By Sandy Gall, Communication and Outreach Division, Naval History and Heritage Command.
Close your eyes and picture Yogi Berra. If you’re a baseball fan, you see him in the iconic Yankee stripes, but before that uniform, did you know he wore the Navy’s iconic Dixie cap? He started his legendary career as a Yankees catcher, and later team manager, but in 1944 Yogi Berra was referred to as Gunner’s Mate Lawrence Peter Berra.
In 2010, Berra was presented with the 2010 Audie Murphy Award for his Navy service. There, he told the audience this about his time in the Navy, “I enjoyed every minute of it. I thought it was like the 4th of July.”
Like many men of that era, Berra put his life on hold to serve in WWII. At 18, already a promising baseball star, Berra decided to fight for his country as a Sailor. He joined the Navy as a gunner’s mate in the middle of the war eventually being assigned to USS Bayfield just in time to participate in one of the most important operations in military history: the D-Day invasion of France.
In preparation for the landing, Bayfield’s crew, including Berra, broke the flag of Commander, Force “U,” Rear Admiral Don Pardee Moon and served as headquarters for planning the landings on “Utah” beach. The ship then joined with other Normandy-bound ships in practicing a variety of maneuvers and tactical operations during short underway periods until April 26, 1944 when a full-scale rehearsal took place. By June 5, the invasion force completed all preparations and got underway for the Bay of the Seine.
Passing along a swept channel marked by lighted buoys, Bayfield and the other transports reached their designated positions early on the morning of the 6th and landed her troops. Once the troops left Bayfield, she began service as a supply and hospital ship in addition to continuing her duties as a flagship. Those assignments kept Bayfield off the Normandy coast while other transports rapidly unloaded troops and cargo and then returned to England. On the 7th, she shifted to an anchorage five miles off the beach and made smoke that night to protect Utah anchorage from Luftwaffe attacks.
As a Gunner’s Mate, Berra would be responsible for the operation and maintenance of weapons such as gun mounts and other ordnance equipment, as well as small arms and magazines.
Berra spoke to NBC’s Keith Olberman in 2004 about his personal experience on D-Day and his memories of the invasion. Of that day, Berra has said, “Being a young guy, you didn‘t think nothing of it until you got in it. And so we went off 300 yards off beach. We protect[ed] the troops. If they ran into any trouble, we would fire the rockets over,” said Berra. “We could fire one rocket if we wanted to, or we could fire off 24 or them, 12 on each side. We stretched out 50 yards apart. And that was the invasion… Nothing happened to us. That’s one good thing. Our boat could go anywhere, though.
In the years following his Navy service, Lawrence P. “Yogi” Berra, continued to support the troops. In 1950 he participated in a campaign with the Treasury Department to promote the purchase of U.S. savings bonds. In 2009 he received the Lone Sailor Award and in 2010 he was honored with the Audie Murphy Award for his Navy service.
Editor’s Note: You can see the full interview between Berra and Olberman, here.