“Yesterday’s Memories Tomorrow’s Dreams” by Carmen Tom – Clarence and I Go To France

Clarence and I Go To France

It was a long time ago. As I look back now it almost seemed like it never happened. But it did and I will try to tell you of this great event. You must remember I’m now 77 years old as I write this and the dates and events may not be 100% correct, but I will try to tell it the best I can. I felt I must tell this as I have never told anyone before.

It was in 1944, I was in the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific. I had been a coxswar on a L.C.M. that stands for Landing Craft. It’s a 50 foot long all steel landing craft, has two gray Marine Diesel engines. We have 2-50mm guns on board. It has large ramps on the front when you get to the beach you let the ramp down. All 50 men got out as fast as one can. I pull the ramp up fast, back away from the beach as fast as I can, the 2 machine gunners are keeping busy all the time firing on shore, or whatever they can to get us off the beach and back to our troop ship. We repeat this as often as we can there is no 8-hour shift, you go back and forth as long as the landing takes or you are knocked out of the water. The L.C.M. will also hold 1 jeep and 20 men or a small tank and some men. After making lOOs of landings, this was a piece of cake for my old buddy Clarence and I. The Navy said, old Clarence and I were some of the best coxswains they had in the South Pacific.

One day Clarence and I were on shore on an island shooting the bull with some Sea Bees and drinking some of the hot beer. We often took the Sea Bee ashore on one of the first waves. We worked them a lot. Have to explain to you what a Sea Bee is if you don’t know. A Navy Officer, a Lt. Commander came over to us sat down and drank a beer. I looked at him, I said nothing, he soon spoke. He said I know all about you two, you’re some of our best coxswains. He said I’ll talk to you and Clarence in private, the three of us walked over to an old log and sat down. The Officer got right to the point. He said the Navy has a Special Mission they would like you to do. He explained what it was. They needed us to make a Special Landing in France. It was top secret and told us we could not talk of this mission for at least 50 years. We were to take 10 men in each craft and sweep. The Officer said that is all I can tell you now, what do you say? I looked at old Clarence and said let’s do it old buddy. He said, sure why not. France seemed a long way off and it was. The Officer got everything ready, in face he already had arranged everything. In 2 days, we left by plane and flew from island to island.

Not like it is today, a few years ago Donna and I flew nonstop to Australia from Los Angeles. We first flew from Seattle to L.A., this was about an 18-20 hour day. I can still remember it and would not want to repeat it at any age. I would like to go to Australia again, but most likely never will. After a few days, we arrived in England where we spend 1 day. The Navy had everything ready for us. The next day we left aboard a L.T.D. with our L. C. M’s. The L.T.D. was somewhere off France, where I don’t know. Early the next day at 4 o’clock, we were all ready to hit the beach. Our L.C.M.s, there were 4 L.C.M.s, were all loaded, we were again told to say nothing now or for 50 years. The L.T.D. got within 12 to 1 5 miles of shore. I was given our final orders. We were told, get to shore fast, unload and get back fast. I was told to lead the pack, Clarence was to follow me. The water was real rough, the waves would hit the ramp and water would shoot right back to me, covering the men in the hole. All the men looked real scared, some would look back at me, the coxswain stands in a 3×3 tower on the back of the craft. I have a good view of the sea and whatever is up front. I had been through this hundreds of times so I was not scared. We were at sea for about 50 minutes. I could barely see the shore, it was still dark out, just starting to get light and the tide was coming in. I picked out a spot I thought would make a good landing. At least it was the best I could see. I gave the men in the hold of the craft the signal, this is it, be ready. I hit the beach, water coming over us all the time, I dropped the ramp, the men and the jeep were off faster than you can say Jack Robinson. The jeep had a little trouble but the men helped it ashore. I could see old Clarence about 30-40 feet off to my right. He had dropped his load too. We both pulled our ramps up and backed up fast as we could. We were to get back to the ship fast. We were about 200 feet off shore and shells stared going off all around us. I looked over toward Clarence, I could see he had taken a direct hit. I got as close to him as I could, shells were going off all around us. I picked Clarence up out of the water, his craft sank in seconds. I got maybe 20 feet away and my craft took a hit right in the center. The whole front of the craft blew off and sank. My craft took another hit and started going down fast. In what seemed like a minute, a boat picked us both up. We didn’t know it was Germans until we noticed their uniforms, they said nothing and neither did we. The boat headed towards shore about 50 feet from shore their boat hit what we thought was a mine. The explosion blew us all into the water, somehow, Clarence and I got to shore. We both lay in the sand for what seemed like hours, but I’m sure it was minutes. We stood up and started to walk away fast. We looked back and could see no one anywhere in sight. I thought to myself, could everyone else have been killed. We moved ashore fast and began walking as fast as we could, when all of a sudden there were German soldiers all over us. We gave up fast! We thought to ourselves, no use to die now. They put us into a truck and took us about an hour drive away, I figured 40 to 50 miles at the most. They drove into a camp, we became P.0.Ws there. I thought to myself, this may be our home until the war ends or they kill us, but I figured if they wanted to kill us, they could have done that when they first saw us. The Germans fed us, the meal was mostly bread and sausage with few potatoes.

In a few days the Germans came and took us and about 20 to 30 others away. It must have been an hour or two then they put us aboard a ship. They told us no talking when they first picked us up or they will shoot the first one talking or all of us. So, we said nothing. The ship sailed the next day. We were all put into a hold of the ship and they told us nothing. We all wondered where they were taking us and what for. Why not just kill us. We were out to sea for hours and the sea was really rough. After being at sea for 3 or 4 days we could see through a porthole in the ship, shore ahead. We got within 2 or 3 miles of shore. All of a sudden, two big Navy ships came out from what seemed like nowhere. Shells were going off all around us, our ship took a direct hit. The German guard came and let us out fast. I could see the Captain was trying to get the ship as close to shore as possible. Our ship took two more direct hits, the ship started going down fast, we had on life jackets. The Germans had given us these when we first went aboard. It had been real cold on the ship so we figured it would be real cold out and the water would be freezing. We knew we would only last a few minutes in that cold water. The ship went down and there was a piece of ship floating on the water. Clarence and I swam over to the big piece of the ship and we climbed onto it. We could see land maybe one-quarter mile away and the tide was going in, we were really lucky. The big piece of the ship we were on hit the beach. We got off as fast as we could and ran as fast as possible away from the beach. We got about one half mile away and sat down for a few minutes, we were cold and freezing. All of a sudden, old Clarence said Free again. We started walking, went a few mile on an old road, a wagon came pulled by an old horse an old man was in the wagon. The man asked us if we wanted a ride. He spoke like he was Norwegian. I talked to him he said very little. When we got to his old farm, we went inside his house. He gave us some hot coffee and some old bread which we really loved as we were hungry and cold. He could speak some English real broken but we could make it out. We asked him where we were. He said you are in Norway. He said there are Germans everywhere. He told us we must hide out, until he can figure out what to do with us. He had worked with the underground. He let us sleep in his barn in the hay mound. This was a lot better than sleeping outside. I had slept in hay mounds as a kid in old South Dakota. He told us food has been real hard to get. He told us the Germans took most of the food the farmers raised, and they took most of their cattle and hogs. The farmer’s wife killed a chicken and cooked it with some potatoes and black bread. It was real good. She said nothing to us. This meal was the best we’d had in long time. The old man’s name was Lass, he was a very nice man. He was always singing in Norwegian. I could catch a few words and could tell they were Christian songs. One day I started singing along with him which he really liked. In broken English he told me you good Christian boy, God has taken good care of you. He said don’t ever forget God, he’s the only hope we have. He told us I must get you out of Norway before the Germans find us and kill all of us.

The next day he went to the village. Asked us how we would like to be Norwegian fishermen. One night he took us to an old fishing boat and we met the captain. He had helped men get out of the country before. Lars was such a nice man, he liked old Clarence and I. He told us get on the ship, the captain will try getting you out of Norway. Before he left, he gave both of us big bear hugs. He slipped off the ship and was out of sight before we could say anything. The captain had given us some real old fishermen clothes. Old Clarence said, see I fisherman. I said sure Clarence you Fisherman about like me. We both don’t know a Salmon from a Cod-Fish. Early the next day in the morning the ship pulled out to sea. The captain had told us if Germans come aboard don’t say anything, act real dumb. I told Clarence that’s not hard to do. We had been working a few days real hard work but we loved it. During the night the weather really turned bad, the sea was real wild. Waves were coming over the bow of the ship. We were all really scared, I could see the captain was worried. We were thinking we were free again, but for how long. Almost from nowhere a big wave came up. The captain was really scared, he told all of us this may be it. This ship cannot take much more, it will break up soon. The waves got bigger and bigger it seemed like we were 100-200 feet above on top of the waves. The big wave took our ship and landed us 600-700 feet on beach. The ship settled down in the sand. The ship seemed like it was in good condition. No one aboard was hurt. How they would get the ship out to sea again would be a big job but knowing the Norwegians, they’d find a way.

We walked to a village about a mile or two away, the Captain again said, say nothing. He talked to some men who worked in the underground. Told us he’d try to get us out. He got us a job on an old ferry that was going to Denmark. We both looked like old fishermen. We went ashore and got lost in the crowd. We thought to ourselves free again, but for how long. We made our way to France. There were German soldiers all over the place. We found some French underground men and told them we like to get out of here. Maybe we could get to some U.S. Army base. We were thinking of all kinds of ways to get back to the U.S., the underground kept us hidden for couple of weeks. We could stand it no longer. Clarence said let’s go, I said where to, he said anywhere. So we walked away, we just wanted to get to some U. S. base and tell our story and get back to the South Pacific. We were walking along on an old narrow road. We saw an old German jeep on the side of the road. We went over to it, no one was around. We got in the jeep, it wouldn’t start and I stuck a long stick down inside the tank, pulled it out and there was lots of gas. We looked at the engine. I found a gas line, it had come off the carburetor. I put it back on, took a piece of wire made a clamp, and put this on the line. I tried starting the jeep it ran beautiful, we took off, hoping all the time we were going south. We had heard the Americans were in Southern France. We drove on old roads, we saw a man on the side of the road, he looked like he wanted a ride. We said what the heck, who would like to be stuck out here. We gave him a ride he was a young Frenchman who told us in broken English he wanted to get to Southern France, said there may be U. S. soldiers there. We had been driving all day and the jeep sounded like it was running out of gas. It stopped. We all got out and started walking.

Alongside the road was an old railroad track. It didn’t look like it had been in use for a long time. We knew the track must go to some town so we started walking along the tracks, before we knew it an old train was coming from behind us. It was going real slow, so we waited on the side of the track. Until the last flat car came by, then we all jumped aboard. We were all tired, so we he down and fell asleep, I felt real warm. I woke up and looked around it was getting light out. We had slept thru the night. We we’re all hungry, but had no food or water. We noticed it was really warm out, we must be in the south. We stayed on the train and it soon came to a town. We looked ahead we could see soldiers everywhere, so we hopped off and started walking toward the town.

We passed an old house stopped and knock on the door. An old lady came to the door. We said we were U.S. Navy and we were hungry. She said no food. But she did make us some mush. What was in it we didn’t know, but boy did it taste good. We were so hungry we could of ate a horse. We thanked the old lady and left. We slipped into town there were people everywhere and soldiers everywhere. We tried to talk to some of the soldiers but they could not speak English. I said to Clarence, “Where are the Germans”, what’s up? We walked around free as birds. Soon we heard a soldier say war over. We checked around and the best we could tell the war was over, it was May.

We walked away, Clarence said let’s head out. I said but to where. We started walking on an old road, soon a jeep came along and we waved it down, asked for a ride to the next town. To our surprise, the driver was a U.S. Army soldier. We told him our story while driving along, I don’t think he believed us though. But he took us to his Captain’s office, it was in a tent. The Captain looked us over, said boy you guys are a sorry mess. We told him our story, the Captain said he had been in the Army 4 years and told us he had heard many stories, but ours was the best he had ever heard. When the Captain walked, he walked with a bad limp. I could tell he had been thru hell. I asked the Captain to call the Navy and told him the name of the Commander to speak with. I also said we were real hungry and had not had a shower for weeks. He said I could tell and smell that. He ordered a soldier to take us to the mess hall and said get some clothes for them. We ate like hungry horses took a shower, put the Army clothes on, they didn’tfit good, but we said no problem. They told us where we could sleep. We stayed a few days, then the Captain said I got word from the Navy, the Commander had told the Captain to get us back to the south Pacific, fastest way possible, he had another job for us. We thought to ourselves, what, have they any idea what we have gone through! Next day the Army told us the U.S. Navy Shore Patrol were coming for us. We wondered why the Shore Patrol. The Patrol came and took us away. First we thanked the wonderful Major, then off we went. One of the 1St things an Officer said was, you boys are out of uniform. Clarence said really we both tried to tell them our story. I don’t think they believed a word. They took us to a big Navy ship.

We were questioned by at least five officers. Finally, one officer came and told us they had contacted our officer in the South Pacific. He assured them the story was true. The navy said you boys are going back to the South Pacific. They have a new mission for you. Clarence said to me, what the hell do they expect of us. In two days the Navy had us on a plane headed for the Pacific, we knew this would be a long tiring trip. We were on four different panes before we got back to our outfit. We were put aboard a L.T.D. they gave us some uniforms. We felt Navy again. After one day the officer who had sent us to France came and seen us. He had checked our story, said we did a wonderful job. The mission we had been on was a complete success. You will be getting medals for that assignment. We said to each other, just give us the bonus money and leave in Hawaii. We got neither. The officer said we have a new assignment for you in 2-3 day you will be going to Japan. The war was still on it did not end until Sept. This was end of June. The navy said you boys do this and you’ll get that leave in Hawaii. The officer said no, leave now. He would only tell us a few details but it was very important we make this landing. The captain cam and told us you do this and if you come back alive you’ll get big bonus and three weeks leave. Finally Clarence said old man let’s do this last one Clarence called me old man at times. We were glad to be back in the south pacific, nice and hot. We would soon have our new LCMs. The navy gave us three days rest. Feed us really good I thought to myself feed us good now. It could be our last meal.

This next story will have to wait. We thought we had been thru hell in France, Norway and elsewhere. But little did we know the hell we had waiting for us.

“YESTERDAY IS HISTORY
TOMORROW IS A MYSTERY
TODAY IS A GIFT, THE PRESENT”

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