Article written about Richard Ferguson Friday April 30, 2004 to commemorate 60th Anniversary of Exercise Tiger. This article appeared in an unidentified local newspaper which carried several features relating to special commemorative events in and around Slapton.
I was fighting for my life in a sea of blood
By Vivien Lambe and Dan Stathers
A survivor of Exercise Tiger ended his vow of silence this week and spoke openly about the disaster.
World War II veteran Richard Ferguson, 81, spoke softly, but hauntingly of the ‘night the water turned to blood’.
As darkness fell that evening the teenage Richard was surrounded by 250 friends – but by morning they were all gone.
‘Families and loved ones of those killed never knew what had happened to them,’ he said. ‘Many were never even notified that they were dead.’
Mr Ferguson returned to the South Hams this week in order to pay his respects to the many friends his lost that night.
‘I have never met a bad person and I have never met a stranger,’ said the retired rancher who is one of just 24 survivors of the war’s most costly training disasters. His outlook is remarkable when you consider the horrors he has seen.
On the fateful night of April 28 1944, he was on board an LST (landing ship tank) when it was hit by a torpedo. His recollections of that night are delivered in a mesmerising southern drawl. He speaks calmly – but pauses as the memories become more difficult to recount. He said: ‘We had a bad day on April 28, 1944. The practice didn’t start so differently from any other – but out of the thousand men, just a handful survived.
‘I was down below when the torpedoes hit. There was so much noise and confusion, it’s hard to remember exactly what happened. LST 531 was cut in two, right down the middle. I somehow managed to get out and suddenly I was in the water. Something fell on me and Ed Crocker, who was always with me, pulled me up. He helped to save me but that was the last time I saw him. I floated around and then ran into two dead guys and hooked myself to their lifejackets with some rope. That’s where I stayed until someone came and found me.
‘The water was freezing. The boys who weren’t blown out of the water were killed by the hypothermia. I felt like I was in the water for eight hours but was told later that it was only six. When I was pulled out, the guy said to me ‘where are you from?’ so I said Missouri and he said ‘well you’re a Missouri mule because you’ve got to be stubborn to have survived what you’ve just been through. My wife still tells me I’m stubborn today but I don’t regret that because if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t still be here.’
Mr Ferguson thinks his survival against the odds is down to him being raised in the outdoors. ‘All those who made it are hillbillies,’ he said. ‘Perhaps they had more of a survival instinct. After we were rescued, we were taken to a guard camp and once they knew we weren’t going to say anything about what had happened, we were taken to hospital.’
None of the soldiers was told which hospital he was being taken to. Mr Ferguson’s daughter, Gwynneth has since been told her father was probably taken to Shepton Mallet, but she cannot get confirmation of this because the events of the exercise were such a closely-guarded secret.
His wife, Gladys, who he met at a rodeo and married 57 years ago, accompanied him on his visit, as did Gwynneth and son-in-law Lewis. Gwynneth was named after the daughter of the family Mr Ferguson lodged with when he first came to England.
‘This will be my last trip here,’ he said. ‘I like the English and I feel glad to have been able to come over for the 60th anniversary and pay my respects. It is right that all the boys who were killed have been honoured, but in future, I will be remembering from my home.’