Saturday, April 19, 2008

"A 19 Year Old's Journey To Hell and Back"

Graduating from high school at 16 was quite an accomplishment back in the 1940's, but enlisting in the Service was the goal for my dad, Ernie Doucette. Having to wait a year because he wasn't eligible to join the military, he worked as a mechanic in Reading, MA. where he and his best friend, later to be my uncle, Phillip Burbine, aka: 'Chippy Burbine' as he was called, together they registered as members of the U.S. Air Force. My father really didn't find the Air Force to be what he wanted so he transferred to the U.S. Army so he could be "where the action was" to quote him. Dad was a second generation Army man to go to France as well, my grandfather was a World War I veteran. The Army sent my father to Clemson University for a semester of Engineering classes as they saw something unique in him that would later prove be a valuable investment on Omaha Beach and again the the Pacific Theater.

Fort Devons MA. would be dad's new home for a while now. He said his good-byes to his high school sweetheart, Alice Gorman, his parents and friends, for now it was time to concentrate on the tasks ahead of him along with all the other soldiers leaving to go to a foreign country to fight for their freedom. (to be continued...)

Training In England

Dad and other engineers from all military divisions were on their way to an unspecified location in England for extensive training on "dummy" landing crafts on shore. All were taught how to embark and disembark from different LCI's. (landing craft infantry..which I will reference as LCI's from now on) The exercises, day after day.. hour after hour, proved useful in working out details as how to fit as many men and equipment into the small crafts as possible. They also had "assault training lanes" where troops could land and work their way inland overcoming a series of obstacles, using live ammunition as well as real explosives. Dad's first training experience began on Woolacombe Beach at the southern end of the beach called Saunton Sands. His Assault Training Camp (ATC) started with a soldier's individual skills revolving around their LCI's. As his training progressed, he was moved on to a small unit operations through company and battalion exercises. After he graduated from this phase of grueling four week training, he moved on to a larger scale of landing exercises at Slapton Sands. Since live ammunition was being used in these exercises, the local people were evacuated for safety reasons. His training now at Slapton Sands would help him and other soldiers to improve plans for the D-Day Invasion. Training was tough and it didn't come without casualties either. On 27 April, 1944, German E-boats attacked two LSTs (landing ship tank) and badly damaged a third. One hundred ninety Sailors and 441 Soldiers were killed, mostly from the 1st Engineer Special Brigade. This was referred to as the "Operation Tiger" disaster. And so, training resumed with the Allies now sending their bombers to strike the German E-boat squadrons, severely damaging the E-boat threat to the D-Day convoys.

Training was exhausting and rest or sleep was virtually non-existent, but dad and every soldier chosen for this task knew that the success of the long hours meant success of failure for the landing in Normandy. Between the British troops and the French farmers learning how to use pigeons as a means of carrying messages and questions for the allies to obtain answers, dad's unit continued practicing going up and down the side of a mock LCI on cargo net while they carried a full load of equipment. Once he mastered the cargo netting up and down, it was on to demolition charges and then the rifle squad. He was chosen as one of the riflemen for the 293rd JASCO Unit. Mastering all of these different tasks was no easy chore because just one mistake, one moment of memory lapse could have cost him his life as well as the lives of his fellow soldiers. There was no room for any mistakes. All equipment carried on to Omaha Beach had to be completely waterproofed as well.

Dad's training in England was drawing to an end. He and 10 of his fellow JASCO buddies were detached from their 293rd JASCO Unit and re-attached to the 149Th Engineer Combat Battalion supporting the 116Th Infantry Regiment. Their destination: Dog Green~ Training for "OPERATION OVERLORD" had been completed. Now, the waiting had become the biggest problem because of storms. And so day after day became a "wait and see" situation. Finally, 6 June, 1944, dad and others climbed the real cargo netting onto the LCI 92 and headed out to something he never dreamed could possibly happen ... disaster just waiting for them in the English Channel. What 19 year old could have ever prepared himself for his ship to become entangled in teller mines, blow up, see your buddies beside you die in front of your eyes, watch as your fellow soldiers drowned because they were trying to do what they were trained to do ... bring your equipment onto Omaha Beach. They had no training for this so it had to come down to common sense. Dad once told me that you had to think really fast to drop all of your equipment in order to get back up to the top of the water because if your didn't, you'd drown. And, that's what happened to many soldiers that morning. They forgot to save themselves. The LCI 92 never made it into "DOG GREEN". Neither did the soldiers~ they found themselves in the grips of hell instead.

This morning, 9 July, 2008, I found "The Longest Day" on TV and watched as all the ships, Higgins Boats and soldiers tried in vain to land on Omaha Beach. I kept thinking about my dad as he tried to save his own life and those around him as their LCI 92 burnt in the English Channel. At 19 years of age, it was hard for me to comprehend how he survived that morning, kept going and somehow reached the beach. He did his job, set up communications with the Air Force and Navy but only after he found himself in a horrific fight with the Germans. Little did he know that it would be combat first and then only after Omaha Beach had been secured, he would then go into 'engineer mode' with communications. I watched this movie through the eyes of one of his adult children, realizing just how blessed I was to have had him as my dad. I only saw graphic details on a television screen or "Saving Private Ryan" at the movie theater but, he was an actual participant .. a young soldier with his life on the line .. not only did it break my heart, but made me even more appreciative for the father that raised me. He had seen more in his young life than I would ever see in my entire life time. He was such a gentle person .. no one would ever have known what he endured in Normandy, France and again in the Pacific Theater. He went through hell to get back home~ He left the horror in Europe, married our mom and raised the five of us kids. We were 5 lucky kids~and ... we knew it!

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