CLOVER — Joe Williams watched four historic World War II American military landings, including Normandy and Iwo Jima, from the deck of the USS Bayfield.
Normandy and Iwo Jima, and a smaller landing in southern France, are well-documented examples of American military bravery and sacrifice. But the other landing became a terrible failure, a tragic secret the Clover-area man carried for many years.
Operation Tiger, the first of four U.S. military landings Williams saw in World War II, was a lesser-known but similarly historic operation in 1944, six weeks before the D-Day invasion.
Williams, who will speak about his World War II experience after the Nov. 9 Veterans Day parade in downtown York, said he wonders what happened to the bodies of 749 men who died in Operation Tiger.
He remembers hearing their cries.
“I heard them hollering,” said Williams, 88, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard as a carpenter’s mate aboard the Bayfield. “I heard people saying, ‘Save me, save me. Come get me, help me, help me.’”
Operation Tiger, in late April 1944, was one of a series of American practice runs for the D-Day Normandy landings that would take place on June 6. But the operation, at the village of Slapton Sands in Devon, England, is famous for the disaster that resulted in the deaths of 749 men.
People who lived in the village were moved out of the area, Williams said, so the exercise could be as realistic as possible, with thousands of troops landing under live fire.
Eight American landing ship tanks carrying 30,000 soldiers set off from England toward Slapton Sands for the exercise, according to published reports, along with a convoy of ships and British Royal Navy escorts.
But due to an apparent error in radio frequencies, the Germans picked up American communication about the operation, and nine E-boats fired on the convoy near Lyme Bay.
Two landing ships were abandoned or sunk, and one was crippled during the 2 1/2-hour attack, said Williams, who saw the ships on fire.
Trapped below deck, many soldiers went down with the ships.
Other men on board survived the torpedoing, Williams said, but drowned because they were wearing life belts around their waists rather than at their armpits, causing their bodies loaded in combat gear to be turned upside down.
Williams said the Bayshore picked up some of the men, but he said many could not be rescued. “It was complete chaos,” he said. “We were not expecting any torpedo boats. It was supposed to be a dry run.”
The operation, he said, was classified as top secret and those who saw it were ordered not to discuss it. “They told us, ‘You will not write home about it, you will not talk about it, and we will escort you to prison if you do.’”
Williams kept the secret. But years later, when he and other comrades on the Bayshore began to gather for reunions, he said, they began to share their memories.
Faye Williams, his wife of 60 years, said her husband didn’t talk about Operation Tiger or his other war experiences until about 20 years ago.
“I was flabbergasted,” she said when he began to share them. “All the guys were like that. They didn’t talk about it. It was good to get it out of his system because they had thought about it, but didn’t talk about it.”
Williams, who has several books about Operation Tiger, said the question of where the dead lie still haunts him. “I still don’t know where they were buried,” he said. “How come they never had a burial?”
‘Your lucky day’
Williams, who was born and grew up on a small farm in Marshville, N.C., was 18 years old in 1943, when he was drafted.
When he reported to a base near Spartanburg for duty, he was told it was his “lucky day,” and was given a choice of joining the Army, Navy or Coast Guard.
Williams chose the Coast Guard.
“I thought the Coast Guard ran up and down the beaches and guarded the coast,” he said. “That was my impression. I didn’t know much about it.”
After basic training, Williams was recruited and trained to become a ship’s welder. He ended up in Norfolk, Va., where he met the new Bayfield, which was loaded with 1,500 troops and bound for Europe.
Williams, the only welder on the Bayfield, said he was sometimes called on to do welding work in precarious places, such as hanging over the side of the ship or working on ladders. But his role kept him on the ship, in relative safety, during the military landings.
He remembers arriving in England in early 1944, where crowds of people waved white sheets in jubilation. “They were glad to see us. It made me feel great,” he said.
The Bayfield participated in Operation Tiger soon after its arrival in Europe. Williams, who had never before seen combat, tried to focus on his role.
“It’s hard to describe something like that,” he said. “You do what you’re told.”
Six weeks later, the Bayfield served as a supply and temporary hospital ship for 19 days off Utah Beach after the Normandy landing.
Wounded men from the invasion filled the ship’s sick bay and lined its passageways, many of the crying for help, Williams said. The wounded also filled up the mess hall.
“You couldn’t eat because of the smell,” he said.
German prisoners of war were in crafts alongside the Bayfield, Williams said. Some of them looked as young as 14, he said, while others as old as 70.
“Some of them were so pitiful,” he said.
Williams’ memories of being on the Bayfield during D-Day are briefly recounted in a 2003 book on the Normandy landings, “D-Day: The Greatest Invasion – A People’s History,” by Dan van der Vat.
In August 1944, the Bayfield served off the coast of southern France where another, smaller American landing was conducted.
Battle of Iwo Jima
After the second European landing, the Bayfield returned to Virginia, then sailed through the Panama Canal to Pearl Harbor.
In January 1945, she left Hawaii and sailed to the Pacific island of Iwo Jima, where she landed troops and for 10 days acted as a hospital and prisoner of war ship.
It was during the Battle of Iwo Jima, where some of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific took place, that Williams got his greatest scare.
Williams said one day a superior called him up, handed him a gun and gave him orders to go ashore and fight because men were needed in battle.
“They said, ‘Williams, you got to go ashore, there’s a boat waiting to take you.’”
Williams said he knew that if he went ashore, he’d never come back.
“I was scared to death,” he said. As he was preparing to embark on the boat, however, he was called back to repair a hit in the ship.
The other men in the boat who left that day never returned, Williams said. “It bothers me, I was so close to getting killed,” he said. “I still think about it and shiver.”
Williams said the Bayfield was only a half-mile from shore, close enough to watch the combat and planes bombing Iwo Jima. He tried not to watch.
“I didn’t want to see it,” he said. “It was really rough.”
When the war ended in 1945, Williams was on leave, on a train returning to San Francisco. He did not know the war was over until he saw people celebrating.
The Bayfield had been preparing for an invasion of Japan when the war ended, he said. Williams was discharged in 1946, after serving 33 months.
Williams, a lifelong guitar player who had taken his guitar with him to Europe and the Pacific, played for a few months with a five-member traveling band called the Carolina Hillbillies.
They would earn $2 to $4 each playing at schools and other places, including radio stations. “I said, ‘There’s got to be a better way to make a living,’” he said, “so I got out of the music business.”
He and Faye, who had met years earlier through a friend and had dated on and off, married in 1953. Williams became an entrepreneur who ran a stereo sound business, then later worked in real estate, buying and selling land for residential developments.
Williams and others who served on the Bayfield have gathered for a series of reunions since about 1985. At first, he said, the reunions drew a few hundred men, but now only a few are left.
He said he is still grateful for the turn of fate that saved him in Iwo Jima. “I had no idea,” he said of his military service, “what I was going to.”
He also said he was lucky to have had the chance to join the Coast Guard and to hold a welding job on the ship. “I’ve had a lovely, lovely, lovely life,” he said.