by Karl F. Held
It was the early hours of April 28, 1944, and the diesel engines groaned as the Navy ship slowly lurched forward, then slapped against a hard wave. Johnnie could only hold on and try not to bump into soldiers packed on either side of him. The farther from shore they got, the more hard waves slapped the ship and rocked the men inside.
Guns and knapsack buckles, men and equipment bounced and whipped and rattled against each other, making a noise sometimes drowning out the diesels and the sea.
Next to Johnnie, a large man moaned while the ship hammered through some more choppy waves. “Training here, training there! How much training do we need to have a war?”
With the men packed together, it had been getting warm and the webbing in Johnnie’s helmet was irritating his forehead. He pulled the chin strap and lifted the helmet from his head. Johnnie felt a welcome breeze kissing his face and washing through his hair. It was a cool, damp breeze that reminded him of early morning at his home. It felt like early morning on the bay.
Johnnie closed his eyes and tried to imagine his old rowboat seat beneath him. It was a wooden seat, and in each hand he grasped a wooden oar, and each oar extended out to either side of the boat. With his arm and back muscles pulling them through the water, the wooden boat skimmed forward. His motions were in rhythm, everything fell into rhythm.
Johnnie remembered going duck hunting early one morning. A double barreled shotgun leaned against the rowboat’s wooden seat. A dozen cedar black duck decoys lay piled in the stern, their ropes neatly coiled around sash weight anchors. Pulling the oars and rounding the sod point, Johnnie tossed the cedar decoys into the water, spreading them out just so. Then he pulled the boat ashore and waited for the cool autumn sunrise. It was autumn then, Johnnie thought to himself. It seemed so long ago.
Its spring now, Johnnie thought to himself. It was spring in England and it was spring back home. But home was months and months ago… it could have been a lifetime. The jostling in the ship caused the scabbard of Johnnie’s bayonet to press into his side. Johnnie readjusted the weapon and closed his eyes again. The day before his hunting trip, he remembered carving a large jack-o-lantern for his little sister, Barbara. They had watched those pumpkins grow all summer long in their garden and Barbara picked the big pumpkin on Johnnie’s 18th birthday. She told him it was his birthday present. The little girl glowed all Halloween night while the pumpkin flickered on the front porch in a soft autumn breeze.
Johnnie smiled at the memory but then lurched forward and rocked back hard. It felt like the vessel was turning. Its engines groaned louder than the men who growled inside her. Something wooden fell and slammed inside the ship. It sounded like the wooden screen door back home. Johnnie pulled his eyes closed tight and remembered yet again.
He stood in the kitchen and his mother, Hattie packed fresh baked bread in a sack for his journey to boot camp. Johnnie felt the warmth of the oven on his hands and face and the warmth in his soul, sparked by the aroma of his mother’s homemade bread.
Hattie told him, “Make sure you come home,” and Johnnie promised he would. Hattie was strong and she didn’t cry out loud… she did this for her son’s sake. But when they hugged goodbye, Johnnie felt the moistness of his mother’s silent tears. He pretended not to notice. He did that for Hattie’s sake.
Johnnie turned and opened the screen door. His shoes clapped down the wooden steps and passed the old jack-o-lantern which was falling in on itself from time. The wooden door creaked and slammed behind him. Young Barbara was waiting at the bottom of the steps and grabbed Johnnie’s hand. They walked down the gravel drive, swinging their hands in unison as they went.
Johnnie turned and saw his mother watching through the screen door. He smiled and waved as he walked; Hattie waved back and then Johnnie turned away. The girl stopped short at the street edge and their hands slipped from one another’s grasp. Johnnie hugged young Barbara and told her to be good. And as they parted, Johnnie winked his eye to tell the little girl things would be all right. He turned and waved again, and then his shoes crunched through autumn leaves as he walked down Church Street toward his waiting ride.
Everything happened so fast after that. His time in boot camp and Johnnie’s voyage to England and endless training exercises whirled together in the secrecy that engulfed his mission. Johnnie did not know which part of England he was in. And he was often ordered to move to another unknown location. Johnnie knew only one thing for certain: They were preparing for an invasion that would end the war, and Johnnie knew that was a good thing… which had to remain a secret too.
The secrecy even extended to his home. Johnnie had written a letter to his mother earlier that day and the return address simply read: “Somewhere in England”. He hadn’t been informed of this seaborne mission until he was ordered to pack
his things and leave at once. It was a lot for an 18 year old boy to handle. His eyes were gently closed and he drifted in his memories.
The ship lurched again and Johnnie’s eyes snapped open. The sound of something loud rattled across the vessel’s steel hull. Then the sound of rapid gunfire could be heard above the droning engines. Johnnie plunked the helmet on his head and began to stand and pull the rifle sling from his shoulder. But an older man spoke up, “Calm down, son”, the older man said, “It’s just a training mission. Just an exercise, is all”. So Johnnie began to sit down, but the ship seemed to lift from the sea and lurched to one side, tossing the young man to the hard, cold deck.
Next there came a noise louder than anything Johnnie had ever heard before. The deafening sound of explosions and steel being torn apart and men shouting, growing louder and louder and all of the noises melted together into a shrill screaming siren.
A brief, blinding, bright light, pulsing in a few quick seconds, illuminated the tangled confusion of men and machines. And there was heat, terrific heat, quickly extinguished by a rush of cool water and darkness.
Cool darkness and welcomed silence. Silence settled over Johnnie like a large, soft quilt. But then Johnnie remembered his promise to his mother, Hattie. He had promised to come home. Johnnie pushed away debris and tried to stand, but water and darkness held him down. It was pure darkness and the soldier knew not if his eyes were closed or open and tremendous sadness overcame his spirit.
But then Johnnie felt himself moving. Johnnie opened his eyes and saw wispy white clouds against a brilliant sky. He was lying in the bed of a ’33 Ford Pick-Up and he jumped up and braced both arms on the back of the square box cab. Air streamed through his hair as the truck rumbled through his hometown, finally stopping at Church Street. Johnnie hopped off, yelling, “Thanks”, to the unseen driver. Johnnie’s eyes danced past the short stone wall of the old cemetery and fixed upon his pathway home.
It was spring and the grass was green and the aroma of fresh plowed fields and hyacinths and wild onions filled the air. Johnnie marched swiftly down Church Street. He could see Barbara picking daffodils by the porch and upon seeing him, she ran down the drive and threw her arms around him and wouldn’t let go. Johnnie’s mother met him at the porch and all three hugged and didn’t let go and somehow squeezed inside, past the old screen door. It was warm inside the kitchen and the wooden screen door creaked and slammed shut behind them. Johnnie felt his mother’s smile as she embraced him, and he sensed the aroma of his mother’s homemade bread.
And Johnnie saw thick, warm slices of freshly baked bread on the table. Hattie drizzled them with honey. A tall pitcher of milk rested there too, and they ate and they laughed and there were no loud or quiet tears. After the meal, Johnnie felt sleep coming on. His bedroom had not changed. The warm quilt was folded down and Johnnie stretched out on his bed. Hattie pulled the quilt up to Johnnie’s chin and she kissed his forehead, she gently kissed him like a blessing. As her lips parted from his skin, Johnnie drifted off to sleep. Johnnie kept his promise and so he was at peace.
Above, where large waves crested in the cold darkness of predawn, a quick and desperate battle raged between surviving allied forces and the deadly pack of Nazi attack boats. The ruthless Nazis were driven off and Allied ships began the grim search for survivors in the blackness of the rolling waters. More ships arrived in daylight to retrieve the wounded and the dead. More than 700 perished in the ambush. Johnnie’s body was never found.
On April 29, 1944, survivors of the attack were sworn to secrecy by their commanders. The shroud of silence was meant to keep Nazi spies from learning of the coming invasion.
On April 30, 1944, Allied commanders attended secret meetings. The training exercise had been code named “Tiger” and was held in preparation for the planned D-Day invasion. The heavy losses experienced during the training mission caused Allied commanders to launch immediate investigations aimed at uncovering problems and finding solutions. Although the dead were lost forever, crucial information could be gathered for the battle yet to come.
On May 16, 1944, a Western Union telegraph arrived in Tuckerton addressed to Hattie. It reported with deep regret that her son, Johnnie, had been reported missing since April 28 in the European area.
On June 6, 1944, a great armada of Allied ships made its way across the same waters Johnnie sailed during Operation Tiger. But this was not a training exercise and this time British and American radios were tuned to the same frequencies to allow communications between all forces, which was a lesson learned from Operation Tiger.
This time a number of rescue boats were intermingled with ships and troops had been well trained in the use of emergency floatation devices, more hard-earned lessons from Operation Tiger. And this time adequate measures had been taken to defend against Nazi attack boats and other Axis predators, another lesson paid for in blood and men during Operation Tiger.
But thanks to those lessons learned and the continuing bravery of the Allied troops, and in spite of the terrible fighting that ensued when they hit the beach at Normandy, a foothold was gained on the European mainland. Within a year, the Nazi aggressors were driven back to their fatherland where they were soundly defeated.
In August, 1944, Hattie received a letter from the president that clearly stated her son, Johnnie was dead. In the months and years that followed, all events of the war and the approaching victory and even its aftermath created nothing more than a background din to the heartbeat of a grieving mother. Johnnie was gone, leaving only questions and Hattie understood no answer could ever fill the void. But in the years that followed, Hattie searched for those answers nonetheless.
On June 14, 1946, two years had passed and a man named Arthur Gills sat down at his desk. Like Johnnie, Gills had been a soldier in the war, but he tried never to speak of it. Not any of it. Gills felt the terror and pain would do no one any good. But sometimes he had to speak of it. Sometimes it was unavoidable. Gills took a deep breath and began to pen these words:
“Dear Hattie, I am very sorry I did not receive your letter before, as I am living in Miami now and the letter went to Little Rock first. I was not surprised to receive your letter, as I have had letter before from the boys’ relatives asking me if I could give them information about the boys.
“In regards to your son, John, I can give you the real facts and sincerely hope it will set your mind more at ease. We left Plymouth, England on a practice invasion in a convoy of seven LST ships. Approximately 6 miles off French Soil on April 28 we were attacked by German E boats. Four LST ships were hit and sunk. One of them was the one half our company was on and 43 of our men were killed. Only 3 men’s bodies of our company were identified.
“I was on the ship directly in front of the ship that John was on and I saw everything that took place. It all happened so quickly I know John and the boys did not have time to suffer.
“This is a hard letter to write as the boys were my buddies and a grand company. I feel very badly about what happened and I know how you must suffer with the loss of John. With all my sympathy, Arthur Gills.”
On January 26, 2009, a woman named Barbara looked out across her yard in wintertime and her mind wandered back across the years. Then she looked down at her own hand. Sixty five years had passed since she felt Johnnie’s strong, gentle grasp slip away. “Like yesterday”, she said softly to herself. Her son, Bill looked up, “What, Mom?” he asked.
Barbara turned towards her son, “I want you to see about getting funds to place a plaque on our family cemetery plot to remember my brother, your uncle, who was lost in the war”, she said.
And so Bill looked into the life and death of the uncle he never knew and shared what he could learn with me. And I decided to write this story about the 18 year old boy, the man, the soldier, not because he was a sad figure or because I pitied his fate, but rather because he humbles me. The same story has been lived thousands of times, far too many times by our service men and women and their loved ones. And they humble me. They humble us all.
As President Franklin Roosevelt wrote in his letter to Hattie, “He stands in the unbroken line of patriots who dared to die so that freedom might live and grow and increase its blessings. Freedom lives, and through it, he lives- in a way that humbles the undertakings of most men.”
A bronze plaque can be found in a Tuckerton cemetery nestled in the shade of Jersey cedars. The plaque reads, “In Memory of John E. Wyckoff, PFC US Army World War II. 1926-1944, Purple Heart, Lost at Sea, English Channel”.
If you love your freedom, please feel free to thank a veteran…Special thanks to William Marshall and his mother, Barbara Wyckoff Marshall for sharing Johnnie’s story. This piece was originally published in The SandPaper, May 20, 2009 edition and is reprinted with their permission.