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29TH DIVISION - WWII STORIES

 

Robert JOHNSON

Sergeant

29th Infantry Division

104th Medical Battalion

Company B

104th Medical Battalion, 29th Division Aboard LCI(L)-94 on D-Day

by Mark Johnson, COL, USA (Ret.)

 My father, SGT Robert “Bobby” Johnson, was in B Company, 104th Medical Battalion, 29th Infantry Division.  Over the last few years, I have discovered a good bit of information about dad’s service in World War II. I knew he had landed at Omaha Beach during D-Day.  However, recently I became interested in finding the specific landing craft dad was on during the assault of Omaha Beach.  I was hoping that once I identified the landing craft dad was on, I would be able to reconstruct what dad went through on D-Day, June 6, 1944.  Dad was killed in a plane crash in 1981 and I did not question dad about his experience in WWII prior to his death.  I wanted to gather information about dad’s D-Day experience and pass that information to the next generation.

With the help of Charlie Giese and George Hopchak, who were on the landing craft with dad; Charlie Hyde, the son of Anson Hyde, a B Company Commander; and two prominent D-Day authors, Joseph Balkoski and Laurent Lefebvre, I was able to discover that dad was on a landing craft LCI(L)-94 (Army #532) on D-Day. The history of 94 is extensively documented and I was able to obtain first hand accounts of what dad experienced on D-Day.

LCI(L) vessels were large landing craft compared to the Higgins landing craft, which were built in greater numbers for WW II. The LCIs were the smallest steel oceangoing ships in WW II. They were built by Consolidated Steel Company in Orange, Texas. At its peak, during World War II, the company employed 20,000 people. There were 912 LCIs built. The U.S. fleet received 662. The British were given 220 and the Russians received 30. LCI(L)-94 was built in 1942 and delivered to the Navy in February, 1943. It went from Galveston, Texas to Norfolk, Virginia and in 1943 it crossed the Atlantic for Britain.  LCI(L)s were 158 feet long and could reach a speed of 16 knots. They could travel 4,000 miles at 12 knots. They had a crew of around 33 and could carry about 200 troops.

Since large numbers of troops could be carried on one LCI, combat units could be more readily kept together during amphibious landings versus separating them in multiple small landing craft. This greatly improved communications within the units. However, with a full compliment of troops, the sleeping and “dining” was extremely crowded and 48 hours was considered a reasonable time limit for 200 troops to be aboard .

An LCI(L) could deliver troops directly to the beach area, since its bottom was flat. However, there was no keel to hold the LCI steady and any slight breeze would blow it side to side. This made them hard to maneuver and moor. Also, special training was needed to raise and lower the heavy side troop ramps.LCIs had been called “Lousy Civilian Idea (LCI)” by sailors and soldiers because they were hard to maneuver and presented a big target to coastal defenses. The bottom of the hull was largely unprotected and mines could sink it easily. Also, since they carried large quantities of fuel and ammunition, any enemy artillery fire or mines had the potential to destroy the LCI with a tremendous loss of life. They were designed to deliver troops to beaches with clear lanes marked through mined areas and coastal defenses greatly neutralized. This would not prove to be the case on Omaha Beach.

However, they had four mounted 20 mm guns that could help protect the troops. Many of these LCI’s had Coast Guard crews since these crews had better training for amphibious landings.

B Company, 104th Medical Battalion was in Bodmin, Cornwall, England. The company was billeted in a hotel and the local citizens were very friendly. On May 6, 1944 they went to Blandford, England and then on May 15 they went to their marshalling area.  The 104th soldiers boarded different landing craft. Dad boarded LCI(L)-94 June 3, 1944 at Weymouth, England as part of Flotilla 10.

The Germans expected the allied amphibious force to cross the English Channel further to the north where the distance between England and France is much shorter than between Weymouth, England and Normandy, France. However, the allies saw the opportunity for surprise with the Normandy invasion and the proposed Normandy landing sites were deemed suitable for the instant ports needed for the vast armada of men and equipment.

LCI (L)-94 had a crew of 4 officers and about 30 enlisted. Lieutenant Gene Gislason was the commanding officer. His nickname was Popeye, as noted in the D-Day text by Steven Ambrose.  Lieutenant Gislason was born in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin in 1916. His maritime career began on the Great Lakes and he graduated from the New York State Merchant Marine Academy in 1938. As a holder of a chief mates license for ocean going vessels and a first class pilots license for the Great Lakes ships, Lieutenant Gislason was qualified to sail any ship in the world any place in the world. His first Coast Guard assignment in World War II was as a navigator aboard the cutter Argo in 1942. Due to his experience, skill and leadership ability, he was selected to skipper LCI(L)-94 during many amphibious landings including Omaha Beach.

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