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Training for D-Day

Written & copyrighted by Janet Morrison, 2007

        The year was 1944.  Nazi Germany held France under total occupation.  German dictator, Adolph Hitler, had his sights on world domination.  He had a military machine that seemed unstoppable.  Great Britain, the United States, and their allies would have to resort to measures of unprecedented proportions if they were to defeat Hitler.  There had to be a D-Day, and it was one that would go down in history as "the" D-Day.

        "Operation Overlord," which was the code name for the Invasion of Normandy, originally consisted of landings on three code-named beaches.  Upon reviewing the plan on New Year's Eve 1943, though, the Allied Senior Ground Commander, General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, told General Dwight D. Eisenhower that it was a recipe for disaster.

        At Montgomery's insistence, the number of landing sites was increased from three to five beaches and the landing area was doubled from twenty-five to fifty miles of coastline.  One of the two new landing sites was code-named "Utah Beach."  That brings us to today's story.

        It was my privilege several months ago to spend a couple of afternoons with lifelong Harrisburg resident, Mr. Ira Lee Taylor, and listen to him talk about his memories of D-Day and the months of training that prepared him and other soldiers in the U.S. Army's 4th Division for that fateful day in world history. 

        Today's article gives us a glimpse of that training, thanks to the vivid memory of Mr. Taylor.  It is a prelude to next week's article which will run on the sixty-third anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy.

        If you want to know about his World War II experience, all you have to do is ask him.  Mr. Taylor is eager to share his story.  I appreciate his willingness to share it with the readers of Harrisburg Horizons.

        Today's story begins on January 19, 1944.  The entire 4th Division left New York City on four ships.  Mr. Taylor was on a British ship.  About passing the Statue of Liberty, Mr. Taylor said, "That was a beautiful thing.  We said, 'We don't know whether we'll ever see you again or not.'"  Many of them never did.

        For the next three days, the 4th Division was joined by more than one hundred other ships.  "We had liberty ships and then the troop ships," Mr. Taylor said.  "After the convoy got together, the troop ships were in the center.  The liberty ships - they were carrying supplies mostly - ammunition, food, and stuff like that - they circled; they were on the outer side.  During the day, the ships would all scatter out.  At night, they'd settle in and they were just about touching one another….  But the next morning, they were all scattered out.  It took us eleven days to cross [the Atlantic] because German submarines were following us and they were knocking off the ships on the outer side."

        "We'd have an alarm and every time it sounded, we had a certain place to be on the ship, where the lifeboats were….  Well, finally, we understood.  We couldn't see it because the convoy was so large but I read later, after the war, that they were knocking off our supply ships."

        Mr. Taylor remembers the seas being rough on the way over.  "Man, it was so rough!" he said.  "It was so rough, some of the boys said if they made it through the war they were going to stay over there!  They were sick all the way."

        "We landed in Liverpool, England, on my birthday, January 28th.  Of course, that was 1944….  I was born in 1918," Mr. Taylor said.

        "We unloaded the ships.  They put us on a train.  Man, those trains were fast!  But we didn't get loaded on the trains until after dark, so we didn't get to see any of the countryside.  But the port there at Liverpool, the Germans had been bombing that place for I don't know how long, and so there was just block after block of all the houses just a bunch of rubble."

        "We ended up in Devonshire, England, the whole Division.  And we were scattered out in all those little small towns around the English countryside.  We ended up at an old English estate with a big old house sitting up on the hill and a green pasture.  We were set up in Quonset huts along the road going up to 'the big house.'  Of course, being the Headquarters Battery, 4th Division, we had the generals and all those higher ups with them.  They were in 'the big house,' see."

        "There were about twenty of us to the Quonset hut," Mr. Taylor said.  "The beds had two by fours and chicken wire for the bottom, two decks, and we had straw mattresses.  And the kitchen truck - they set up right at the end where we were staying….  They served our meals, and that's where they kept their horses."

        "We'd  drive… through the countryside during the day.  And at night we'd go on black-out drives….  The headlights on our trucks… were taped over and the tail lights - they just had a dot about the size of a quarter.  That's all you could see.  We were out there driving around that countryside with no more light than that."

        Mr. Taylor's training then took a turn.  He said, "We'd get orders to go to the motor pool -- that had all our trucks and equipment - and start waterproofing our trucks.  They had about a one-and-a-half-inch pipe.  It was an elbow.  And then the elbow would stick up straight and they had another pipe that stuck down in it.  And the elbow fit over the tailpipe."  The pipe was higher than the top of the truck and would allow the exhaust to escape if the truck were under water.

        "And then we had PlayDoh - I reckon that's what it was - is sure did look like it," Mr. Taylor said.  "But we waterproofed our vehicles.  We put it all around the sparkplugs, anywhere you had an electrical connection, you'd put that dough around it."

        The 4th Infantry trained in England for four months.  It was hilly country, and the American GIs marveled at the women in their seventies that rode bicycles up and down those hills.  Automobiles and gasoline were in short supply, so many of the English traveled by bicycle during the war.

        The soldiers were kept in the dark, of course, about D-Day.  As assault troops were assembled on the southern coast of England in May, travel into and out of the region was banned.  The troops were surrounded by barbed wire and armed sentries. 
        Intelligence personnel in plain clothes moved among the local citizens to make sure no one talked too much.  The D-Day preparations were such a large operation, it was impossible to hide the massive troop build-up from the local residents.  Even one small leak of information to the Germans, and the entire invasion of France would be in jeopardy.

        Behind the scenes, Allied Forces Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had selected the date for D-Day.  Moonlight, ocean tides, and weather conditions had to be just right.  There was a small window of opportunity the first week of June, but still only the top brass knew the date and location of the planned invasion.

        "We'd get orders to 'Load up!' Load everything," Mr. Taylor said.  "Everything we had, we carried in a waterproof duffle bag - everything we owned.  We'd take off down to the southern coast of England, and we'd always end up at Plymouth - the port of Plymouth.  I was always on an LST."

        An LST (Landing Ship, Tank) was the largest of the World War II landing vessels.  It could accommodate up to twenty tanks and 200 troops.  It was considered to be more vulnerable than an LCT (Landing Craft, Tank) when under direct fire.  The LCTs were smaller vessels that carried three or four tanks.

        Mr. Taylor explained that there was an elevator on the LST that they used to move their equipment to the lower deck.  While on the LST, the soldiers had nowhere to sleep, so they slept the best they could in and under their trucks.  He said, "Everybody tried to sleep under the truck so nobody would step on them." 

        "We'd take off down the English Channel," he continued, "and they didn't tell us where we were going.  We didn't know.  They had a town set aside and it was set up about like D-Day - Utah Beach.  They had water in front and back in there and marshy lands.  And we'd invade it.  They already had a team, say the 'Red Team,' defending it.  They were already in the little town there; it was evacuated, and they were to defend it."

        The ramp of the LST would be lowered, and the GIs would drive out in their jeeps, trucks, and weapons carriers.  Mr. Taylor said for these training exercises there were field judges.  The field judges would point at each soldier and tell him if he were wounded, dead, or all right.  The soldiers were then picked up by MPs or medics, depending upon in what condition they were pretending to be.

        "The third time we went down," Mr. Taylor said, "we didn't know whether it was the real thing or not.  We had our trucks and everything waterproofed and ready to go….  We tried to do a good job because we were figuring, by cracky, this isn't any fun now.  They're getting ready to send us to maybe go in on D-Day, you know.  We didn't know.  They didn't tell us."


Interviews with Mr. Ira Lee Taylor, February 24 and March 2 2007.

D-Day and the Invasion of Normandy, by Anthony Kemp.

Utah Beach:  The Amphibious Landing and Airborne Operations on D-Day - June 6, 1944, by Joseph Balkoski, 2005.