The Bill Allen Story, Normandy Invasion

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(Repost from TnMagazine.org – story by Cindy Kent. Photos by: Robin Conover)

Bill Allen of Murfreesboro was there on the beaches of Normandy 76 years ago when a generation was called to fight the spread of tyranny and fascism. He recalls D-Day, what it meant at the time and what it means today.

 

On May 18, 1943, Bill Allen celebrated his 18th birthday and his graduation from Murfreesboro Central High School. Allen, now 95, could not have guessed that in little more than a year, he would be a survivor of one of the most daring, celebrated and deadly invasions in modern history: D-Day. Bill returned home to lead a life that “has been better than good,” he said, ever since he met his wife, Idalee, in 1955. Still, seven decades have not dimmed the veteran’s memories of World War II. Allen shares his remarkable story with great detail, wit and the perspective that comes from extraordinary experience.

“When you turned 18, you left. It didn’t matter how far along in school you were… I lost my senior year. That hurt me very much… but I’ve learned since, there are things a lot worse than that.”

“We were in the war the whole time I was in high school,” said Allen. The teenager knew he would have to do his part. “When you turned 18, you left. It didn’t matter how far along in school you were or anything. But since my birthday was in May, I knew I had a chance to stay and finish school. I played basketball, but we did not have a team my senior year; we discontinued everything due to the war. I lost my senior year. That hurt me very much… but I’ve learned since, there are things a lot worse than that.”

A group of Landing Craft Infantry sails toward Normandy via the English Channel on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The ship to which Bill Allen was assigned made the trip across the channel multiple times throughout the Invasion of Normandy.

Bill admits that when he joined the Navy, he “didn’t know a Band Aid from an aspirin tablet!” Still, he was made hospital apprentice and trained for months. “We were the medical part of the Navy. We maintained the healthy status of the ship; we operated sick bays, dispensaries, anything pertaining to health was within our jurisdiction.” The new servicemen were placed on a new ship — the LST-523. “We were the original crew on it,” said Bill. “We went out in March 1944.”

Having led a landlocked life until he joined the Navy, Bill didn’t know what to expect from a life at sea; he suffered debilitating seasickness for the four weeks it took to cross the Atlantic. Once in England, he began preparing in earnest for war. “We left the ship and went to chemical warfare school for two weeks,” said the veteran. “Just the medical personnel. Back on ship, we spent our time making bandages and dressings and sterilizing all our instruments. Meantime, we were in and out of different ports, loading to go out to the channel, turning around to come back, unload: practicing. One day we loaded up and didn’t go out in the channel, but we took off in the dark … we weren’t told anything, but we knew pretty well where we were headed.

A U.S. Navy LST similar to the one on which Bill Allen served sinks down by the stern off the Normandy beaches, the victim of a German attack on June 15, 1944. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

“We got into D-Day then.”

Codenamed Operation Overlord, D-Day began on June 6, 1944, when Allied forces landed along a 50-mile stretch of the coast of France. The term “D-Day” is a military term used to mark the beginning of any water-to-land operation, although there is some discrepancy on exactly what that “D” stands for. The U.S. Army has offered that D simply indicates the calendar day that an operation begins, just as H stands for the hour an operation is set to begin. In 1964, Dwight D. Eisenhower said any amphibious operation has a “departed date,” for which D-Day is a shortened version.

“Omaha” also was a code name. “Omaha Beach” refers to an area about 5 miles long, one of five sectors to be invaded by the Allied forces against the Nazis who occupied Normandy. Taking Omaha was the responsibility of the U.S. Army, Navy and Coast Guard plus British, Canadian and Free French navies. Bill’s ship, the LST-523, was headed there. Landing Ship, Tank (LST) is the Navy’s name for ships that carried tanks, vehicles, cargo and troops directly onto shore. Essential to beach invasions, the bow of an LST had a flat keel, allowing the ship to be beached upright, plus a large door that opened to a ramp for unloading.

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