The Workhorse of Normandy: Remembering the Role of LSTs in Medical Evacuation

By André B. Sobocinski, Historian, BUMED

June 6, 1944, Normandy Coast, France. Pharmacist’s Mate 1st Class Stephen Cromwell stood on the bow of the LST-280 watching the Higgins Boats transporting troops to the beachhead.

“The fire was quite intense,” Cromwell later recalled. “In fact, before we went in there, you really couldn’t see beyond the bluffs because there was so much smoke and dust. It was all a big haze above the coastline.”[i]

Casualties brought out to LST 357 aboard an LCT, with its crew ready to throw a line so they can be tied alongside ramp-to-ramp. Thus, stretchers could simply be carried aboard by Hospital Corpsmen, seen wearing Red Cross armbands.

After the second wave of troops hit the beaches, Cromwell and other corpsmen braved the oncoming fire to retrieve casualties and transport them to LST-280 anchored offshore.

Before an improvised landing strip was constructed to accommodate C-47 transport planes,[ii] Landing Ships, Tanks (LSTs) like Cromwell’s ship served as Normandy’s main casualty lift for shore-to-shore evacuation. [iii]  

Although LSTs had originally been conceived to transports tanks, trucks and personnel in amphibious operations, medical planners immediately recognized practical uses for their large cargo holds (tank decks) in clearing sick and injured personnel from beachheads.[iv]  By 1943, the Navy began adapting these ships for medical uses in the Pacific Theater.[v]  And as plans for Operation Overlord were being formulated, the Navy identified the LST as the primary casualty transport.

Between June 6th and June 11th 1944, 106 of the 144 LSTs at Normandy were designated for casualty evacuation. Of these, 95 of them carried casualties on more than one trip and 54 of them were specially converted with hanger racks and even small operating rooms to serve as a Casualty Treatment Receiving Ships. Although each LST was designated to carry about 200 casualties (both ambulatory and stretcher cases), LST could embark up to 331 casualties on a single trip.[vi]   And through D plus 11 days, LSTs evacuated nearly 80 percent of all Allied casualties (79.62 percent).[vii]

LSTs were expected to make three “turn-around” trips across the English Channel over a 10 day period. After disembarking casualties at one of the three designated ports in Southern England, the LST holds were reloaded with equipment, supplies and personnel and it set sail again for the Normandy coast.[viii]

Casualties being brought aboard LST 357 on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Casualties were brought out in small craft and then hoisted aboard the LST by a sling.

Each LST carried medical officers (2 to 3) and corpsmen (up to 20) who provided the intermediate care and performed emergency surgery, as needed.[ix]  Although most of the medical contingent were Navy, in several cases U.S. Army and even British and Australian physicians were attached to these ships.[x] 

Because of the challenges of small arms fire, underwater obstacles and mines in the early assault phases, LSTs typically embarked most of its casualties from an assortment of small craft offshore.

“During that time LCTs, LCIs, and all kinds of other small craft pressed into service brought us loads of casualties,” explained Dr. Dale Groom, a Navy physician attached to LST-357 at Normandy. “LCTs could marry to us, ramp to ramp. That’s how we received 220 casualties within a few hours of cruising up and down the beach. We didn’t stay in one place. And as soon as we took those aboard, we headed back to England.”[xi]

Serving aboard an LST was not without risk and several of these ships fell prey to German torpedo boats, submarines and mines. Six LSTs were sunk at Normandy either while evacuating casualties or on the return trip.[xii] 

On June 11th, LST-496 was struck by German mines three miles off the Normandy coast. Lt (j.g.) Henrik Szylejko, the ship’s medical officer, later remembered, “It was as if someone had roughly picked the ship and violently shaken it.”[xiii]  Ship’s company suffered 80 percent casualties. Szyleijko and the ship’s 20 corpsmen remained on the sinking vessel administering aid until the very last casualty was transported to rescue vessels.[xiv]

Corpsmen attached to Beach Battalion at Omaha Beach load ambulatory casualties aboard an LCT for transport to an LST.

 

The LST’s role as the workhorse of Normandy only solidified its reputation and the ship continued to play an indispensable role in casualty care for the remainder of the war.

 


ENDNOTES

[i] Oral History with PhM1c Stephen Cromwell (Conducted by J.K. Herman, 21 March 2005). Normandy Oral History Collection, BUMED Archives.
[ii] Landing strip was constructed at Omaha Beach on D plus 4 days. After this C-47s and LSTs shared the responsibility for shore-to-shore casualty evacuation.
[iii] “Normandy Invasion.” U.S. Navy Medical Department Administrative History, 1941-1945. Volume I. Narrative History Chapters IX-XVIII. (Unpublished, 1946).
[iv] Dowling, G.B. Special Report to the Chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery U.S. Navy of the United States Naval Medical Service in the Invasion of Normandy, 6 June 1944. BUMED Archives.
[v] In 1945, several LSTs were converted into hospital ships or floating medical stations at Iwo Jima, one of which was equipped with a mobile blood bank.
[vi] Normandy Invasion, p15.
[vii] During the Normandy campaign, LSTs evacuated a total of 41,035 casualties. The average casualty lift was 123.
[viii] The ports of Portland, Southampton and Brixham were assigned to U.S. Forces for debarkation. The latter port was designated for reserve. Source Dowling, George. Medical Services in Normandy Invasion.
[ix] Medical personnel assigned for LST duty were required to go through special medical training at the U.S. Navy’s Advanced Amphibious Training Sub-base, Fowey, Cornwall, England.  Between March 25 and May 12th a total of 120 medical officers and 2,400 hospital corpsmen attended classes at the school to indoctrinate them on amphibious warfare.
[x] LSTs, World War II. Historical Data. BUMED Archives.
[xi] Oral History with LT(j.g.) Dale Groom (Conducted by J.K. Herman, 26 May 1994). Normandy Oral History Collection, BUMED Archives.
[xii] “Incidents and Losses of Allied Naval Forces from D-Day to the end of September 1944.” D-Day and Battle of Normandy Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.dday-overlord.com/en/d-day/armada/losses
[xiii] Szylejko, Henrik W. “Abandoning an LST.”  Hospital Corps Quarterly, Vol.18, No. 5, May 1945, pp44-46.
[xiv] All 20 of the hospital corpsmen suffered injuries. Of the ship’s two other medical officers, Lieutenant (j.g.) Charles Henderson, MC, USNR, was killed in the sinking and 1st LT Frank Davis, MC, USA suffered a compressed fractured vertebra.

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