The First Wave

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This June 6 many ceremonies will mark the anniversary of the most massive amphibious invasion in history. One of them will be held at the U.S. military cemetery just east of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, a small French village on the Normandy coast. At the cemetery are buried 9,386 American soldiers. But there are other GIs who died that day who do not rest at Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer. Assigned to lead the very first wave, the men who lost their lives in the forefront of the D-day invasion not only have been denied a decent burial but they have been denied their rightful place in history.

They were killed not by German gunfire but by their own weapon, an ultrasecret device that had been approved by the highest-ranking Allied generals. It was a weapon so exciting that the British general Frederick Morgan, who prepared the preliminary invasion plans, said, “At last was found that for which every army in the world had been searching for years....” Nicholas Straussler, a mechanical wizard from Hungary who had become a British citizen, had found a way to float the thirty-two-ton Sherman tank. A seven-foot-high “bloomer”—a canvas collar attached all around the sides of the tank—raised the turret above the waterline. The rest of the tank remained submerged; periscopes and tiller were added, and two propellers in the rear pushed it through the water. These twin screws also served as inspiration for the new miracle weapon’s name: Duplex Drive Tank, better known as the DD Tank. The name was meant to fool the Germans; no one was allowed to refer to it as a floating tank.

To this day nobody will take responsibility for the orphan dead of the 741st Tank Battalion.

From shore the DD Tank looked like a small canvas boat and was unlikely to draw enemy fire. But once it hit the beach, it would lower its collar and burst out of the water already firing.

The supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, Gen. Dwight D. Elsenhower, was an old tank man himself, and his very first inspection trip after arriving in London was to see the new British device. Elsenhower, Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery, and the other admirals and generals assembled at a lake where the DD Tank was put into action. Eisenhower became so excited that he got on board one and steered it around the lake.

Gen. George C. Marshall had already approved the use of the DD Tank by the Americans, but because Eisenhower wanted to be sure this new weapon would be available in time, the day after the demonstration a special plane flew a British engineer with a complete set of blueprints to the United States. The tanks were manufactured in Ohio and shipped to England. This pleased Winston Churchill, who believed the floating tanks would be a vital part of the invasion and had pleaded for more of them. For the first time in history armor could precede infantry in an amphibious assault.

But not everyone liked the new weapon. The British Admiralty contended the DDs were unseaworthy. U.S. Maj. Gen. Charles (“Cowboy Pete”) Corlett, who had successfully commanded invasions in the Pacific, warned Eisenhower and the commander of the U.S. 1st Army, Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, about the DDs’ instability. Corlett claimed he was “brushed off”; he “felt like an expert according to the Naval definition—a son-of-a-bitch from out of town.” Despite his experience, Corlett’s recommendations were ignored, nor was he given a D-day command. One of those who was, Gen. Joseph (“Lightning Joe”) Collins, had been assigned thirty-two of the swimming tanks, to be manned by the veteran 70th Tank Battalion. Collins, too, was concerned about the new wonder weapons. He was to lead the assault on Utah Beach, and when he saw the tanks launched from Navy landing craft during an exercise, he concluded there was “too small a margin for safety” in case of high seas. He asked that the DD Tanks be launched as close to shore as possible. The request was ignored.

Maj. Gen. Leonard Gerow, an old friend of Eisenhower, was to command the forces invading Omaha Beach, the toughest section of the fortified coast. Gerow had little combat experience, and the sixty-four DD Tanks he had been allocated were to be manned by the untried 743d and 741st tank battalions. Unlike Collins, Gerow never protested the use of the new weapons, even though when he and the deputy chief of staff for plans, Col. Benjamin B. Talley, went to inspect them, the exercise was canceled with the explanation that even the moderate weather was too rough. Talley warned Gerow that such a fragile and sensitive weeapon would not be of much use in an invasion. But both Eisenhower and Bradley were enthusiasts as well as his superior officers; Gerow accepted the DD Tanks despite the most severe misgivings.

Two other officers raised serious doubts. Col. William Duncan, commandant of the DD Training School, and Lt. Dean Rockwell, the naval officer in charge of the DD Tank landing craft flotilla, issued official reports that the tanks could not withstand high seas and were very vulnerable to rough weather. Each member of the tank crew was issued a Mae West life vest, an air lung containing seven minutes of precious oxygen, a small rubber raft similar to those used by fliers, and a huge knife to cut through the seven-foot-high canvas collar. In theory, then, if a tank sank, the men inside had seven minutes to fight through the hundreds of pounds of pressure and out through the collapsed wet canvas into the freezing waters of the English Channel.