D-Day: Blood, History And Memory

Honor Flight unleashes veteran’s flood of memories

Payson engineer Emil Alberti served on the LST US 495 (in back), one of the first troop and tank landing ships ashore on D-Day. The landing craft in the foreground was launched off the LST.

Payson engineer Emil Alberti served on the LST US 495 (in back), one of the first troop and tank landing ships ashore on D-Day. The landing craft in the foreground was launched off the LST.

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The unwieldy, flat-bottomed LST loaded with 15 tanks and 400 soldiers wallowed through a terrifying succession of mines, spikes and traps toward Omaha Beach. Down below, Motor Machinist Mate Emil Alberti tended to the engines roaring so loud he could not hear the shout of the man next to him — much less the German shells raining down on all sides.

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Payson resident Emil Alberti last week took a donated Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. with 30 other Arizona veterans of World War  II.

The youngster hardly had time for fear as the largest amphibious operation in human history bore down on Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944 in the deadly assault on the coast of France.

The LST set out with 15 other of the ungainly 380-foot-long, 48-foot-wide crafts, with front ends that could open up to disgorge monster tanks into the face of the German fire. Only half survived the run onto the beach.

On an emotionally charged Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. last week, the Payson engineer recalled that day of unfathomable courage when 10,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded.

Some 30 Arizona veterans of World War II took the three-day trip from Phoenix to Washington, D.C., paid for by grateful donors and sponsors seeking to honor the surviving veterans who won the most destructive war in human history.

Emil, 93, proved among the most energetic and strong — since many of the veterans of that terrible conflict made the tour in wheelchairs.

They visited the World War II monument and the Navy Monument in Washington, together with the Vietnam, Korean and Lincoln Memorials — all with their scars and their memories — some revealed, others hidden. They wiped away tears at Arlington.

In Phoenix, the unassuming Emil, who spent decades after the war as the construction manager for mammoth projects that built the skyscrapers of America’s postwar boom, was astonished at the reaction in the airport.

“What really got me the most was when we boarded the plane, the people lined the corridor that we walked down — and some of us in wheelchairs rode. People that were taking other flights and service men that came specifically to see us — everybody just applauded as we went down. I felt pretty emotional about that.”

But so few of those people standing and applauding in the world that Emil’s war spawned could truly imagine that June day in 1944 — the day that Emil Alberti survived.

The LSTs had to charge through four lines of traps and barriers starting 270 yards from shore, including 200 Belgian Gates with mines lashed to the uprights, a line of logs driven into the sand pointing seaward with mines lashed to the tip, a line of 450 ramps laced with mines designed to flip or blow up the flat-bottom LSTs and finally 165 yards from shore a line of hedgehogs, looking like giant, booby trapped jacks from a child’s game.

“How we made it through all that garbage, I’ll never know,” said the mild-mannered Payson veteran, recalling that searing day when the tide of a war that had ravaged the world finally turned.

“The engine noise was so strong you couldn’t hear anyone shouting at you two feet away. But we were concentrating so much on what we were doing that we weren’t really listening to anything else.”

Half the LSTs survived

Only half of the LSTs survived that near-suicidal charge into the teeth of the defenses the Germans had spent four years constructing.

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Contributed photo

The exposed, five-mile crescent of Omaha Beach proved the great killing ground of the Normandy invasion, with twice as many defenders as the Allies expected due to the unexpected transfer of the German 352nd Infantry Division — half composed of battered veterans of the Eastern Front and half raw teenagers.

The Germans had set up a lethal series of pillboxes, machine gun nests and artillery fire that could unleash crossfire on every inch of the beach — from bluffs at each end and the hillocks facing the sea.

The only route off the beach led through a series of even more densely defended draws.

Finally, the ungainly LST plowed up onto the beach, intentionally grounded as the tide ebbed. The giant doors swung open and the troops rushed out into the flurry of machine gun bullets, perhaps the first ship to reach Omaha Beach. The ship and its complement of sailors would spend the next eight hours on the exposed beach awaiting the return of the high tide.

Emil staggered, regained his balance and sprinted up the stairs for his post on an anti-aircraft gun on the stern of the now helpless and marooned ship.

“The noise was devastating ...”

“Once I was up on the deck, the noise was devastating. We were involved in all kinds of shelling. I just expected that those big guns along the ridge behind the beach would have been shooting at the ship. It wasn’t until years afterwards that I realized we weren’t the target anymore. They had better things to shoot at. The troops got off the ship so fast you wouldn’t believe it.”

He took his post on the 40mm anti-aircraft gun, expecting German fighters and bombers to sweep down on the sea of targets. But they never came. The Allies had swept them from the sky.

“We didn’t know that we had such control of the air. When you’re there, you don’t know all the facts,” he said of the eight searing hours he spent manning that anti-aircraft gun.

Instead of shooting at planes, he found himself with a terrible seat overlooking one of the most violent and furious and consequential battles in world history, as the 7,000-ship armada assaulted a continent Hitler has turned into a vast fortress prison camp.

The landings involved 160,000 Allied troops, including 73,000 Americans.

Nearly 200,000 sailors manned the greatest armada ever assembled, including 53,000 Americans.

“When you think back — at the time I didn’t know really what kind of a situation we were in there. We were watching something that has never happened before — yet I wasn’t looking at it in that manner.”

At Omaha Beach, the 29th Infantry Division and 1st Infantry Division and nine companies of Army Rangers suffered some of the highest casualties of the day — a force of 34,000 men with 3,300 vehicles supported by two battleships, three cruisers, 23 destroyers and 105 other ships.

“Step from ship to ship ...”

“It seemed like you could just step from ship to ship all the way to the horizon,” Emil recalls.

“We had two large battleships shooting over our heads,” Emil recalled of the charge in toward the beach, “the shells were the size of Volkswagens. You could see them.”

But both the naval bombardment and a furious aerial bombardment proved almost completely ineffective in knocking out the German defenses before the troops hit the beach, due to weather that obscured the targets until the landing craft were on their way in.

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Emil Alberti (top) lives in Payson now, but during World War II he served on the minesweeper (below) detailed to clear the mines from Tokyo Harbor for the bloody invasions averted by the use of the atomic bomb.

The entrenched, murderously positioned guns of the German defenders opened up on the American ships and troops, as the meticulous American attack plan came instantly unraveled.

The engineers sent in the first boats to clear channels through the bristling ship barrier suffered 50 percent casualties in the hail of bullets and shells, but succeeded in opening a few safe channels through the barriers.

The swimming tanks battle planners assumed could float into shore to provide cover for the landing troops mostly sank in the rough seas, drowning most of their crews.

The stronger-than-anticipated currents pushed relentlessly on the incoming ships as they threaded through the barriers and shellfire so that few of the troops landed on the stretch of beach they’d memorized.

The Ranger companies landed at the foot of the 100-foot-tall bluffs at each end of the beach and charged with clearing out the guns that could sweep the length of the beach suffered terrible casualty rates as well.

First wave pinned down

The troops that did make it to shore in the first wave quickly became pinned down behind a mound of shingles left by the workings of waves and tides. All the while, the German’s 15 concentrated strong points, 35 concrete pillboxes, 60 artillery pieces and 85 fortified machine gun emplacements poured a merciless fire down on the huddled troops.

Emil remembers standing by his gun at the stern of his beached ship, watching landing craft blown to bits, wallowing tanks sinking, heavily burdened soldiers drowning, and the bodies floating up alongside the stern of his ship.

“We saw the dead bodies floating ...”

“We saw the dead bodies floating alongside our ship, floating in the water, the troops all shot up.”

With the first wave shattered and pinned down under the cover of the ridge of cobbles, the even larger second wave crashed into the lethal chaos. Their one advantage lay in the smoke created by shells that set grass along the back of the beach on fire, creating a partial smoke screen.

The shattered companies of survivors accumulated in the cover of the shingle ridge, often without officers, far from their planned-for positions and mostly lacking heavy equipment or tank support. Some 3,000 died in that initial assault. The beach grew so chaotic that the commanders called off the next wave and for a time considered evacuating the beach.

But now the gritty, independent, dauntless nature of Democratic citizen soldiers called up like Emil from farms and assembly lines asserted itself.

Emil had attended high school at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, the son of an immigrant father who spoke five languages and worked as a waiter in five-star restaurants and a mother who worked as a telephone operator in those same hotels.

He never expected to leave home, never expected to go to college, never expected to see the world. He hoped to earn a spot on a Detroit assembly line, work hard and live a quiet life. But the war swept away everyone’s old life.

The war had convulsed Europe for years already, as America remained at peace — turning out armaments and food.

“We knew the war was going on — and we weren’t in it, but seemed like it was only a matter of time until we were going to get involved,” he recalled.

“It was a tremendous shock ...”

Then came Pearl Harbor.

“It was just a tremendous shock. Japan was considered a maker of Tinker Toys and Christmas lights that didn’t work. It was like a joke. Japan couldn’t possibly do what they did. No one even knew where Pearl Harbor was,” he said. “It was just something you couldn’t even believe.”

He graduated high school in 1941, and then worked the next two years of the war making 55 cents and hour on an assembly line making the type of tanks that he would later deliver to that deadly beach. He joined the Navy as the war intensified.

“We were the armory of the world”

“We were the armory of the world,” he recalls. “It was unbelievable.”

The enormous rise in production in the United States during that war was virtually unprecedented in world history.

The only nation to completely embrace the techniques of mass production and interchangeable parts, the gross domestic product of the United States rose from $800 billion in 1938 to $1.5 trillion in 1945. The Gross Domestic Product of nearly every other warring nation actually fell in the same period.

In 1938, the nation’s GDP was a little more than double Germany’s. By 1945, the nation’s economic output exceeded the production of all the other warring nations combined.

“Everyone that did anything for the war effort felt they were doing their part. I never heard one complaint. Nobody complained they were doing too much.

“It felt like a totally different situation than today. You get older, you get different views. I’d be afraid of that situation today. I don’t know if we could accomplish that. I wish it would be the same,” said Emil.

The enormous efficiencies, relentless innovation, massing of capital and mass production model of American industry provided two-thirds of the Allies’ war materials. The cheap, prefabricated Liberty Ships that kept the Soviet Union and Britain supplied took seven months to build at the start — but only five days per ship at the end.

The enormous weight of that production came to bear on D-Day, with Emil in his frightening vantage point. First he had built the tanks, then he had mastered the engines of the LST and now he had come to this moment, with everything in the balance.

Troops trapped on the beach

On the beach, farm boys and mechanics trapped in the shelter of the shingle embankment formed up in small groups and took the initiative. They crawled up the beach and cut through or blew up the barbed wire entanglements. The concentrated fire in the draws they were supposed to use to get off the beach proved too deadly to breech. So they scaled the bluff between the draws — suffering heavy casualties but somehow persisting.

As Col. George Taylor famously yelled, “Two kinds of people are staying on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die — now let’s get the hell out of here.”

The destroyer USS Frankford came in so close she nearly grounded and exchanged fire with the German guns down the length of the beach — at one point using an American tank on the shore as a forward fire spotter. When the destroyer reached the end of the beach, the captain threw the engines into reverse and backed down the beach — still firing.

Beachhead finally secured

By the end of the day, the Americans had breeched the German defenses and secured the beachhead.

Meanwhile, the tide had turned and Emil’s crew prepared to get off the beach, return to England and bring another load of supplies. The LST had dropped an enormous anchor 100 yards offshore on the way in. Now, they dragged the ship off the sand and back into the rising tide with a winch secured to a chain attached to that anchor.

The LST rushed out to sea then got in line with a great supply train of empty ships, guided through a travel lane cleared through the copious German minefields. They quickly filled up with more equipment and troops in England, and then rushed back to Omaha.

By the time they returned, the Army had secured the beachhead and begun to move inland.

Now, the beached LST served as a hospital ship, with the wounded soldiers pouring in. The ship had nine doctors on board, who turned the cavernous interior into an operating suite.

Emil and the other sailors carried stretchers and helped the bleeding, wounded soldiers into the hold.

“Everyone has to handle it differently ...”

“You were very happy to care for them,” said Emil. “But you didn’t really have time to deal with it,” he said of the strain of so much death and pain. “It has an effect. Everyone has to handle it differently. In my case, I have avoided it. I haven’t gone back to Normandy. We went to France — and someone asked if I wanted to go back there — and I thought. ‘No. I don’t. Really don’t.’ If you handle it the other way — thinking about it — then you can drive yourself crazy. Your mind is not capable of thinking about that all the time. It’s a powerful, powerful thing. If you start dwelling on it, it gets to be more and more and more.

“I wouldn’t want to go through that again. I mean, how much luck can you have? But this is something that has to be done and I have to do my part — but you don’t know if you’re going to be coming back.”

The Normandy landings were the beginning of the end for Hitler’s Germany — caught now between the advancing Russians and the Americans and British.

But Emil found himself quickly transferred to a minesweeper — and drilling for the invasion of Japan.

It sounded like another suicide mission: Sweeping mines out of Tokyo Bay in advance of an invasion fleet. American military planners estimated the invasion of Japan would create a million American casualties.

But then they dropped the bomb — on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki.

Emil felt an enormous giddy relief.

He left the service as soon as he could.

“Never anything worse than that ...”

But that day in his gun turret watching the carnage of D-Day forever changed him — shaped him, carried him in some strange way through all the years that followed.

“I didn’t think I’d ever again run into anything worse than that,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to go to college and finish my engineering degree from a cost point of view,” he said, reflectively — one of the millions of soldiers and sailors whose lives were transformed by the GI Bill’s promise of free college tuition.

So he supervised the building of the skyscrapers of the Renaissance Center in Detroit, the Epcot Center in Florida and a host of other giant projects. He lived all over the country and in Hawaii, a full rich, challenging life — every day a gift after that day of blood and carnage.

But it was a long time ago and he’s one of a dwindling band of brothers with such memories: The sound of an LST engine at full throttle, the way the bodies bob in the swell, the blood running across the deck, the passage of a 16-inch shell overhead.

Astonished by the reaction

But why should that matter to anyone else?

So he was astonished at the corridor of children and parents and young men that formed in the Phoenix airport. And even more surprised and moved when it happened again when the plane touched down in Baltimore.

“I sure didn’t expect the same thing to happen. We were in another town a long way from our home. When we got off the plane and walked to the reception area in the terminal, they just applauded — we were in a parade of wheelchairs as it were. We had Marines in dress uniforms. That part was just impressive. It was the highlight of the trip. I mean, it was wonderful to see all the memorials and monuments and Arlington and seeing all the names of the people who had given their lives — that’s probably something I never would have done but for this flight. It brought back a lot of memories.

“But to have all those people, lined up, appreciating what we did — well, I just felt so lucky. That really got to me.”

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