An Interview with a WWII Navy Veteran

image002.gif - 1888 Bytes Bill York
United States Navy
Petty Officer, 2nd Class

Amphibious Forces

LST’s and LCT's
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Landings at Messina, Anzio, and Southern France

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Bill York is a healthy, vigorous, tennis-playing eighty-one year old gentleman going on twenty-one. Age is not a limiting factor for him, as he indicates he has been pretty much on his own since he was twelve. He worked as a trapper/skinner selling the furs to put food on the table during the depression, which hit his family hard, particularly his parents.

He worked at a lot of other jobs, dishwasher, welder-grinder, caddy on golf course, and parking attendant, which he lost when his foot slipped off the brake and hit the accelerator crashing the vehicle into a wall. He was also a fighter, taking 10 to 15 three round bouts for $5. He quit high school at 17, and enlisted in the navy.

“My only brother was in the army, 101st Airborne, and I did a little research and learned I could sleep in warm beds and have plenty to eat in the navy, so picked it over the others.”

He was sent to the Great Lakes Training Center for basic training, then was sent to Chesapeake Bay, marshalling for the convoy to Europe.

“I was just a passenger aboard an LST when I saw a Liberty Ship sunk by a German submarine. That brought the war home to me. As we passed through the straits of Gibraltar, German Stukas [dive bombers] strafed our ship, and it was then I wondered why I enlisted.”

I asked Bill why he enlisted.

“Everyone was doing it. Patriotism, maybe, and it was better than any of the jobs I had been doing.”

He became a combatant during that convoy, taking charge of a 20 mm gun and firing at the German planes, as the stukas were knocking holes in the deck right beside him.

I asked him if that was the first time he was afraid.

“Afraid, no. I was emotionless. I had a job to do and didn’t think of anything else.”

His first duty was ferrying German POW’s to Tunisia for internment.

“They looked harrowed on one hand, but relieved on the other. I guess it was because they feared we would do to them what they had done to many others, and relieved that we wouldn’t.”

He was next assigned to an LCT, which had an officer and crew of 12. He performed almost all of the jobs about the vessel, helmsman, cook, deckhand, engine room, “… wherever a hand was needed. But I had a clean bed and good food.” That duty was followed by an amphibious landing at Messina in preparation for the invasion of Italy.

“In January, 1944, we took troops and tanks into Anzio. That was when the Germans introduced their railroad gun to us. We called it ‘Big Bertha’. It wasn’t very accurate, but it sent a gigantic shell towards us and we never knew when it might come too close.”

I asked him again about fear.

“No. I was just emotionless. I just did my job.”

The gun at Anzio wasn’t “Big Bertha”, but was “Anzio Annie”, two mammoth howitzers

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named “Robert” and “Leopold” by the Germans. They were mounted on rail cars which hid in a tunnel and only came out to fire their lethal projectiles. The caliber of the shell was 11 inches or 280 mm. The barrel was 70 feet long and the gun overall was 135 feet. It weighed 215 tons and fired a shell weighing over 550 pounds for a maximum range of 38 miles. (The gun above is “Leopold” and can be seen at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds Museum, Aberdeen, Maryland.)

“In April, 1944, in the early morning hours, we took the LCT and landed British Commandoes on Elba. Then for two days in August, we landed troops, tanks, and ammunition in Southern France. With the liberation of France, we landed at Marseilles and I joined a detachment of Shore Patrol for three months. We had to get sailors and soldiers out of the bars and brothels because venereal disease was running rampant through the ranks.”

“After three months I was back on the LCT and we landed in Genoa.”

At that time, he learned his only brother had been wounded in Normandy on D-Day, but had been taken to Paris for recuperation.

“Then I learned he had been killed at Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge. Johnny’s death was the greatest personal loss in my life, and still is today.

I could see this was a moment of deep emotion, and we were quiet for a moment as he composed himself. Then I asked him about Genoa and other cities in Italy.

“Genoa was untouched by the war, but she was hard hit anyway. I saw it in other cities in Italy and it was always the same: ‘Hey, Joe, you like my sister? My mama will show you a good time. Hey, Joe? Come on, just a bar of chocolate and you can spend time with my sister.’"

“The children, waifs, really, were pimping their sisters and mothers for anything they could get. It was heart-wrenching to see the social collapse caused by a stupid war.”

His anger was very apparent and I paused before continuing. I asked Bill about the Allies he fought with, but he said he didn’t remember day-by-day, but he liked the Brits, “good sailors”.

“Except this one sailor. I’ve always liked olives, black ones, but we didn’t have them aboard my LCT. Well this one British sailor said they had all the olives they wanted aboard his ship and he would get me a jar. He did and showed it to me. Then he said I could have it for fifty bucks. I gave him the money, but I didn’t like him. I ate the olives though.”

“Not much left to tell. I was discharged in 1946. We returned to Norfolk, VA aboard an LST, and I was just a passenger. I was given 30 days leave and when I returned, we were taken to Great Lakes. I was asked if I wanted to reenlist, but I said ‘no’ and I was discharged from there.”

I asked him about his medals and ribbons, but he said, “I don’t care about any of that stuff.”

Bill York, along with eight million of his fellow citizens, enlisted and fought a war. He never said he was brave or a hero, “I just did my job.” It was men and women like Bill that have been called the “Greatest Generation.” I concur with that statement and thank him and all the men and women that served our country in its greatest time of need for serving and doing their jobs.

Bill Copeland

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