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]
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]
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]
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.