FORT EUSTIS — On June 5-6, 1944, the Allied invasion of France commenced. Many recall scenes of carnage and destruction across fields of fire guarded by German troops as more than 150,000 Allied troops stormed the beachheads of Normandy, France in the opening efforts to liberate Europe. That large scale invasion which, occurred 77 years ago, and the allied island-hopping campaign in the Pacific had a common denominator: the use of specialized amphibious landing crafts of all shapes and sizes.
Those specialized amphibious landing crafts and their employment during WWII was the topic of a historical presentation earlier this week at the U.S. Army’s Transportation Museum onboard Fort Eustis.
The presenter, Tim Gilhool, is a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and is the Command Historian for the Army’s Combined Arms Support Command at Fort Lee. A crowd of over a dozen gathered inside the museum’s regimental room while others chimed in via a socially distanced format virtually to take in some lunchtime history amid the backdrop of historic displays and artifacts which represented the Army Transportation Corps’ history.
Gilhool started the presentation noting antiquity and noted that “were going to go way back here. Amphibious operations, or the launching of military operations from the sea is as old as ancient history. In 1350 BCE, records depicting assaults on Egyptian forces by the sea peoples exist.” He noted the use of sailing vessels taking attacking armies ashore in the Mediterranean area and Persian Gulf.
Arguably, those sea peoples shared the same doctrine of putting invading armies on hostile shores with the intent to capture territory as modern forces. What they lacked would be replaced light years later by the combustion engine, shallow draft vessels, a bow ramp, and the Second World War.
It was at this point that his presentation shifted to the employment of, in this author’s point of view, the acronyms that helped the Allies win the war. Those acronyms, LCVPs (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel), LCMs (Landing Craft, Mechanized), and LSTs (Landing Ship, Tank) took center stage. Many in the audience were familiar with the Higgins boat, or LCVP which took center stage during the carnage and destructive beach scenes that portrayed the Allied D-Day landings in Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.
Those robust, flat bottomed boats with their iconic bow ramp, allowing for the rapid debarkation of troops onto a contested beach were well received by then General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In fact, over 23,000 of those boats were built during WWII; and quite a few of the original boats remain today. One of them is on display at the museum, and many in the audience flocked to get a close up look after the presentation.
Its important to note that the fielding of amphibious forces required specialized training and execution. Hampton Roads played a role in training amphibious forces during WWII. In fact, Clay Farrington, Historian Emeritus at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum notes the U.S. Navy’s role in commandeering the Nansemond hotel in the Ocean View section of Norfolk during WWII.
Farrington writes, in an archived blog posts that “The actions of Rear Admiral Henry Kent Hewitt turned to the nearby Nansemond Hotel, built on the site of an earlier Nansemond Hotel that had been erected to welcome visitors to the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, but had burned to the ground in 1920. The 125-room hotel already housed an Army squadron headquarters, but that was to change after AMPHIBLANT came knocking.”
Arguably, the commandeering of the Nansemond hotel changed the landscape of what was then sleepy Ocean View to a scene that represented more of a military encampment. Farrington noted that tents, barbed wire, and armed sentries occupied the hotel’s exterior. On the beach and just offshore, Navy and Army forces practiced landing on hostile shores with early models of Higgins boats and practiced disembarking from amphibious vessels.
Farrington further writes that “the Nansemond Hotel continued as the planning venue for the invasions of Sicily, Italy, Southern France, and, ultimately, Normandy. The hotel finally reverted to its former role as a vacation destination on August 20, 1945.”
Gilhool shifted the presentation to the innovations made by the Japanese during the interwar years prior to 1939. This author, somewhat distracted at the time while checking his camera settings, scribbled Pokémon and ramen noodles in his reporter’s notebook as one of the many inventions that originated from Japan, albeit way after the interwar years.
Gilhool noted that “the most important thing they [Japanese] come up with was the Daihatsu class landing craft. It had a forward ramp first developed in 1930. It Served as the backbone of Japanese operations throughout the war. By 1939 Japan alone had doctrine, equipment and forces to actually execute amphibious operations.”
It was those amphibious operations that allowed Japan to rapidly claim islands in the Pacific during WWII. It was those same contested islands that were later seized by Marines and the Army, both riding in Navy’s LSTs, Attack Transports, Troop Ships, Liberty and Victory Ships and countless other classes of vessels. And it was those servicemembers that would land on those far-flung beaches in Higgins boats and other amphibious vessels during operations that are recorded in history.