NCDU Memories.....
Soldier:
Seaman First Class Lewis J. Dube
Date: June 6th 1944
Location: Utah Beach, Normandy, France
Unit: 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 socks.

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 areas.

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.

 

Personal Photographs



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 1944.


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?

 

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