Independent Statement written by John Robert Lewis Jnr., who served under Admiral Moon, the Commander of Exercise Tiger. Although this statement is not solely related to Exercise Tiger, we have decided to include it in the archive as it contains some interesting background information. The opinions given herein are those of John Robert Lewis Jnr., and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Exercise Tiger Trust.
Memories of D-Day
A Statement by John Robert Lewis Jnr.
This is Commander John Robert Lewis Jnr., United States Navy Reserve Retired. I was born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania on October 24, 1921. In August 1942, while a senior at the University of Michigan, I enlisted in the Navy V-7 program. This program allowed you to enlist as an Apprentice Seaman in the United States Navy Reserve on inactive duty while you continued your studies toward graduation.
I graduated from the University of Michigan in April, 1943 and immediately reported for active duty to the Midshipman’s School at Northwestern University at the medical campus in downtown Chicago. I was quartered in Tower Hall. I spent four months there studying navigation, ordinance and seamanship and was commissioned an Ensign in the United States Navy Reserve in August 1943.
I was then ordered to the Navy Training School at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts for training in Communications and Radio Engineering. I graduated at the end of December 1943. In January 1944, I reported to the Navy Department in Washington D.C. for duty on the staff of Rear Admiral Don P. Moon, who was later to become Commander Force U, Utah Beach in Normandy. He was in England at this time.
In March 1944, I sailed on the old British Cunard Liner, SS Aquitania, which is a sister ship of the SS Lusitania from WW1 that was torpedoed by a German submarine. The Aquitania also carried ten thousand troops, one Army hospital and 600 glider pilots who were to be used later in the landings at Normandy. The Aquitania sailed from New York city to Greenock, Scotland by way of Halifax, Nova Scotia. During the voyage, I stood watch in the troop hold. The ship sailed along with no escort, zig zagging at 23 knots. The total trip took ten days.
After arriving in Greenock, I was motored to the train station in Glasgow, and traveled that night from Glasgow to Plymouth, England, in a blacked-out train during an air-raid.
Admiral Moon’s staff was quartered in quonset huts in the center of Plymouth where German bombers had previously cleared a path about half a mile wide, diagonally across the entire city of Plymouth.
We experienced air raid alarms practically every night and were required to go to an underground shelter. Of course, we lost sleep many of those nights.
After many false alarms and losing a lot of sleep, one night I decided to stay in the quonset hut and just sleep through what I thought would be a false alarm. Everybody else in the quonset hut had gone to the air raid shelter. All of a sudden, anti aircraft guns went off all around me, bombs started to fall, I could hear the whistling, and could hear the engines of air plans, also shrapnel falling on the quonset hut. I got up, put on by overcoat and my helmet, crawled under my bed and began to pray. I promised God that if he would get me through that air raid, I would always go to the shelter again when there was an alarm sounded.
During the months of April and May, Admiral Moon’s staff planned vigorously for their part in the landings of Normandy at Utah Beach. During this time, practice landings were carried out at Slapton Sands, an area on the coast of Devon. Admiral Moon’s flag ship was the USS Bayfield, APA 33. During exercise ‘Tiger’, our force of LSTs was attacked by German E-Boats in the English Channel. Several of these LSTs were sunk and nine hundred troops drowned during the exercise. [sic]
After this disaster, there were rumors that a board of inquiry would be held later on in the United States. This was one of the possible reasons we thought for Admiral Moon’s suicide in August 1944. Admiral Moon was a very intense man, he slept only about four hours a night. He would work until midnight and then be up at 4am, which is dawn in England at that time of the year.
During exercise ‘Tiger’, one incident occurred to me personally that I will never forget. I was called to the flag bridge by Admiral Moon to record a message from him that he wanted to send to the shore. I was very slow during his dictation and fumbled quite often. He was a very impatient man, so he pulled a slip of paper from his coat pocket and wrote down the message and handed it to me to send. I still have this message with his handwriting on the scrap of paper amongst my memorabilia.
On June 1st Admiral Moon and his staff boarded the USS Bayfield and began setting up for the Normandy landings.
On June 3rd, we picked up Major General J Laughton Collins and his headquarters troops, (commander of the 7th Corp), and also Major General Barton, commander of the 4th Division Infantry, along with his deputy commander Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. the Bayfield also carried one battalion-landing-team of infantry to be put ashore in the assault phase. We then assembled with other ships of Force U and began our trip across the English Channel. During the cruise across, we all assembled on the deck of the Bayfield and sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic and ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. This was a very sobering time to sing the words ‘… as God died to make men holy, let us die to make men free…’
We arrived off Utah Beach at approximately 12.00 am June 6th. At that same time, bombardment by our Naval ships commenced, and we also disembarked our underwater demolition teams and rubber boats. They were to go into the beach and clear the underwater obstacles.
During the operations, I was officer in charge of the British Coding Room of Force U Commander. I had under my supervision several British Royal Navy Petty Officers, and several United States Navy Petty Officers. We were responsible for strip ciphers, word codes, and other British codes used to decode British messages, while we were in communication with British forces in our area.
One of the most difficult experiences our force had during the landings on Utah Beach were caused by German underwater mines. These mines were laid on the ocean bottom in shallow water and were very difficult to sweep. They also had delayed fuses, which allowed the mine to remain unexploded during the first or second passages of a ship over them. Then on the 3rd or 4th passage of a ship over the mine, it would explode.
During the second morning while I was on deck, I observed an LST passing close by the Bayfield carrying a detachment of Army engineers. All of a sudden, this LST was blown completely in half, sinking rapidly. Men were blown overboard, or jumped overboard and trucks and tanks rolled off the surface of the LST. The Bayfield rescued from the water the survivors of this LST. Similar incidents occurred in the next few days within our immediate vicinity. Every evening, we would lay a smoke screen and move the Bayfield’s position in order to make air attack more difficult for the enemy.
Our ships had orders not to fire on enemy air craft at night for fear of giving away our position. One night, two German Fok-Wulf 180s flew over our force. One plane dove in our vicinity and the gun crew of the Bayfield opened fire. The second plane dove following our tracers and firing its own machine guns dropped a bomb which landed fifty yards off the stern of the Bayfield. I was on watch in the communications room at the time, and I heard the plane dive and the machine gun firing and I stepped behind a very large metal code safe for protection.
When the bomb exploded, the Bayfield shuttered and dust fell off all the pipes and air vents from overhead. Admiral Moon was very furious about this disobedience and angry words were spoken to the Bayfield’s captain.
Hospital ships were not planned to arrive during the first three days of the operation. So during this time, Army wounded from ashore were brought out and treated aboard the Bayfield and other transport ships in the area. During this time, over 500 casualties were treated by the Bayfield’s ship doctor and by our staff’s doctor and over 100 major operations were performed aboard the Bayfield.
Myself and other Communications Officers carried these casualties between our watches which were four hours on and four hours off. This included German prisoners that had been wounded in the operation landings.
One of the wounded prisoners was a French woman, accused of collaborating with the Germans and had been captured at German artillery post ashore.
We junior officers gave up our quarters for the purpose of bedding the wounded. I and my fellow officers slept in enlisted crew’s bunks while they were on watch.
One morning, while on deck carrying casualties, I saw in ME-109 come in at low level strafing the beach. We had two RAF Spitfires on air patrol above the beach. One of these Spitfires dove straight down and opened fire on the ME-109, which burst into flames and crashed on an unoccupied portion of the beach. You can imagine the cheers that went up from the men on deck.
Several days later, a violent storm hit the Normandy area and washed many of the LSTs ashore as much as 50 yards up onto the beach. Days later, after the storm had subsided, these ships were unloaded where they sat and then towed off at high tide.
A few days after the landing, the flag ships were visited by General Marshall, General Eisenhower, General Arnold and Admiral King. It was a great thrill to see these officers, and I will never forget shaking the hand of General Teddy Roosevelt Jr, not too long before he died in action.
For three weeks, the Bayfield sat anchored off the Utah Beach and the Staff stood four hours on, four hours off watches during this entire time.
Then, in early July, we sailed for Naples, Italy to plan for Operation ‘Dragoon’, which was the southern France landings taking place in August of 1944.
It was here in Naples, Italy, just a few days before the beginning of the southern France landings that Rear Admiral Don Moon committed suicide aboard the USS Bayfield. He wrapped a towel around his .45 caliber pistol and shot himself during the night. He was the first Flag Officer in the United States Navy to commit suicide while in combat. It was later announced by the Secretary of the Navy Forestall that Admiral Moon had taken his own life due to combat fatigue.
That morning, the staff was notified of the death of Admiral Moon and sworn to secrecy. The Admiral’s body was removed the next night to a Naples cemetery for temporary burial.
The task force was not notified due to morale purposes. Admiral Spencer Lewis was assigned to the operation in place of Admiral Moon, but our Chief of Staff, Captain Rutledge Tomkins, ran the whole successful operation. Our staff commanded the landings on Frejus beach near San Rapheal. I went in with the assault wave to Frejus to coordinate staff communications.
A few days after the landing when things had quieted down and I had some relief time, I was told that the summer home of Pierre Laval, the French premier was on our road about a mile down from Frejus. I walked down the road and while I was standing there looking at Pierre Laval’s house, a gun fired from the woods behind me and the bullet whizzed past my head. I ran down into his yard and jumped behind a small wall, drew my .45 and fired back into the woods behind me where the sound of the gunshot had come from.
No more firing took place, and when I heard a jeep coming down the road, and seeing it was an American jeep, I hailed them and hitched a ride back to Frejus. I figured that there had been a German sniper up in those woods and I didn’t feel like staying around there any longer.
After the southern France landings, the staff sailed on the Bayfield to Charleston, South Carolina and then on through the Panama Canal to Pearl Harbor. The staff was then flown to Guadalcanal and then on to Bougainville to serve as a complete and entire staff to Rear Admiral Ingolf Kiland, Commander Amphibious Group Seven aboard the flag ship USS Mt. McKinley, AGC7.
Late in 1944, I was promoted to Lt. (Jn. Grade) and served as Top Secret, Super Secret and Ultra Secret communications officer for Admiral Kiland during operations in the Philippines with landings at Luzon and the capture of the Kerama Islands in advance of the Okinawa landings. I spent the balance of the war in the Pacific.