Today, as many of us take the day to thank all of those who have served our country in the United States armed services, I find myself thinking of my late father and his fellow servicemen from the “Greatest Generation.” Thank you, Dad! My father, John MacAllister, was in the R.O.T.C. at the Colorado School of Mines, when America became embroiled in World War II with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii. Upon graduating from the Colorado School of Mines with a professional degree in geophysical engineering, my father was inducted as a Second Lieutenant into the 121st Combat Engineer Battalion, 29th Infantry Division of the United States Army. After a brief window of staging in Alexandria, Louisiana, he was parted from his new bride and was shipped to England.
While preparing for the D-Day Invasion, he was assigned to support duties after a disastrous outcome to a secret exercise called, “Operation Tiger.” Operation Tiger was a then top secret series of practice sessions for the impending invasion of France. It would become one of the major disasters of the War, when fast-moving German E-boats intercepted a convoy of American “LST” vessels in the English Channel in Lyme Bay and decimated them, killing 749 Americans shortly before the real invasion was scheduled. (LSTs were ships capable of nosing up on a beach and landing tanks and other heavy equipment.) Because of the potentially devastating effect on Allied morale, the incident was subjected to a total news blackout and most Americans had little or no knowledge of the incident until years after the war. My fathers support duties involved retrieving the bodies of those killed from the channel and other measures to keep the disaster away from public view. Because this operation was highly classified for many years after the war, it wasn’t until much later that my father could even mention the exercise, but it had a profound effect on him.
On D-Day, my father along with the rest of the 121st Engineers was assigned to the very first wave on Omaha Beach. Their assignment was to clear the beach obstacles so that the full invasion force could land. In preparation for this responsibility, each engineer carried an 80-pound pack, 40 pounds of which was “C-4,” an early version of a plastic explosive. My father was among the first men off the LST, which had nosed up on the beach in rough seas. The German defenders began their defensive shelling of the ship. The ship was struck by a shell, and the force of the impact pushed the ship off the beach. My father and several other men were pulled back out into the water by the suction of the ship. The skipper managed to nose the craft in once again, but this time the ship – which I understand carried over 200 men – was hit directly in one of its fuel tanks and exploded. In the chaos, nearly all of the men were killed, either by the explosion and ensuing fire, by drowning, or by German snipers.
My father managed to survive the landing because he was already off of the ship and, luckily, he decided not to inflate his life belt. He explained he felt that he was buoyant enough because he had wrapped the contents of his pack in oilcloth, which added some buoyancy. Not inflating his life belt kept him low in the water and he was less visible to the German snipers who were already actively picking off the survivors who had managed to wade ashore. Once ashore he said that he repeated the mantra of his training, which was “get of the beach, men die on the beach.” He scampered up the beach to a draw below the French village of Vierville-sur-Mer. Within minutes, he was up the draw and sitting in the remnants of the village, which had been heavily shelled by Allied naval forces in preparation for the invasion.
Once in the village, my father said he really had no idea what to do, so he sat at an intersection waiting for others to arrive. Amazingly, the first person to arrive was Brigadier General Norman Cota, along with his staff officer, and two other soldiers, who had landed further up the beach to the north. They met my father by walking south down the road above the beach bluff. He greeted my father saying, “Good morning Lieutenant, where the hell’s the rest of the invading army?” My father responded that he didn’t know. General Cota noted the engineer corps castle insignia on my father’s collar and asked why the beach exit had not been cleared. Again my father was without an aequate answer, and General Cota responded, “Well suppose you go and find out.” My father began to leave to return to the beach, when the General told him to wait, and that he and the other men would come with him.
The band of five men returned to Omaha Beach back down the Vierville Draw, which my father had scampered up minutes earlier. Amazingly in the process, this small band captured German prisoners on their way back down the draw. Once back down on the beach, my father was assigned to rally all surviving engineers and to clear the beach exit. Of the multiple corps of engineers that landed on the beach that day, Dad said that there were only about twenty or so men that survived the landing in condition to help with the assignment. They scavenged for explosives and equipment and cleared the way off the beach. My father was always proud that he and the others had accomplished this critical role that enabled the allied forces to move forward off the beach.
As an engineer, my father remained in the front lines of the war from Normandy clear into the heart of Germany. The day after D-Day, he came to the rescue of twenty-five men who were about to be trapped by a German counter attack. His citation reads that “he braved a hail of enemy machine gun fire” to reach them and to guide them to safety. In the process, he was shot. He explained that he probably would have been killed but for the fortune of wearing a smoke grenade. While he was shot and seriously wounded, a bullet hit the smoke grenade and knocked him down. The grenade went off in the process, shrouding him in smoke. This gave him the opportunity to gather his wits and quickly assess his injury and get on the move to safety.
As the allies moved across France, the 121st Engineers were always in front of the lines because they had to blast open hedgerows and build river crossings. Once across the Rhine and into Germany, my father, along with a few others, was assigned the duty of blasting open German vaults and confiscating all the currency and gold of the Reich. He had entertaining stories to tell about the trial and error method of learning how to become a bank robber for the Army, and figuring out the right amount of plastic explosives to use.
Throughout the war, my father was remarkably lucky. He narrowly escaped death on countless occasions. The experience profoundly affected his thinking about life, and he came to believe that that one’s destiny is largely out of one’s control. He carried this “fatalist” philosophy through his life – “when your number’s up, it’s up!” He seemed to find this comforting in a strange way.
As with most of the veterans of that era, my Dad never spoke much about the War, and it was not until his later years, that people were able to pry open his recollections. He was always somber and withdrawn on D-Day anniversaries, but likewise, he was always proud too of what he and his brothers in arms accomplished for the world. My father died in February of 2002.
Dad’s Omaha Beach experiences were described in part in Omaha Beach: D-Day June 6, 1944, by Joseph Balkoski, 2004. In Mr. Balkoski’s book, he titles a section Chapter 12 of his book, “Suppose You Go Find Out.” My father is also mentioned in the Steven Ambrose books on D-Day.
BJM, November 11, 2013