A 30-year Coverup: Two Disastrous D-Day Debacles Cost Hundreds of US Lives
June 4, 2014
CBS Evening News & Brittany Shammas / Sun Sentinel
For 30 years, the Pentagon covered up a military blunder that cost the lives of hundreds of soldiers in an exercise leading up to D-Day. For a long time, what happened that night was kept quiet. The servicemen who lived were ordered not to talk about it. "What irks me more than anything else," says one survivor, "is the uselessness of what happened at Exercise Tiger, all that terrible loss of life when there should have been no loss of life."
WWII Veteran Remembers Secret D-Day Debacle
CBS Evening News
(June 3, 2014) -- As the Allies commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, there is one story from the invasion many people don't know. Jim Axelrod hears the story of what happened during the rehearsal -- kept secret by the US military -- firsthand from an American veteran.
Exercise Tiger: A Deadly Rehearsal for D-Day
Brittany Shammas / Sun Sentinel
(April 28, 2014) -- In the early morning darkness 70 years ago today, a convoy of eight ships packed with American servicemen crept along the English coast for a D-Day dress rehearsal.
Twenty-one-year-old sailor Joe Sandor stood at the stern of LST 496, squinting into the darkness. Suddenly, one of the other ships went up in flames, its sides turning into "red molten lava."
A group of nine German boats had stumbled upon the secret operation, dubbed "Exercise Tiger," and the training session had become real. And deadly.
"We were like sitting targets," recalled Sandor, now 91 and a Sunrise resident. "You could hear everybody screaming. Nobody was ever in combat before; we were all young kids."
When it was over, two of the ships had sunk to the bottom of the English Channel. And at least 749 American soldiers were dead -- victims of the explosions, drowning, hypothermia and poor planning.
To the dismay of survivors and relatives of those who died, few Americans know about Exercise Tiger. It's the forgotten prelude to D-Day, June 6, 1944, the beginning of the end of World War II. "When I'm gone and people of my generation are gone, it's just going to be dust, never to be celebrated, never to be memorialized," said Stanley Bluestein, 78, of Boynton Beach.
He was 16 when his uncle, Harry Levine, headed off to war as a Navy medic. But Levine only got as far as Exercise Tiger, April 28, 1944. Almost 20 years older than Bluestein, he had been a kind of "guiding light" to his nephew. They lived under the same Brooklyn roof for six years in the Depression era. Levine taught Bluestein how to swim and took him on his first airplane ride.
He died a year after he joined the service, a 35-year-old who had just recently married his longtime girlfriend. "I just couldn't believe the news," Bluestein said. "It was just so totally unexpected and so shocking, it was almost like my thought process was paralyzed."
The military gave sparse details, telling Levine's widow he had been killed in combat, but little else. Eventually, she learned the rest from a friend of his who was there, Bluestein said. Levine had been on board LST 531, which sank within six minutes of being torpedoed. He and others held on to wreckage, hoping they'd be plucked from the frigid water. Hypothermia likely got Levine in the end. His body was never recovered.
The surprise ambush by the Germans, who easily picked off the slow-moving American transport ships from their lighter, speedier boats, had been made worse by several major blunders in the planning of Exercise Tiger, military historians say.
Officials had selected Slapton Sands, England, for the rehearsal because of its resemblance to Utah Beach in Normandy, which was to be the main landing point for US troops during D-Day.
Among the mistakes made: the transport ships were supposed to be protected by battleships, but only one showed up. The British and Americans were on different radio frequencies, thanks to a typo. And the servicemen had never been shown how to use their life belts, so many wore them incorrectly and drowned because of it.
"What irks me more than anything else," Bluestein said, "is the uselessness of what happened at Exercise Tiger, all that terrible loss of life when there should have been no loss of life."
For a long time, what happened that night was kept quiet. The servicemen who lived were ordered not to talk about it. The doctors and nurses who treated the injured were told to take down no records and ask no questions.
Military officials, too, kept quiet. There was reason to, in the beginning: They couldn't risk Axis forces finding out about the planned D-Day landings. But even after the invasion was successful and the war ended, full details did not come out. They weren't fully revealed until decades later, in 1974, when the records were declassified.
It was the first time the servicemen involved, who had kept mum for so long, heard the full story. Sandor never breathed a word of it to his wife, who he'd been married to since 1947. Finally, he and others on board LST 496 talked about it together. "We said how lucky we were to get through that," Sandor said.
In 1995, a tree was planted and a plaque put up in Arlington National Cemetery, a small memorial for the men lost during Exercise Tiger. Sandor was there; he still has the cup used to spread sand from Slapton Sands at the base of the tree.
Bluestein, who joined the service after his uncle's death, plans to visit the memorial during an Honor Flight trip. Though he wishes it were a "big, beautiful memorial that the whole country knew about," Bluestein said he thinks it'll still mean a lot to see what's there.
A larger memorial, an American tank pulled from the water, stands in Slapton Sands. Laurie Bolton, whose uncle was killed in the D-Day practice run, serves as an honorary director for the Exercise Tiger Memorial, the United Kingdom-based nonprofit that oversees the monument.
'It Was a Slaughterhouse':
70 Years after Parachuting into Normandy, Vet to Jump Again
CBS Evening News
(June 2, 2014) -- Dean Reynolds shares the story of one American who helped liberate Europe 70 years ago. Ninety-three-year-old Jim Martin was one of the paratroopers dropped behind German lines in the hours before the D-Day landings. He plans to jump again this week.
Paratroopers in Peril
American Experience / PBS
The D-Day invasion began with a dangerous attack by American paratroopers. Dropped behind enemy lines to soften up the German troops and to secure needed targets, the paratroopers knew that if the accompanying assault by sea failed -- there would be no rescue.
Departing from Portland Bill on the English coast, the 101st and 82nd US Airborne Divisions were dropped on the Cherbourg peninsula. From that point, the 101st was to secure the western end behind UTAH and head off an eastern German advance. The 82nd, landing farther inland, was to seize the bridges and halt an advance from the west.
Risky Operation, Heavy Losses
Heavy fog and German guns proved formidable challenges. The pilots were unable to drop the paratroopers precisely as planned.
The 101st Division suffered great losses. Only one sixth of the men reached their destination points. The first regiment of the 82nd Division fared better, but the second suffered heavy supply losses -- much of the division was left without sufficient arms. Still, both divisions managed to form smaller improvised squads, and organized themselves to wage a fight. By 0430, the 82nd had captured the town of Ste-Mere-Eglise.
A Weight on Their Shoulders
Paratroopers carried an average of 70 pounds of equipment. Officers averaged 90 pounds of gear. With the parachute, men weighed in at 90 to 120 pounds over their body weight. The paratroopers were jumping into unknown territory and needed to be prepared for any encounter or conditions. Here's what they took:
Standard Parachutist pack
M-1 Garand Rifle with 8-round clip
cartridge belt with canteen
parachute and pack
anti-flash headgear and gloves
.45 caliber Colt automatic pistol
(British, but similar to American officer pack)
spare magazines with 9mm ammunition
2 lb. plastic high explosives (HE)
2-36 primed hand grenades
two full belts of Vickers
basic equipment webbing
48 hours' worth of rations
cooking and washing kit
Spread throughout pockets
loaded .45 automatic pistol
2 additional lb. HE
additional personal items
4 pieces of chewing gum
2 bouillon cubes
2 Nescafe instant coffees, 2 sugar cubes, and creamers
4 Hershey bars
1 pack of Charms candy
1 package pipe tobacco
1 bottle of water purification (Halazone) tablets to purify water. "To use: Put two tablets in canteen full of water (approx. 1 qt.) and shake briskly. Wait 30 minutes before drinking water. If water is dirty or discolored, use 4 tablets."
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