Class Lewis J. Dube
Utah Beach, Normandy, France
Naval Combat Demolition Unit
America's involvement in World War Two had been
active for over two years when my father, a seventeen year old from
East Hartford, Connecticut, made his decision to volunteer for active
duty. Lewis Dube enlisted in the Navy on February 9, 1944 (he passed
his exams in '43 as a potential Army Air Corp aviation cadet, but
found the prospects of Navy life more enticing). Shortly after introductory
Naval basic training in Sampson, N.Y., Lew was shipped via Pier
72 in New York to Scotland to begin explosives and assault training,
joining the members of NCDU (Naval Combat Demolition Unit) 127.
Such began his preparation for the day in which he would participate,
along with 156,000 troops from the US, UK and Canada, in the largest
invasion force in history.
The NCDUs were developed from the Scouts and Raiders
training itineraries, the nascent form of what is now known as Navy
Seals (preceded by the UDTs-Underwater Demolition Teams or Frogmen)
by Lieutenant Draper Kaufman, "the father of US Navy demolitions".
The enlistment qualifications were that one could swim and was preferably
single. The main base was located at South Hutchinson Island, Ft.
Pierce, Florida. It was crude by today's standards; the buildings
largely comprised of temporary structures in 1944. But the training
was intense with a heavy emphasis pushing physical limits. Diving
methods, rubber rafting and explosives became the staples of a day's
training. In addition to the taxing physical exercises, heat and
sand flies severely reduced the hospitality of the area.
The NCDUs became assigned to the Joint Army Navy
Experimental Test board, which was a group developed to test new
explosives, and to learn about dismantling various types of mines.
After several months of experimental work, the Unit was reassigned
to the DRU (Demolition Research Unit), whose goal was to research
the use of rocket propelled explosives in coastal invasions. One
such study involved landing craft fitted with 7.2 inch rockets-
the "Woofus Boat" soon to be used in the upcoming invasion
of the Normandy coast.
In April 1944, members of NCDU 127 were shipped
overseas to the UK for demolition and assault training. The first
destination was Scotland for indoctrination. Weeks later it was
in the port city of Salcombe, England in May that Lew and NCDU 127
began practice for the destruction of beach obstacles. One of the
methods of achieving this was the use of the newly developed "Hagensen
Pack", which consisted of C2 explosives rolled up and then
pressed into various containment methods such as canvas bags or
The Hagensen Pack was a product of the "necessity
being the mother of invention clause", and was named after
the man who brainstormed it's development; Lt. (jg) Carl Hagensen,
USN (who would see his invention in use up front and personal as
a commander of an NCDU at Normandy). A long length of Primacord
was attached to the pack and this would in turn be ignited electrically.
Multiple Hagensen packs would be tied together allowing groups of
beach obstacles (which often were made of steel or wood) to be destroyed.
A method of destroying the steel Nazi beach obstacles was the use
of 16 such packs strategically located to cut through the metal
and collapse the structure. About ten-thousand Hagensen packs were
hand-made by the NCDU units and members of the Army. It was a sort
of "roll your own" weaponry. At right, Lt. Hagensen receives
a commendation for his leadership in Normandy.
On June 1st, 1944, LST 47 was loaded with NCDUs
127 and 136, commencing the nervous wait for the invasion. By this
time it was long apparent to all that something on a massive scale
was about to occur, but most only knew that it was to happen somewhere
in France, and not much more was said. The next few days were a
mix of nerves, sea sickness, and boredom. The hours must have dragged
like days as all aboard the LST (Landing Ship Tank) anxiously breathed
in the diesel and vomit bouquet. Finally, on the fourth of June,
the craft got underway into the English Channel. Lew's unit, NCDU
127, was officially part of Naval Task Force 125, assigned to Force
"U", the massive group that was to land on the section
of beach code named "Utah". Along with NCDUs 25, 26, and
136, they were to be referred to as part of the "Green Beach
Demolition Party" under the command of Lt. (jg) E. P. Clayton.
Operation Neptune, the Navy's responsibility of what was then secretly
referred to as "Overlord", was soon to begin.
The task of each Demolition Party (which included
not only the NCDUs, but members of Engineer, Tank and Medical Battalions
as well) was to destroy all above-water or submerged (it was planned
that with landing at low tide they would all be of the former) structures
in a 50 yard section of beach at 250 yard intervals. This was a
plan that required careful timing as there were calculated to be
25 foot tide changes that day, meaning that the water would rise
about a foot every eight minutes. NCDU 127's particular assignment
was any obstacle in a 50 yard distance from a point 500 yards from
the right flank. In order to accomplish this, each man carried 35-50
pounds of explosives and detonating equipment (wire cutters, the
infamous "Hell Box" detonators, friction tape, etc.).
Descriptions vary somewhat, but a demolition party might consist
of one officer (the officer for 127 was an Ensign Padgett), 5 Navy
demolition men, 3 seamen, 5 Army engineers, and 2-3 Navy sailors
to assist the team as needed (such as for helping navigate the explosives
laden rubber rafts, which in many cases were abandoned as it was
discovered quickly that they tended to draw enemy fire).
On the 6th of June, at around 0300 or slightly
earlier, the team disembarked from LST 47 and slid down into an
awaiting LCVP (landing craft, vehicle, personnel) which conveyed
them into the shallow water, where the team then left their respective
LCVP, waded into the cold Normandy surf in the dark, and began the
slow drudgery of a long haul of their equipment and explosives thru
the low tide. As the demolition party worked towards the beach,
German "88" shelling of the approaching watercraft, along
with sprays of machine gun fire created an intense atmosphere. Allied
"Woofus" boats (LCTs) began firing groups of rockets overhead
(apparently creating a "woof" sound), some of which collided
in mid-air, raining down upon the first waves of troops. This joined
the din of the large scale coastal shelling of the Nazi defenses
by battleships placed far back in the invasion traffic.
At this point one could only focus getting to
where they needed to be, staying away from anything flying, and
to keep one's body as high above the rapidly rising tide. By H+5
(0635), all were mobilized towards the beach, most being unloaded
into the water by H+20. Awakened by the air bombardment and naval
shelling, the German response was verbose and deadly. Carnage was
immediate. NCDU 127 veteran John Dittmer remembers when first getting
into the water, one of the first things he noticed as a disembodied
leg in the water next to him. He held his nerve and pressed on (5).
What was unknown to Force "U" at this point, was that
they actually were about 1500' south of the original proposed landing
points. As it turned out, this proved to be a strategic advantage,
as there were less obstacles than originally expected and lighter
German resistance which helped to minimize casualties.
At the beach it was a matter of getting the supplies
ashore and taking cover for the moment. Myron Walsh, a friend of
my father from NCDU 127, once stated that the best method to advance
on the beach was to go from shell crater to shell crater, the philosophy
being that "lightning never strikes twice in the same place".
Once the team made it to the seawall, they were able to send a small
crew back for the explosives, and during the brief lulls in the
fire, began the task of packing the beach obstacles with Hagensen
Packs, tying together the large lengths of Primacord, signaling
the oncoming troops with a purple smoke bomb that the area must
be cleared for demolition, and finally firing the "hell box".
Careful placing of the explosives on the obstacles themselves was
key, so as to avoid shrapnel from the exploding structures striking
the team or anyone nearby.
But because of the enormous amount of activity
and confusion, the purple smoke signals were sometimes disregarded
(or misunderstood), and landing craft would move into an area set
for demolition. This greatly impeded some of the obstacle removal.
Regardless of the delays, very few misfires of explosives occurred,
the effectiveness of the Hagensen packs was clearly proven, and
by 0800, 700+ yards of beachhead were open for traffic. In the areas
open, gap markers were placed to signal safe passage. The final
stages of the landing were able to proceed as the demolition parties
continued their work on destroying concrete, wood and metals structures
impeding the advance of the landing craft. By 0930, Utah Beach was
cleared of most obstacles, and the team worked to locate and destroy
unexploded ordinances (shells, mines, hand grenades, etc.) and to
help move along the immense cavalcade of vehicles swarming the shore.
What was left of the steel obstacles was later piled together by
Army engineers who bulldozed them into large scrap piles. Some of
this metal was reused later; welded to the front of tanks to assist
in clearing brush and trees as the vehicles moved into densely vegetated
As has often been stated, the casualty rates overall
on Utah Beach were much lower than that of Omaha (at Omaha the NCDUs
suffered close to a staggering 50% casualty rate). But this is not
to state that the importance of the beach should be understated,
or that there weren't significant loses at Utah; 6 men from the
NCDUs died during the fighting and 11 were seriously wounded (two
of the wounded were from NCDU 127).
The NCDUs remained on the beach for several days
after the invasion, assisting with unloading of equipment onto the
beach and cleanup. Some of the lighter moments of the invasion were
to come during this period, such as the afternoon when one particular
GI had dug himself a latrine, only to find himself seconds later
running along the beach with his pants down while being strafed
by a rare Luftwaffe appearance. Fortunately, the only thing wounded
in this episode was the man's ego.
While encamped on the beach, there was opportunity
for some of the men to comb about the area for souvenirs. On D-Day
+1, Seaman Lew Dube and Chief Leland Prewitt were walking in the
area of a couple of German "pillboxes" (a concrete and
steel reinforced shelter designed as a machine gun emplacement and
forward point of observation), one of which was used as one of the
key observation posts for the Nazi defence of the beach. Prewitt
gathered up a couple of other officers, Petty Officers Wirwhan and
Modesett, and as the group approached one of the structures, Lew
peered into a small opening- to stare point blank into the eyes
of a German soldier. A steel shutter clanged shut immediately. Quickly
an Army officer was notified of the situation, but balked at the
idea that there were still any Germans left on 'his" part of
the beach. Prewitt made him a $5 bet that there were. So a small
armed party went to deal with the situation.
They first banged on the door, attempting to coax
the Germans to surrender. Next a shot was fired down a ventilation
hole, but to no avail. Finally the team carefully blew open the
door using explosives found in the adjacent remnants of the other
pillbox. 15 German soldiers walked out, stunned by the explosion,
and were prudently escorted to the POW cages set up on the beach
area for a trip back to the UK (ironically, the same LST that delivered
my father to the sands of Utah was instrumental in transporting
POWs across the Channel)(7). My father once said that he saw about
two weeks worth of food and wine, radio & telephone equipment,
as well as a phone line to one of the gun emplacements, stored within.
It appears the Germans had settled in for the long haul. As for
CPO Prewitt, he became $5 richer that day. My father received the
Bronze Star medal for his part in this small drama, and a souvenir
belt from a newly minted POW named W. Hollmach.
The shoulderpatch of the Amphibious Forces
At right, NCDU 127 member Jack Modesett attaches
primacord to an explosive pack in a training exercize
Lewis' Landing ship the LST 47
Lew receives the Naval Unit Commendation for
his participation in Normandy
Walsh and Lewis in Salerno, Italy in September
NCDU 127 at Ft. Pierce, Chatas, Dunford, Dube,
Scott, Walsh, Lt. Hund and Dittmer
A "souvenier" photograph displays
happier times for these Germans. Perhaps some of these men were
in a pillbox at Utah Beach on June 6th?