Seventy years ago the greatest military operation in history unfolded on the Normandy coastline of France. The Allies began their long awaited crusade to liberate Europe which had been under Nazi occupation since 1940.
America’s strategic focus from the beginning was a cross channel invasion to liberate France and then drive towards Germany. America agreed to support the British campaigns in the Mediterranean but the primary focus remained on the cross channel invasion. The Americans learned some invaluable lessons from the Mediterranean campaigns and in the Spring of 1944 the Allies were ready to make their play.
While the Germans knew that the invasion was coming, an extensive misinformation campaign kept them in the dark on where or when. While the Allies could choose where they would make their landings, the Germans had to defend the entire European coastline from France to Norway. Adding to their problems was the war on Eastern Front where over 75% of the Germany military was engaged in a brutal struggle against the Russians. Things weren’t going all that well in the East and resources for “Fortress Europe” were low in priority compared to what was needed to stem the Red tide in the East.
So off the coast of Normandy that morning, LST -344, soon to be named the USS Blanco County, waited patiently as the day unfolded. Like most of the 344’s crew, Chief Warrant Officer John F.”Jack” Hillman had been there, done this, before. LST-344 took her first casualties during the invasion of Sicily a year earlier. Italy was more of the same where the issue was in such doubt there was talk of evacuating the beaches there. In both battles the fleet of ships sitting offshore were tempting targets for the Luftwaffe. So as dawn broke and the greatest armada in history became visible around the 344, rather than be reassured, Hillman was getting that uneasy feeling of what the sky could bring again.
Not far away, a son of Blanco, Foster “Carroll” Smith, Texas A&M Class of ’37 was witnessing the same scene as the sun broke over the horizon. Smith was with a group of experimental Sherman tanks known as DDs for the dual drives which would propel them through the water. Huge canvas skirts kept them afloat as their dual drives powered them towards the coast. The DDs were to provide vital fire support to the Infantry landing on the beaches. Smith knew that the skirts could keep the tanks afloat where the waves were up to 1 feet. Unfortunately that morning the waves were closer to six feet.
Both men had their roles to play in the elaborate choreography that was unfolding that morning. An umbrella of aircraft roared overhead, battleships and cruisers sent volleys of huge shells screaming towards the coast, and finally the landing craft made their way towards the shore under the carefully developed plans that had been practiced and rehearsed.
Things in war rarely go as planned.
As the DD tanks were being launched it soon became evident that the seas were too rough for the canvas skirts. One by one they floundered and then sank. Regardless, the operation continued. Of the 29 launched, two actually made it to the beach. Twenty seven still remain on the bottom of the English Channel where they sank that day. Their absence would be noted later on Omaha Beach.
LST 344 was due to bring in her load of troops and material into Omaha Beach but continued to be in a holding pattern increasing Hillman’s anxiety. There were five beaches that were being invaded that morning. Utah and Omaha were American. Sword, Juno and Gold were mainly British and Canadian. Most of the German coastal defenses were manned by low quality units, often Eastern European volunteers with little enthusiasm for battle. Unfortunately for the Americans, at Omaha elements of the German 352nd Infantry were manning the defenses there and those DD tanks would be sorely missed.
The fighting raged on Omaha for most of the morning, but the tide finally turned as it did across the Normandy coastline that day. Ships like LST 344 were vital to the invading army, which needed to rapidly build up its force to meet the anticipated German counterattacks. The Germans would ensure no working ports would fall into Allied hands and the supplies would have to come directly across the beaches. LST-344 got her orders that afternoon and moved in and unloaded her cargo of men and material. On her return voyage to England that night she was attacked by German aircraft and was credited with helping shoot down a JU-88 medium bomber. She reloaded in England and then continued the conveyor belt of ships that would be needed to build up and sustain the invading armies.
Jack Hillman transferred to LST-133 on June 8, 1944, which was also shuttling back and forth between Omaha Beach and England. A week later as she was returning to Omaha beach she was torpedoed killing 43 on board. Hillman and LST-133 survived and she was being repaired and refitted to head to the Pacific Theater when the war ended. Jack returned home and eventually became the Reverend John H. Hillman. Carroll Smith would continue on into France and finally Germany with the 3rd Armor and eventually returned to Blanco. He settled into the same wood frame house where he was born overlooking the Blanco River and became a local historian of legendary abilities. Two men who never met each other but are forever connected by the roles that played on that momentous day in history and their connection to Blanco County.
There is a wealth of volumes about D-Day. some of which can be found at the Blanco Library, but the 1962 classic the “Longest Day” remains as a must see to get an overall sense of the events of that day. The USS Blanco County would continue to serve until she was retired in 1970 after a tour in Vietnam, but her role on D-Day was likely the high point in her career. More on this decorated ship can be found at the WW2 Blanco Museum in the Buggy Barn Museum Complex on N. 281 or online at: http://ww2blancomuseum.com/
“We’re privileged as a community to have some of the original artifacts from the Bridge of the USS Blanco County, “ said Rick Sebenoler, Acting Curator of the WW2 Blanco County Museum in the Buggy Barn Museum Complex off of N 281. “There is only one LST remaining today and at some point we’d like to commission a model of the USS Blanco County to provide a better perspective of this unique sort of ship. She is truly deserving of that honor.”