At Anzio and Salerno the landing boats pounded back and forth through the heavy surf between the ships and beachhead bringing in the supplies that enabled the troops to hold their ground against the furious German counter-attacks.
The small craft became a familiar part of operations against the enemy in every theatre of war. Yet, still so new was this specialized branch of seamanship that the expert coxswains who operated the Higgins type landing craft were unable to give a clear discourse on the secrets of their trade. "I can't describe exactly how I run my landing craft. It's all in the feel of the thing," they usually said.
The boat coxswains aboard were good because they had a great personal feeling for their craft. They beefed continually about the dangers of their rugged naval assignment--amphibious warfare--but few of them would ever exchange their duty for a shore billet. Assault coxswains, some of them rated only as seaman second class, were skippers of their own boats,--boats which cost the Government approximately $21,000. This independence and real sense of importance was what they liked.
One had to ride with an experienced coxswain and watch him at work to realize how much there was to this "sixth sense" technique. As the cargo net was lowered over the ship's side or as troops came aboard, it was his responsibility to keep his craft directly under the net. In smooth water this was fairly easy but in a heavy sea a boatman had a job on his hands keeping his bobbing craft in one position. He had to consider the placement of his load. If the loaded craft was too heavy forward he would not be able to ride onto the beach, and consequently his troops or supplies would get soaked in debarking.
In the midst of all this there were apt to be other distractions. At Sicily, after H-hour when the landing craft were loading alongside this transport, they were caught by sneak air raids. Boat coxswains lay helplessly in their craft as they watched the Germans lay a string of six bombs along their starboard quarter, missing them by only fifty yards. The men couldn't maneuver their boats, which was the advantage of a small craft under air attack, because they were in the process of loading. One boat, run by Philip B. Kearney, was tossed several feet into the air by the explosions. But all the boats came through with nothing more serious than a thorough drenching.
Before leaving his transport for a beach landing, a coxswain was as carefully briefed about his part in the operation, as a flier setting out to bomb Berlin. Army and Naval officers handed out intelligence sheets describing every detail of the beach, its grade, and hazards lying in approaching waters. Each boat was designated to a particular position in a certain wave of the assault. Coxswains were given sign boards with their position and wave number painted on them. This was their number plate for the boat traffic officer.
The coxswain's next job was to proceed to the rendezvous area of his wave. Here practical navigation and knowledge of the stars came in, particularly when operating at night. A good man had an uncanny way of finding his group quickly. And once he had located it he had to stay in position. An invasion rendezvous area was no place for a person to assert his independence and play lone wolf, for one boat in the wrong slot in a split-second operation would throw everyone into confusion.
Handling these box-like scows in heavy sea called for real skill. Soldiers riding into the beach realized this better than anyone else. A skilled boatman always watched ahead and avoided hitting a wave too squarely, so that his already shivering troops wouldn't get any wetter than necessary. He aimed to keep his boat trimmed, arranging his load so that the craft traveled on an even keel. Trimming helped cut down violent rocking, which in turn reduced seasickness among the soldiers.
After they reached the rendezvous area just off the beach where their troops and cargo were designated, boatmen circled around anxiously--waiting for the control officer's signal to "hit the beach." When word was given, the coxswains fanned out. They sped up their engines and moved into line for the assault just as trotting horse drivers start a race, all jockeying around so that they would hit the starting line together. These men, all on the same team but from different transports, had great competitive spirit among them. Each transport thought it had the best small boatmen. In practise men watched each other closely to see how the other coxswains made the landing.
They also had to be alert in picking their landing point. In combat smart judgment on a coxswain's part meant everything. At Salerno, however, one man, Calvin R. Cooper, had an experience which showed that ingenuity sometimes meant nothing. As he stood off shore ready to make his run in, a terrific explosion went off on the beach. He thought it was a land mine and therefore a landing there would be the safest place to debark his troops. Just as his ramp was lowered on the beach, he found himself facing a German 88 pillbox only one hundred yards away. Luckily it had been deserted except for three snipers who promptly opened up on them. Bullets commenced to whistle over their heads. "And they didn't sound the way they do in the movies, either," Cooper said. The boat crew went to work on the snipers with their 30 calibre machine . guns. In the skirmish which lasted about ten minutes only one soldier was killed and two wounded.
Hitting the beach was the coxswains' crucial moment. There were all kinds of things he could do wrong. If he gunned his boat too fast, he would beach it so high and dry that he could not back off under his own power after his troops had been unloaded. He then had to wait for a salvage boat to pull him off, and in the meantime he was preventing another boat from landing there.
The most common danger in making a landing was broaching; that is, allowing a boat to swing broadside to the waves. In a heavy surf a broached craft smashed to bits in short order. Less experienced coxswains were continually getting themselves in this predicament. Men sometimes broached because, after unloading they started to turn around before they have backed into water deep enough to be clear of all sandbars and surf. When a beach was "hot" some coxswains became too anxious to swing around and head back to the transport anchorage area. When half turned around they found themselves in an awkward position, hung up on another submerged bar just off the beach.
One group of men will never forget the dangers of a broached craft. They were the crew of a converted salvage boat from the Coast Guard transport which salvaged ninety-six broached boats from the Gela, Sicily beachhead. In the first 48 hours this crew of five enlisted men saved approximately $1,000,000 worth of equipment and cleared yards of congested beach for future landings, while under constant air attack.
Some boat coxswains, on the other hand, were too cautious. When a man brought in his craft too slowly, he lost his momentum as he churned through the sand. In that case he often stalled, perhaps fifty feet from shore. In action a coxswain could not back off and try again, so his troops and cargo had to be dumped off into the water.
Most of the coxswains and their crews were superb. They had been through three invasions and had lost but five boats. They lost no crew member in their last two operations at Sicily and Salerno. They have got the feel of it.
In smooth water the trained boatman did not race his engine full speed ahead as he neared the beach. (This, was called "cowboying!") Instead he sized up the surf and timed his approach so that his craft would be pushed along by perhaps an extra large breaker. The idea was to ride in with the surf board rider, When he felt his bow go aground he sped his engine slightly, pushing ahead only as far as the craft would go easily. It was at this moment that crew teamwork entered. The bowman knew just when to throw the forward hooks, so that the ramp was lowered the second the craft comes to a stop. If the ramp was dropped while still moving forward, it would bury itself in the sand, bringing the boat to a premature stop before reaching dry land. Or the craft might even swamp if the ramp were lowered too soon.
In rough water landing craft technique was slightly different. It was much harder, for instance, for an assault wave to stick to any set formation when approaching the beach. Each coxswain was left more to his own discretion where and how he landed his boat. In heavy surf it was more difficult to judge the proper speed at which to land. A coxswain had to travel fast enough so that his bow would be lifted above the breakers. On the other hand, too much speed plus the extra boost given by heavy surf was apt to beach a craft high and dry.
After hitting the beach the coxswain left his engine in forward gear to keep his craft firmly lodged. He stood at the wheel during unloading, keeping his rudder amidship. This helped to prevent the stern from swinging either way as glancing waves hit it on the quarter. Keeping his beached craft always at right angles to incoming surf was how a coxswain avoided broaching.
Mastery of all these fine points in small-boat handling paid off at H-hour. Every man knew that one broach or a slip up in the loading process would greatly slow up the naval shuttle service from ship to shore. Time was the determining element in the success or failure of the amphibious operations.
At Salerno in a period of 25 hours, Coast Guardsman Leonard W. Ruehle, and his crew made 18 trips to the beach with Army vehicles and equipment in a tank lighter. Another fast performing boat during the Italian invasion was one run by Eugene C. Arndt, and George E. Betz, who carried fourteen loads of troops and ammunition ashore. Men who turned out combat records such as these were invaluable to the Allied Command.