USS CORRY (DD-463) Survivors' First-hand Accounts of D-Day

 


Mort Rubin
CIC officer,  USS Corry (DD-463)

In the cold waters of the English Channel, I looked around, saw John and started swimming towards him. "You owe me five bucks," I said. "If we make it, I'll buy the first round!"

Well, I won my bet, our destroyer had been sunk! This dark fact came as no surprise once I saw the operation order. The whole mission and location was fraught with possibilities, all unpleasant. The advance knowledge of those awesome events did nothing to minimize the emotional response to them, although oddly enough, fear came later. Out of nowhere, I recalled an incident when I was eighteen. A group of us had planned a boat trip when school closed for the summer. The excitement level ran high. One day, my Dad took me aside. He said, "Mort, about this boat trip, it's got your Mother worried. I know you're old enough to make your own decision, and that you'll be careful, but all that aside, Mother is worried. I'll leave the decision to you." After much thought, and regret, I bowed out. How ironic to be on the first ship sunk on Invasion Day, and to be swimming around in the English Channel.

The last cruise of the USS Corry started routinely. Our destroyer squadron, four ships, played nursemaid to a fully loaded ammunition ship headed for the invasion by way of Belfast. It was May 1944, the weather pleasant with summer, and the invasion on the horizon. After a slow and boring crossing, we arrived in Belfast Lough, as the harbor is called. No sooner had we dropped anchor, when the signal lights began flashing among the ships. Off to starboard was the Texas, which was sent to the beachhead where her 14-inch guns could provide fire support for the landings. As I surveyed the scene, in good old navy fashion, the signalman on watch called down to me, " I have a message for you, Mr. Rubin." As a very new Ensign, that struck me at first as no more than Butch's familiar sense of humor. But no, it was the truth, and he promptly balled up the message and dropped it down to me from the signal bridge. The message was from a storekeeper on the Texas, which said that my brother Allen was in the Dockside Barracks, and included an address." It later developed that by brother, who I had not seen for two years had met this sailor at the USO, and told him to keep his eyes open for the USS Corry. He had done just that. Our Exec sent me ashore with the Guard Mail, and although I soon found the place, my brother was out. I left a note saying I'd be back if possible, and the next day we had a joyful reunion. My brother Allen was five years older, but that had no effect on our close relationship. A graduate of Harvard, he never quite made the step to Officer's Candidate School that we all expected. He adjusted to being a Staff Sergeant, and was ensconced in a Port control unit that was comfortable and safe. The last time we were together was during my Midshipman School at Notre Dame. My parents would be pleased to hear of our meeting.

After two days at anchor, receiving and passing rumors, we sailed for Plymouth, England. Once there, the reality and imminence of the invasion was oddly juxtaposed for the next two weeks with going ashore into the lovely Southern English countryside and sightseeing. Each day as more and more shipping arrived in the harbor, the new arrivals were anchored upstream and camouflaged with branches.

Then one day, we saw a whaleboat approach with an officer and several bulging mail sacks. This was not ordinary mail. The detailed operation order was at hand. No more liberty, no going ashore, no mail off the ship, just sit and wait. The next days were spent studying the operation and most particularly our role. Essentially, we were to weigh anchor 31 hours in advance of H-hour, which was to be 6:30 AM on June 5, 1944. The essence our job was to deliver a tug and tow to the transport area off Utah Beach. We were then to pick up the channel, swept earlier of possible mines, which would lead us towards the Beach. The channel would turn to the right and allow us to take a position one mile off the invasion beach .

The tug would be towing a large floating steel raft to be used ultimately in the construction of an artificial harbor. Mulberry was the code name. There were two soldiers on the raft with no shelter or comfort at all. What they were to do, or could possibly do, was a mystery.

So, at dusk a day and a half before the "festivities" were to begin, we started out to make our share of history. A characteristic Channel fog and drizzle greeted us as we emerged from Plymouth Harbor. We had been alerted to the presence of German PT boats that had been creating some annoyance in the area, but the danger from them was minimized by the fog. With our excellent surface radar we could detect them earlier than they could us.

The channel crossing was slow and frustrating. As a "greyhound" of the deep, destroyers seldom travel at four or five knots, which is just steerageway, bouncy and uncomfortable. This was necessitated by our mission to keep close watch on the tug and tow. We soon developed a pattern of small forward surges followed by stopping to allow our wards to catch up. Whenever we got within hailing distance of the raft and its shivering soldiers, our men called over greetings and threw candy bars. This fatiguing and unglamourous procedure continued on through the night. Just before daybreak, we received a radio signal to turn around, because the invasion had been delayed 24 hours.

Jesus Christ! Could this be a fake message sent by the Germans? If so, it certainly was a beauty. We sailed under radio silence, no acknowledgements, no questions. If someone was thoughtful maybe we'd get a repeat. And even if it was genuine, there was always the possibility that some ship wouldn't get the message. You could just picture a lone destroyer or minesweeper going in on its own private war and tipping our hand to the Germans. Well, our job was clear and it had to be done.

We turned 180 degrees after duly signaling our wards. Even this maneuver was not trivial. The mere act of reversing course for a tug and its tow entails seamanship of a high order. The big risk is in fouling the tow line around the screws of the tug. Slack must be kept in the cable while turning. But this gray dawn greeted the effort with success and we were safely, for the moment, headed back to England in a choppy sea that would have stimulated the creative juices of a Joseph Conrad.

The next 24 hours was a tortured time of waiting and alternating moods thinking of the family left at home, touching chords of fear, fatigue, and loneliness, accompanied by nausea, cramps, incipient tears, and visions of memorial services, or worse yet, seeing-eye dogs and wheel chairs.

At least the validity of the message was confirmed, and we spent the time backing and filling and trying to keep from alerting our ever-vigilant foes. We talked, played cards, told lies, and comforted each other in an unconscious ritual. We were young and resilient. War is definitely a young man's business.

Finally, dawn of June 6th arrived. We slowly approached the transport area. This is not like going into a parking space... it is a pencil line on a chart. We knew we were there because of the ships, which had preceded us. We signaled "Good Luck" to our exhausted charges, and proceeded to find the designated channel that the minesweepers we hoped had cleared.

There's the little white marker flag on its buoy just where it belonged. A good omenů It's soon followed by a series of markers. Kilroy was surely here, bless him. All this time we were at battle stations, mostly indoors, cooped up in our own little cocoons. Although idle conversation was verboten, the lookouts topside reported some flattening of the seas and a little lightening of the sky. The horizon was dotted with the silhouettes of history's greatest gathering of ships. We were not alone.

After leaving the transport area, we formed a line with our three squadron mates, and steamed slowly down the swept channel towards the French coast, taking our right turn as directed. We fired randomly at the beach to soften up our adversaries. We monitored the radio carefully, but fruitlessly, for requests for fire support from spotters who had parachuted ashore earlier. Situated only 2000 yards off shore, one nautical mile, we knew we were within range of anything from a peashooter on up. Our dire expectations were not long in being realized. The batteries on shore began to fire at us. The splashes in front and then in back of us presaged the ultimate. Within minutes of the first splashes, the lookouts reported hits on the forecastle and shrapnel on the exposed topsides. The speaker summoned a corpsman topside, We had taken our first casualty. The skipper maneuvered the ship back and forth to present a more difficult target, but the channel was narrow. The consensus was that we were the target of 88 MM guns, a versatile and popular weapon. Of course, no one really knew, like most conclusions during an action it was all guesswork.

From my battle station in the Combat Information Center, it was clear that the strong flooding tide was moving us towards the beach and out of the swept channel. After duly reporting this development to the bridge, we heard the Skipper order the Boatswain to lower the anchor to short stay. This means that the anchor was barely touching the bottom, with the chain vertical, and we could get clear in matter of seconds. Almost immediately we heard the voice of the Admiral's staff inquiring about our action, which was surprising to say the least. Our skipper explained, and the vigil went on. It soon became clear that we had to use the engines to maintain station, the anchor only served as a pivot point and we hauled it up. The shore firing, which had abated, picked up again.

In a little while we were scheduled to cease firing at the shore because our landing craft were going into action. At that time we were restricted to targets called in by radio spotters, who were presumably behind the immediate shoreline, though the radio continued to be silent. The ship was maneuvered back and forth in a dual effort to stay in the prescribed area while making us as difficult a target as possible.

Suddenly, there was a tremendous explosion. I was thrown to the deck, the compartment went completely dark, and an ominous silence dropped over the ship like a huge cloak. Our radar operator dutifully reported no signal, "no nuthin'" on the recently active screen. There was also no power, no light. The Exec and I exchanged brief comments, and I climbed the one deck level to the bridge to report our condition. As I entered the navigation bridge the quiet there was also pervasive. Whatever hit us was big, probably lethal. The skipper confirmed that we had been hit by a mine. He simultaneously sent me aft to the emergency steering station with orders to manually position the rudder amidships. It had jammed at an angle. I saluted and descended quickly to the main deck, where I was confronted with a huge cleft in the main deck like an earthquake fissure. There were 12 to 15 inches of separation between the fore and aft sections. Moving rapidly aft, I found the aft steering station in shambles with no possibility of moving the rudder. I started back to report this latest situation to the bridge but was distracted by a call, "Mr. R, I'm hit, can you help me?" Looking to the left I saw the wounded seaman who seemed to be going into shock. My first attempt to give him the morphine that each officer has been equipped with for such emergencies failed. In my haste I did not puncture the tip. A second try worked, and I dragged the man forward to the aid station and a corpsman. Turning again to report topside, I caught sight of a sailor on deck in a basket stretcher. It was 'Ski, the boilermaker. His entire body had been scalded by escaping steam when the boiler lines were ruptured.

"Help me, Mr. R," came the weakened voice, "can you give me some morphine? I hurt like Hell." As I bent over, I saw the tag indicating that morphine has already been given. Two doses in close succession would be lethal. I told him that he would begin to feel less pain in a few minutes, but I could not do anything more now. The corpsman caught my eye, made a thumbs down motion and looked away guiltily. I told 'Ski to stay loose, that the Doc would take good care of him. I cursed the lie, the war, the world, and turned to go.

"Abandon ship, abandon ship" came the cry. Nevertheless, I climbed up to the radar shack to blow up the magnetron in the radar. It was my job to destroy this highly secret device, which today can be found in any microwave oven.

As I arrived, I saw Mac, our First Class petty officer and my trusted right hand man. We discussed briefly the situation and what to do. The problem was that the upper decks are thin aluminum and any charge I used would inflict further injury to the several casualties on deck just outside of the radar shack. We looked into each other's eyes, and the words come out as if rehearsed, "To Hell with it, the guys are more important!"

Back on the Main deck, some sailors had already begun to jump into the water. The ship was slowly but visibly settling. The cleft was bigger and the ocean remorselessly flooding in. My only thought was to retrieve the beautiful English sea boots, so recently and laboriously acquired in Glasgow. Opening the door to the windowless wardroom, which led to my bunk, I was struck as if by a brick wall by the black silence. In the quietest of times, noises of life permeated the ship. Fans, motors and assorted equipment comprised the pulse of a living organism. This was Death. Afraid of getting caught in this trap, I hastily beat a retreat to daylight and the deck, putting the boots out of my mind forever. The order to "Abandon Ship" was now pervasive and with it heightened activity, but not panic. Making a panoramic swing of the scene, my attention was attracted by calls from the water by men floating and trying to swim. Not ready for 52 degree water, their confidence in being able to stay afloat left them in panic. Since the deck was cluttered with five inch powder cans, I quickly resealed a few and threw them overboard to the men in distress. Almost 40 inches long, these buoyant aluminum cans would serve their new owners well.

Looking around at the unfolding picture, a voice from the water shouted," Hey R, what are you waiting for?" My reverie was short lived. The skipper appeared with his hat on, " Come on Rubin, let's go, I can't leave until you do." As he disappeared forward I stepped up to the rail, now only inches above the sea. I bent over to untie my shoes. Wet laces can jam, and water-filled shoes are no asset. Feeling an odd weight at my waist, I remembered the '45 pistol so eagerly desired. I had every intention of stealing it, given the opportunity. With no hesitation, I unbuckled the web belt and merely let it drop to the deck. " I won't be needing this for a while", I thought. One last check before the step off into who knows what. My knife was at my waist with its arms-length lanyard, my inflatable life belt, slept with on the prior night to insure its reliability with its snap and ring, should I be rendered unconscious in the water, and finally, my wallet containing the wardroom mess funds wrapped in a condom. This was indeed "it".

The step overboard was a leap over a cliff, though the water was only inches below. The icy water woke me up in a hurry. I inflated my life belt immediately. I looked around to get my bearings and saw my friend J. nearby. I paddled over to exchange status reports. He was OK except that his shoes had filled with water and were weighing him down. With the bulky jacket he was wearing, bending over in the water was awkward so he floated on his back and put his feet within my reach. In a moment I was able to pull the shoes off. We both watched as they lazily sunk out of sight. We wondered aloud about how long we were likely be in the water before getting picked up. Since it was about H-Hour, 6:30 AM on a grey day with leaden skies, I allowed that we'd better be patient. In the course of a war, one small ship and its crew were expendable. And, if we weren't expendable we were not high on the priority list. There was an island offshore beyond our position, but the flooding tide made the prospect of swimming a mile or so against the current unlikely at best. For all we knew it too might be occupied by Germans. For the moment we were together and in good shape, better relax and stay afloat.

Suddenly J. pointed at the battleships firing their big guns. The Texas and several other capital ships were now shelling the area behind the landing beaches to prevent the Germans from bringing in reinforcements. We could actually see the fourteen-inch projectiles as they emerged from the muzzle blast, slowly arching their way inland. We looked on in awe. I told J.,"Look carefully and remember all this; this is history. If we're lucky we'll be telling our kids and grand children about it." With a sardonic look, he replied, "I hope you're right."

Just then I saw little splashes in the water near us. I was about to call J.'s attention to them when I felt some pressure in my bottom. We were under fire from the shore-based 88's. The splashes were bits of shrapnel, and the sensation was the result of the explosions being transmitted through the water as they made contact. Our eyes met and wordlessly we both paddled off away from this threat. Fifty years later, at a reunion, I would learn that our shipmate N. was killed in the water by this shelling. That news struck me hard. N. was the only other Jewish officer on board. That April 1944, when in Boston, he shared the Passover service with my family. My Mother shed copious and bitter tears when I told her a couple of months later that he was missing.

As we swam to avoid the shore guns, I noticed we were becoming separated. I cautioned J. that we should stick close. Groups tend to be picked up more quickly than loners. He agreed, but the current was too powerful. It was then that my eyes began to tear, and I felt a burning in my throat. "What the Hell is this all about?" I asked myself. As the shells exploded on and around the sinking ship, the acid-filled tanks on the fantail were punctured. These tanks held chemicals which were mixed with compressed air to form "smoke." A useful capability when evading enemy guns, now, the acid dripping slowly on to the deck and vaporizing in the light breeze, it floated a cloud of burning irritant over us. A wet handkerchief over the face helped some, but the taste of vinegar taken straight continued to choke us. That would be ironic; get successfully off a sinking ship to suffocate in the sea. No thanks. Again we kicked and swam off to get away from this new threat.

Looking around to maintain contact with J., I couldn't see him or anyone else nearby. S@#t! Well, no sense panicking now, in these situations you're on your own in the final analysis. Some shouting off to one side called attention to the ship settling down in the 30-foot water. One last look as the hull broke at the cleft, the bow and stern rose up, and the bubbling around the hull signaled the dying gasps of the USS Corry (DD 463). In a few minutes all that was visible was the radar antenna atop the masts. We had the foresight to keep away from the sinking ship lest we get caught in the suction. As if to reassure me, I felt a slight tapping on my upper back. There, floating free, was one of the five inch powder cans I had resealed. My first reaction was, "thanks, but no thanks." Then I reconsidered. These pneumatic belts don't last forever, and this could be cheap insurance if the belt sprung a leak. I then proceeded to snap my rescue line on to the ring handle and let it float with me. Its regular bumping on my head and shoulders gave me a comforting feeling of not being wholly alone.

Who can tell time in these circumstances? One minute it seemed as though the clock had stopped, each minute an eternity, and then the next minutes flew by like the changing images of a kaleidoscope. After what I guessed was about two hours in the water, I saw a whaleboat looking for survivors. I shouted, got their attention, and the coxswain headed my way. In seconds I was clawing the gunwales in an effort to get aboard. The crewman leaned over the side, grabbed me by the rear end and hauled me unceremoniously in. Noticing my rank, he apologized for the manhandling. He was immediately and completely absolved with my added thanks. Attracted by the clatter of my aluminum friend, he looked at me as though one of us was crazy. Since I was the officer, the "anointed one," pointing to the can, he very tactfully asked me what this was about. After a quick explanation, we threw it back into the water for another hapless soul to use.

EPILOGUE: In the whaleboat I saw my trusted radar operator, a non-swimmer, shivering under the canvas. We exchanged stories as the whaleboat picked up several more survivors and returned to her ship, the USS Fitch, our squadron mate.

The subsequent events were happily routine, consisting of being given dry clothes, transferring to an empty troop ship, going back to Plymouth to the warmest of welcomes. This was followed by a month in Scotland in a camp on the Firth of Clyde, exploring the beautiful and hospitable Scottish hills. Finally, a trip to New York on the Queen Elizabeth and a month's leave.


Mort Rubin
CIC officer
USS Corry (DD-463)


Copyright 2000, Richard Angelini and Mort Rubin for the Benson-Livermore class destroyers site.    http://www.geocities.com/usdestroyer/corrysinks.html
 


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