'Assault Wave Cox'n,' a 1944 painting by Dwight C. Shepler, honors the sailors charged with steering landing craft onto contested shores. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
- Filed Under
Soldiers wade ashore onto Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, after arriving in a landing craft, vehicle, personnel, or LCVP. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
A landing craft under the command of Boatswain's Mate 1st Class (SW/AW) Jason Davis makes a high-speed approach during training operations off the beach at Little Creek, Va. (Mark D. Faram/Staff)
LITTLE CREEK, VA. — To the Army 70 years ago, the beaches of Normandy had code names like Omaha and Utah. But to the sailors whose job it was to take those soldiers to battle under withering fire again and again in landing craft, it was simply “The Far Shore.”
The searing experience of June 6, 1944, is now part of the Navy’s DNA.
“When friends ask me what I do for a living, I ask them if they ever saw the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ about the D-Day landings in France,” said Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class (SW/AW) Jason Davis, a utility landing craft craftmaster at the Little Creek, Virginia-based Assault Craft Unit 2 — today’s landing craft operators. “It’s our direct heritage,” he said.
Not since the Korean War and the Inchon landings have the Navy’s assault boats and landing craft attempted to put Americans ashore on hostile beaches. But if that call came, it would be Davis and his crew of 12 who operate the 134-long landing craft utility boats.
Davis is the craftmaster — essentially the CO of one of the Navy’s utility landing craft, which is operated by two assault craft units, one on each coast, with detachments forward-deployed overseas.
Operating mostly out of the well decks of amphibious ships, Navy LCUs can operate independently for up to 10 days — with their own messing and berthing areas. Fully loaded, they can carry two tanks or 350 troops ashore.
It was the ancestors of these LCUs, nearly 3,500 strong and manned by several thousand sailors, that massed off Normandy’s beaches and ran multiple trips to shore, taking in fresh troops and returning with the wounded.
At the end of the day, 36 large landing craft, similar to Davis’ LCU, and 98 smaller landing craft were lost to enemy fire — along with 624 sailors, according to the Navy’s official after-action report of Operation Neptune, as the Navy called its part of the D-Day operations.
Lt. Cmdr. Max Miller, who chronicled the campaign, spent time with small boat crews and their coxswains and wrote that the Navy’s D-Day memorial should be a statue of a landing craft and the sailors who drove it. He referred to that sailor as the “American small-boat boy.”
“He, as much as anybody, won that lengthy battle for the storm-stricken Normandy beachhead,” Miller wrote.
The sailor’s uniform, Miller wrote, was “devoid of what customarily goes for Navy regulation.” And the boats he drove were “grimy both inside and outside, with a hull bearing the bumps of many batterings and with some bullet holes.”
The job of the crews was to beach their landing craft as quickly as possible, get men and ammunition offloaded and head back out to sea in under three minutes — before the German gunners could zero in.All too often, the Germans or the waves of the English Channel would claim these small boats and their crews.
“The sea off the beachhead contains dead sailors long after the beachhead officially was declared secure, days and days after,” Miller wrote in his book, “The Far Shore.”
The lucky ones managed to get picked up by other landing craft when their boats were sunk. Others simply disappeared.
“The sea is different from land,” Miller wrote. “The sea sometimes never does tell.”