News: D-Day, a Reunion and 'Hell by the Sea'
Story by Sgt. Elisebet Freeburg
CARABELLE, Fla.—On the dawn of June 6, 1944, the Allies landed on the coast of Normandy. Stretched across a 50-mile expanse of beaches, these men fought through a barrage of machine-gun fire, artillery shells and mortar bombs toward enemy lines. By the end of the day, Allied troops had gained a hold on French soil, but the U.S. had sustained an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 casualties. For many of those heroes, their journey to the beaches of Normandy began in a small coastal Florida town nestled against the Gulf of Mexico. Today, the town of Carrabelle can boast of a past rich with American history.
Army Reserve vessel Landing Craft Utility 2031 New Orleans, manned by members of the 824th Transportation Company (Heavy Boat), participated in the 16th annual Camp Gordon Johnston reunion held here in Carrabelle, March 10-12.
Nicknamed by trainees as “hell by the sea” for its at-the-time miserable living conditions of heat, bugs and snakes, the temporary Camp Gordon Johnston in Carrabelle trained approximately 250,000 amphibious soldiers from 1942 to 1946, most of whom would continue on to fight in Europe and the Pacific.
This was the third time Sgt. Evangelista Santiago, senior engineman for Detachment 1 of the 824th TC, has participated in the event which began in 1995 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.
“The people [event partakers] are so friendly,” said Santiago, a Tampa, Fla., native, who enjoys working with the public.
Arriving at the Carrabelle community dock March 11, the crew of the New Orleans opened the ship to the general public and gave tours, March 12-13. Besides touring the deck and cargo area, visitors were able to see firsthand the dining area and living quarters, as well as the engine room. Guests also met the skipper, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Gerald Mitchell, and were able to ask him questions about the boat and tell their own war stories.
I met one veteran who trained here in 1942 and went on to fight in Guam and the Philippines, said Mitchell.
“We were honored to be part of the reunion,” said Mitchell. “The town of Carrabelle was wonderful, and we loved it.”
A public occasion, the reunion honors veterans of all wars, not just World War II. A golf tournament was held Thursday, March 10 with veterans in attendance. Friday, March 11 there were several event opportunities for those attending the reunion, including food, boat tours and live music.
The U.S. Army band from Fort Rucker, Ala., led a parade Saturday morning, March 12. Many veterans along with their family rolled down the street in vehicles and trailers displaying homemade banners, military memorabilia, and waving U.S. flags while supporters and members of the community watched and cheered. This year, spectators were able to see a World War II U.S. Army M3A-1 halftrack vehicle along with other restored military vehicles. Soldiers from the 332nd Transportation Company Battalion drove two Humvees with upgraded armor in the parade as well.
A barbecue was held in the afternoon, followed by a dinner dance. The New Orleans was scheduled at 3:00 p.m. to land and unload several Humvees west of the town on Carrabelle Beach.
Marked by the Florida Department of State has a historic site, Carrabelle Beach is a former landing site for military landing crafts as servicemembers from Camp Gordon Johnston practiced landing for the Normandy Invasion.
Floating close to shore, the 174-foot New Orleans—a significantly larger landing craft than those used during D-day training—was unfortunately not able to land due to water depth.
The crowd of about three hundred people still seemed to enjoy the mock landing, snapping photos of the boat in action.
The 824th TC has participated in the reunion since 2006; except for 2009 when the New Orleans was receiving improvements and repairs in the shipyard, and 2010 when the ship was involved with the Haitian humanitarian relief effort, Operation Unified Response.
World War II service members that trained at Camp Gordon Johnston include those from the 4th Infantry Division, 28th ID, 38th ID, 534th Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, and 534th Scouts.
Stationed in Tampa, Fla., the 824th TC reports to the 332nd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 143d Sustainment Command (Expeditionary).