I Never Saw So Much Mud
By Steve Karoly
In the fleet Navy, boatswain's mates are supposed to be well-versed in all aspects of seamanship. Seabee boatswain's mates were not any different. Although initially trained as a diver, George Schmitt worked as a signalman at Omaha Beach. And how he got there is interesting:
"I was a signalman on the causeway at night. I got hooked by not having enough sense to keep my mouth shut. One day in England, Art DeVoe told me he had heard that I knew Morse code. I told him I did, but it was by buzzer. That was the end of that."
The next day George received notice to move out. Although he didn't know it at the time, he and 50 others were destined for Omaha Beach as the 1st echelon of the 69th NCB. They landed on the Far Shore on October 10, 1944.
The 2nd echelon, or main body of the battalion, followed four days later. "There was a strong macho feeling," George remembers, "when we went down the ladders of the LCI at" Omaha Beach. They were going to finally get the opportunity to fulfill their combat mission.
The 69th NCB was the fourth Seabee unit to operate on Omaha Beach. The Seabees had landed at Normandy four months earlier as part of the largest invasion of an enemy occupied beach to date. Battalions landing on DO-Day at Omaha Beach were: 81st NCB, 108th NCB, 111th NCB and 1006th CBD.
George and the Seabees of the Victory Battalion learned that winter was fast approaching. Mud was everywhere. All Seabee veterans of Normandy talk about the mud.
"I lived in the tent camp. That was an experience in it self. I never saw so much mud, nor have I ever seen it since. If you [slipped off] the catwalks, you sunk up to your shoe tops in mud."
The 69th NCB had one major advantage over the Seabees and Sailors who landed on DO-Day: They lived in squad tents. The original plans called for pup tents as living quarters. They were only going to stay on Utah and Omaha for 90 days. That's not long enough to bother putting up real tents.
"By the time we got to the beach the squad tents were in place. They had a plywood deck with one panel that lifted out to expose a slit trench. Some of the men used the trench to store the raisin punch they made in Jerry cans. There was an oil stove in the center of the tent with a pipe going out the roof. We had the standard Army canvas folding cots and used the canvas blanket covers as sleeping bags."
George kept returning to the mud: "The mud was one of the biggest problems we had. Catwalks had been built providing walkways around the area and to the shower and chow hall. Standard foot gear was the boots with leather tops and rubber foot covers. These were not completely waterproof. They leaked at the stitching. Nothing the Navy gave us provided a good seal at the stitching."
As was standard fair in the Seabees, the cooks of the 69th NCB did their usual bang up job while on the beach. "I don't remember any cold meals while on the beach," George said. "We had a great commissary and a good bunch of cooks. It was not unusual to get fried eggs once a week."
But remember George was a Signalman. He the very important job of directing the Rhino ferries and small craft in the harbor at night. He got the job of signaling with signal lights because he could not read the signal flags.
"I didn't get out on the bay because I was a Signalman on the causeway and worked from seven at night until seven in the morning. They figured it was safer because I could never read the flags, but I could read the blinker [light]. It was a good deal because there wasn't much traffic after dark."
But being a Signalman had its dangers. George said standing on top of the signal shack "made a great target for some nut with a rifle." Consequently, he and the other Signalmen rarely stood on top of the signal shack. Although the large signal light was located on top of the shack, they chose to use a smaller signal gun while standing a protected platform.
Their job was to talk to ships and small craft from block ships into the beach. Beyond the block ships was the responsibility of the Navy Radiomen. George said the primary function of the Seabee Signalmen was to give the Rhino ferries and other craft--such as LCTs and LCIs--docking instructions.
After 34 days on Omaha Beach, the 69th NCB was ordered to return to England. The Navy was closing Omaha Beach. The Seabees and Army engineers had opened sufficient harbor berthing so the scores of incoming Liberty ships could discharge their cargo in protected harbors.
The Navy had to close Omaha and Utah. The winter storms were coming with increasing frequency and power. It was becoming harder to manage a flotilla of small craft that needed frequent repair after storm upon storm.
"During the storms the dozers were used to secure as many of the Rhinos as possible. There was a lot that broached the beach and had to be taken off at high tide. There was a lot of repair work patching up holes and fixing power units."
So in the early morning hours of November 12, 1944, the 69th NCB moved to the famous French port of Cherbourg and boarded two LSTs for the journey back to England. They left Omaha at two in the morning. By six that evening the LSTs were pier side in Southampton.
Soon the 69th NCB was back at work preparing for their next important mission. In five months they would be on the road to Germany.