So I got to looking at the vegetation line and they had hedgerows all up and down those mountains.
Finally, it just luck, I was standing there looking at this hedgerow and I saw the trees all move suddenly, and just seconds later, a big HE shell would hit the beach. And then I would look back at it and I would see this vegetation and then another shell would hit the beach. But they wouldn't fire constantly. Just at intervals.
I called Mr. McGee up, (my skipper,) and I said, Mr. McGee, we got a big gun emplacement over there, where this hedgerow comes down to the low water, and another hedgerow meets it. There's a big gun in there that's firing.
He said, "How do you know, Joe?"
I said, "Okay. I tell you what you do. You let me have the glasses and you look at the beach and I'll tell you when a shell is going to hit. So he said, "All right."
So I saw the vegetation move and just seconds later, this big HE shell hit the beach right in the middle of those little landing barges, tearing them up.
He said, "Dang if you're not right, Joe, it must be one." And I would watch that and I'd see the brush move, and I'd say "Now!" And by the time I'd get that out, the shell would hit the beach.
So he said, "Let's crank the radio up." And we did. And we called to a big destroyer out there. We told them what we had found and where it was located, and everything. And they come barreling in there on that beach, and it popped over sideways, port side to the beach, and they turned loose about eight rounds of 5 inch projectiles, with high explosives in them. And it just completely tore that place all to pieces.
After that, well our ships began to go in safe without being under enemy fire. And they congratulated me on finding it because he said it was such a hard thing to detect and if you hadn't been looking for it, you'd never have found it, Joe.
I said, "Well it had to be coming from somewhere." So that way we were real fortunate in that episode. On the second day, there was less enemy fire coming down to the beach. But they were still losing a lot of ships by hitting mines and then this big storm got worse and it would take those landing barges and break your anchor cables on LCT's, LCIs, LSTs and LCMs and smaller boats like that.
The wind was so strong that it would just pile them up on the beach. And they would just bounce up and down, up and down, until finally they were hard aground. And they just sat there, and the longer they sat there, the more the Germans tore them up. And they just kept shooting them. And my friend Harold Shook was on LCT 703. And I saw his boat on the beach.
When I went to look at it several days later, there was just hundreds of holes in the side where machine gun had penetrated it. It was just thin metal, and the crew had gotten off. And Harold Shook was safe, thank God. He was down the beach a ways, but I was just scared to death I was gonna find the man dead.
There was also a big gun emplacement just above and on top of the hill where that big gun was that the destroyer had knocked out. And it was the most ingenious thing I've ever seen in my life. These trucks and stuff loaded with men and of course their equipment started leaving the beach, the evening of the second day, I believe.
Someone might could give you a more true data on that because I don't know. I was down on the water hauling men and supplies in and I couldn't tell very much of what was going on on the beach because that wasn't my problem. My problem was to get them in on the beach, get them safe, unload them, and then they made out on their own the best way they could.
There was one little road that went up it and that was the only road down to the beach or up from it, because that hill was big. It must have been several thousand feet high. And the pillboxes on top of that where they could look right down on us and roll hand grenades and stuff right down was what was causing us all the doggone problems.
Part of the observers had maps, and each square was numbered, and they started getting out from the beach going up into the hills on high ground and there was a big gun emplacement just above where this gun that we knocked. I said a while ago that it was a really ingenious thing. Because one GI had discovered it and told the destroyer about it, and they would run up there and drop big 5- inch shells on it until they had knocked all the men out.
Then our beach began to get more quiet and people began to progress going back inland and things like that, spreading out, taking all the territory they could. One gunman was down there and he didn't meet any opposition and I understand by the Stars and Stripes that Ernie Pyle wrote, bless his heart, they (English) were really condemning us for staying down there on the beach instead of getting up and meeting them.
But then that Lymie, he was up there and not meeting any opposition, so he could just march on in and go about his business. And I kind of resented that coming from the English because they acted like we were scared and stayed tied down when we shouldn't have.
On the third day, we kept hauling stuff in trying to catch up with the demand and we carried as much stuff as we possibly could and we started unloading great big heavy artillery and stuff off of ships. They had special booms and stuff like that where they could let them over the side to us.
And then the CBs, they put a big ramp like thing out in the water and anchored it down, and our LSTs would go up on it, and dock right on it several hundred yards out in the Channel and they would dump off the tanks and they would run over these big pontoons until they got on solid ground. And that was a big saver, too.
Then they brought something in from England. They called it Mulberry. And they had big gun emplacements on them. But I don't think they were very effective because it was so far out in the water and everything, and when they sunk them, they were in water just a little bit too deep. I do know that on the fourth day, the beach was quiet and we would run into the beach and didn't have any fear of being shot out of the water.
When the water would rise and fall one foot every ten minutes, they say from low tide to high tide, they say it was 42 feet. And I have no reason to doubt that at all. Because when you dump a load off those tanks, if you didn't get out damned quick, then you was grounded and you stayed there for 12 hours until the water come back in and you could pull yourself off. And that was really detrimental to us, too, until we learned to cope with it.
There was a gun emplacement up the hill from where the skipper and I had reported this big gun emplacement and I think it was on the fourth or fifth day that we could dry out real good. So I went up there because you couldn't do anything. And it was pretty safe to walk around as long as you didn't step on a mine. And the engineers had pretty well cleared out all of the mines. So I went up to this big gun emplacement, and they had two 75mmguns.
They were still mounted on wooden wheels and they were firing ammunition at us, the 75mm shells, that were made in 1916,1917, 1918 and that's what they were shooting at us with. Tearing us up. So apparently, they must have kept them from World War I and turned around and used our own equipment on us.
Well, I talked to this GI and he said that it was pretty safe. They had been all in and out the gun emplacement. So I asked him if I could go. And he said, "Only if I can go with you." And I said, "All right, let's go look at it." And it was approximately 35feet down this ladder to where there was a great big ammunition storage place.
And they had an endless belt that they could, hand crank shells up and they would lay these 75mm shells on that and pull a rope up and ammo would bring it up to the man firing the gun on top. Now they had two of those guns up there on that hill hid in the brush. And each one of the guns in this gun emplacement, you went down in it, and then you could walk about 20 or 25 feet and then you could walk up another ladder and at the top, there was another old 75mm with wooden spokes on it.
While I was down in there. It wasn't completely dark. I got to looking around, and I found some that looked like 30 caliber ammunition. Just boxes after boxes of it, that--they were purple on the end. And I picked up five of them that was in a clip, and I still have one of them. And when people try to tell me that they didn't use wooden bullets on us, well I can tell them they're a damn liar because I got one of them that I can prove it.
And when I say that, I expect people to believe it because I've still got one of the shells left that just slowly over a period of 40years or more, they just got away from me, except one. And I got it in a bronze metal box. It was unbelievable the way that they had this gun emplacement set up there and they were just as safe as they would be in their mothers' arms. But our destroyer went in there and knocked them out, and then the army went in and dropped hand grenades in there and killed the rest of them.
But it didn't explode the ammunition. And they had enough ammunition stored in that damn storage bin that would last them for weeks, even months. It was shells made in the United States, stamped on the head, 16,17, and 1918. U.S.A.
When me and my buddy started coming off that hill after looking at those gun emplacements up there, we just walked down the hill and somebody started hollering at us to stop, stop! And we asked them what the hell he wanted us to stop for. And he was an MP. And he said, "Do Not Move! Under no Condition! I'm coming to you!" And he swept that place with a mine detector until he got to us.
And he said, well, I was lucky as hell. He said, some of them you can't pick up with a mine detector. He said, but some of them that's got metal on them, you can. So he told us to follow him through that mine field and step everywhere that he stepped, and we did. And it must have been a couple of hundred yards across it. And you talk about two guys that really worked up a sweat.
But my buddy and I had worked up a sweat because it was fearful knowing that you could step on a mine. Something that the Navy is completely unfamiliar with at that. And just blow yourself into kingdom come.
But we did get through the mind field all right and then when we got on the other side, this lieutenant chewed us up one side and down the other and he said that it had never been cleared of mines and that we were lucky that we could even cross it. From then on, when I went on the beach, I stayed to the beaten path.
After the beach got pretty quiet and it was relatively safe, with the exception of stepping on a mine, and stuff, our Army had beat the Germans back, and we would walk around on the beach and look at different things like that and the Germans laying there were black. They'd been dead several days, I suppose. I found a potato masher (a hand grenade). And I still have that. It has a swastika on it, made in 1940.
And then I found a stainless steel fork that had fallen out of that German soldier's mess kit and I picked that up and I gave that to my daughter and she still has it. It is just a memento. And dog tags were laying there and I took one of them. He didn't have anymore use for it, and I didn't feel like I was stealing or anything. So I took that, too, and I still have that that I gave to my daughter because she likes to keep old things. That's why she takes care of me so good.
The second day we took some little Piper Cubs for observation planes into the beach. There were three of them. And every time we would hit the beach, the MP would run us off. He would tell us it was still full of mines and we were lucky we weren't blown up. We hit the beach 7 times and they kept running us off.
Finally, we told them that we had to get the damn planes off, mines or no mines. So we did pick them up. All the crew got together and picked them up carried them out on the beach and set them up. The pilot checked them all over. All the engines and everything in them. And then when he started flying reconnaissance over there, telling them where to fire, well, that's when they really cleaned our beachhead up.
Because he found all the gun emplacements back inland, and he would tell them what number on the map to fire on, and they would do it, and then he'd tell them left to right, up or down, and that's the way that they finished cleaning out all the gun emplacements that were off the beachhead. And it was pretty well full of them, too.
A big house submerged up there that the Germans had been to or staying in and out of the weather and the boardwalk, it had three-inch boards on it. And they were worn down from those hobnail shoes until it was almost worn in two. And that is where the Germans would stay. But I never did get a chance to go into it, or anything, because the MPs wouldn't let you. And that was one of the things that I did miss out on.
After we dumped our initial load in, we went back out alongside the Samuel Chase and while we were out there, a little LCVP landing barge with troops would come up alongside of us and we waited on them to send personnel to take care of them and they never did, so they finally let a big pallet down by the winch that you could set these stretchers on, and I jumped into this little boat to unload this man, and he said, "Is my gun around here?"
And I said, "Yeah." He told me that he didn't want to use the rifle, that he wanted me to. And I said, "What do you want me to do with it?" And he said, "Put it between my eyes and pull the trigger." And it just seemed to make me sick all over because his legs were torn all to pieces. His heels were under his head, and while I was fussing with him, I was taking his feet out from under him and it was just like a, oh, God, I don't know how to explain.
But there was just no resistance to straightening his legs out or anything. His bones was all crushed. And I took the man and got him on the stretcher while I was fussing and cussing at him. I didn't know anything else to do. And I was so heartsick from it all. And I got him in this basket. It had an individual place for each one of your legs. (They had just come out with those), instead of just a plain open litter basket, whatever it be.
I got him on that and carried him over and put him on this pallet so they could lift him up to a hospital ship. And then just a few minutes later, probably 15 or 20 minutes, they let him back down to us. He was dead. And he was one of the bodies that we had carried around.
I don't know how many people we pulled out of those LCTs were in that shape. I don't imagine it was very many of them that even lived. Because there were bullet holes punched into the sides of the boat, and everything else, and you could see why a man wouldn't have much of a chance being riddled in a small confined place like that with a darn machine gun blazing away at them.
And that was just one of the many things that we run into. Just as I got through unloading this solder and got this boat cleared out and before another one come in, Melvin Blume, my cook, said, "Joe, I got dinner ready." And I said, "Okay." And I hadn't eaten in a couple of days then. So I went into the galley to eat, and he handed me a piece of cooked liver in a plate with a spoonful of green peas in it, and the peas were just floating around in the blood from this half-cooked liver.
And I guess I must have went ape for a few seconds, but I got that 45 Tommy gun, kicked the safety off it, and jammed it under his throat after I threw the plate in the garbage can. And I told him that if he ever stuck something like that in front of me again, I'd shoot his damn head off.
Of course, later, I apologized, and he apologized and said he didn't realize what he was doing. And it is normal enough that under these conditions that two people could make a mistake like that. But I didn't hold it against him or anything like that. I just took it in my stride because the skipper or none of the crew had never been in action and they had to depend on me quite a bit.
Like I told you on the other tape, I was born aboard a houseboat on the Neches River. And the water is my second home. I am perfectly free anywhere I am on the water because I can row a boat, skull it, I can do anything to a boat.
And working on a tow boat and all, that made me eligible to where I could handle one of the landing barges around under my own power and I often did that helping my officers out and stuff like that. But you just stay up day and night, day and night, and it wears you out like that and your patience wears thin, and you have to have a lot of tolerance for these things.
Lord, have mercy, I didn't know I had all these memories bottled up this way, but I've been thinking and working on this thing for about two or three days now, so I guess some things are coming out that were hidden to me before.
We went into the beach and dumped our troops off and we had extensive experience and practice at landing these landing barges. But some of these young men, they didn't know much about them. And when they went into the beach, some hit the first sandbar and dumped their troops off. And between that first sandbar there and the beach, the water dropped down to eight feet deep and as far as I know, all of them drowned except five.
And I told the skipper, Mr. McGee, to throw the dingy boat overboard and let's pick some of them, up and he said, "Joe, you can row a boat better than any of us. Will you do it?" And I said, "Yes. I don't give a damn who does it, just as long as somebody does."
The first man I got to, I didn't see his face. He had his big pack on his back. They'd all thrown their rifles away, and the foam was over his face, just big bubbles. And he was so near dead from drowning, that I had to roll him into the boat manually, and I put him right into the bow of it, and I pulled him in and he asked me not to throw his pack away.
And like a jerk, I picked it up out of the water. It was so heavy, I could hardly move it. I put it in this little rowboat with him. Then I went on and picked up two others. My cook had went with me, Melvin Blume, and we picked these other two up.
Now that made five people in that little old boat that was built for one to pick up mail. And you can't tell me there's not a God, because there's no way in the world anything like this could happen that somebody wasn't on your side. And I rode through this high-breaking surf, waves seven and eight feet high. When I got to the beach, there was a Major Duncan there. He was beach captain. They run out and grabbed the boat. He saw what I was doing.
They grabbed the bow-line, and pulled it into the beach, and they just bodily got around that thing and carried it back on high land. And the sound from the surf was just terrific, rolling in, and he said, "Son, I wish you wouldn't try to go back through that."
They unloaded the men and put them in an ambulance and carried them off because, I guess they lived, I don't know. I had no other contact with them. And when he said he wished I wouldn't go back through that, I said, "Why, Major?" And he said, "Because nobody can row through that surf, even one time, and get by with it."
And I said, "Well, I got all the help I need, Major." He said, "I don't see anybody there but you, Joe." And I said, "The Man is helping me, you don't see Him. He's just above me, and no one can see Him but He tells me every move to make. So I have no fear, Major, I've got to back. They need me on my landing barge."
So he got the troops around and they picked this little boat up and carried Melvin Blume and I in it. Wouldn't even let us get out. And they carried us out in the water up to our waist and gave us a hard shove. I rode through the surf and just as I got in the clear, I saw two heads sticking up. They were together. And I said, "What do you have under you?" And he said, "A dead jeep." He said he was captain something, I don't remember his name, I wish to God I could because I tried to locate him through Time/Life magazine, because he told me that he was a reporter for Time/Life magazine.
He said, "Could you find my typewriter?" And I said, "Man, the beach is running about 10 or 12 knots an hour. You can't stand up against it. And you want me to go and look for something like that?" He said, "Well, it's in a case, zipped up, it won't leak." I said, "Men are dying out there by the hundreds and you expect me to waste my time looking for a typewriter?"
He said, "No, I guess not." But I told I would row right between 'em and I told one of them when they got in to pass the signal to the other one and both of them put a leg over the sides of the boat at the same time so they wouldn't tip me over. And so they did. And I turned around and rode them back into the beach through the breakers and everything. I still don't know how I done it unless God was with me. He had to be. And I carried them back.
And that major was just storming, back and forth and he said he wasn't going to let me go out through that again because no one could possibly make that four times, let alone three. But I talked him into it. They unloaded the two men. They could get around on their own power because they hadn't swallowed any water and they went ahead and got out of the boat and then the major said, when I told him that I would wave at him when I got in the open, and he said, "You'll never make it, sailor," and I said, "Well, I've got to try haven't I?"
He said, "Yes. And you're hard-headed as hell, too. I ought not to let you go." And I said, "Sir, you're in the Army, I'm in the Navy. You have no command over me." And he said,"Well, that's true, too. All right, get the hell away from the beach, then. I'm going to watch you and I'm going to expect that wave, but I know I'll never see it. Four times? It's impossible to do what you just did." And they carried me out in water pretty deep and I started rowing the boat and I rowed through the breakers and when I got in the open, Major Duffie was still standing there and shading his eyes.
And when I got in the open, I waved my hand from left to right and he held his hand up and he put his palm towards me to motion to go on. And he just shook his head and turned around and walked off. But, I had all the help in the world that I needed and I know that God had to be with me. Because another incident like this happened one time and I got the feeling, the premonition that, that was my day to die.
I accepted the fact because too many had died for me to be spared. I finally got by myself when I got a break unloading the landing barges, and I asked God if he would spare me and not take my life, that I would never let a day pass that I wouldn't thank him for another 24 hours.
That was 44 years ago, and every night I still get down on the side of my bed on my knees and I pray to him and thank him for another 24 hours, because He alone gave me the extra 24 hours. After I'd made this promise to Him, this real ominous feeling went away from me and I felt free like there was no worry or anything. And yet, I was surrounded by death.
So I guess God does answer prayers because he certainly did answer mine that morning at Normandy beachhead. Unknowing to me, for rescuing those five soldiers, my skipper had put in a letter for me to get a bronze star. And I did get it when I got back to England. Like all those sailors and officers out there, well, I was just petrified from fear and my commander, Pruett, he said, "Joe, what the heck's the matter with you, boy?"
I said, "Commander Pruett, I've been in four invasions and this has scared me more than any invasion I was ever in." And then the whole crowd just burst out and laughed and that broke the spell, like, and I limbered up after that. But that's what it took to break it. And I got the bronze star. I've never had it out of the box. It never meant anything to me. I didn't care anything about it. And, well, the kids were proud of it, but it never meant anything to me except I saved the lives of five fellowmen, and that's all that it has ever meant to me.
I think the world should know it because we went through pure, unadulterated hell and of the three invasions I was in, none of them was as bloody as Normandy and we didn't lose as many men as we did at Normandy. But we still lost a lot of men.
One man is too much.
We were dried out on Red Beach at Normandy and there was a big bomb crater or shell crater in the beach. And I was standing there looking at it and there were two bodies in it. Then two English sailors come walking along the beach and they started probing at the bodies with their guns and stuff and one of them reached down and opened up one of the soldier's packs, and they started to rob him.
I kind of went nuts there for a second. I grabbed a machine gun and kicked the safety off and just as I started to pull the trigger, well, my officers each one of them hit me from each side. And that's all that saved those people. Because if there's anything I could never stand, I believe, it's them robbing a dead body who had given his life to help save England and then they come around and do that to a body. I just can't understand those kind of people.
About a week after being on the beach, well, there's trucks, jeeps, tanks, stake trucks, and everything in the world had run up and down that beach. Some of them were loaded with ammunition and stuff to take to the front line to put in an ammo dump and this one soldier was walking along the beach and we were standing there for some reason just looking at him walk up and down the beach and all of a sudden, he started up in the air and then the sound come to us of an explosion.
It just blew that soldier all to pieces. And I just can't understand how something like that could happen when you step on a mine that blows you up after just hundreds of thousands of tons of machinery and stuff had run over it and it didn't explode. So that didn't make sense to me either.
I went up to the old tent city of Normandy and I was going up to get mail or see if we had any in there, and I hadn't received any mail in way over a month and I knew the wife had written to me and when I went up to get it, I noticed a tent that said, "Beaumont, Texas" on it. So I walked in there and I asked who the joker was from Beaumont? And this guy said, "I am." And I said, "Well, I am, too, let's talk." And I remember his name now, it was David Hall.
We went down on my landing barge to drink a cup of coffee and I threw a picture of my brother out there and he said, "O-o-oh, that's J.D. Esclavon!" And I said, "Yeah, it sure is." And I threw, I had five sisters but I threw the picture of Lois Esclavon and Eleanor Esclavon out and he identified them immediately.
Then I threw out a picture of mother and dad and he identified them. Then all of sudden, it dawned on him what was happening. And he looked at me and said, "Well, who in the hell are you?" And I said, "I'm Joe Esclavon. That's my mother and father, and my sisters and my brother."
And he said, "Oh, for God's sakes, you must be the one that's been off on tow-boats all these years working when J.D. Esclavon and I were running around together. And I said, "Yep, that was me." But it was so funny. I knew him and he knew me, but he couldn't remember ever seeing me before until I jogged his memory a little bit. And that's just another anecdote that you can throw in there, how two unknown people can meet in the ungodliest place in the world and find out that subconsciously they knew of each other all along.