Nancy DeGenarro, Daily News Journal, December 19, 2015
MURFREESBORO — At age 19, Bill Allen of Murfreesboro looked death in the face when his ship went down during the Invasion of Normandy, France, in June 1944.
“The bow was going down, and I was on the bow, and I stayed on the bow until just about everybody had either been washed off or jumped off. … I couldn’t decide which way I wanted to drown — stay on the ship and go down with it or take off swimming (the 5 miles to shore),” recalled the 90-year-old Allen, a World War II Navy medic.
Allen returned with a PBS documentary crew to the spot where he almost lost his life to view the wreckage of his ship, the LST 523, which sank to the sea floor of the English Channel after hitting an underwater mine.
His survival story and journey to the depths of what could have been his watery grave were featured in NOVA’s “D-Day’s Sunken Secrets,” which aired on PBS last year, two weeks before the 70th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, Allied Invasion.
Allen recently sat down with The Daily News Journal to tell his story, one that his wife of 60 years, Idalee Allen, didn’t hear until the couple had been married nearly a quarter century, not until a fellow medic got a group of he veterans together did the men begin to reveal their horror stories from World War II.
“We began to find out what our spouses had been through,” Idalee Allen said as she sat to the side of her husband and watched him unfold his tales of war.
Allen graduated from high school in 1943 on the same day he signed up for the draft. By chance, the 18-year-old Allen was put into a line to enlist in the Navy and was sent to medic school.
By spring 1944, his crew left the United States to join a convoy of around 100 ships headed for Nova Scotia, then to England in preparation for the June 6 Invasion of Normandy.
He was stationed on the LST 523, a flat-bottom ship that could transport troops to shore. But on the first trip in, the ship wasn’t able to reach the shore and several troops drowned, while others made it but lost their lives “after they had been on the beach just a few steps,” he recalled.
His ship that dropped off live bodies then began transporting casualties back. Fellow Murfreesboro native Ed Phillips, who had been an undertaker back home, volunteered them for what was called “death detail,” which Allen said jokingly, looked “to be the end of that friendship.”
“Those that died, we’d take them in … clean them up, most of them bloody, muddy and greasy,” Allen said. “We cleaned them up best we could, find a dog tag and put around their foot to identify them and wrap them in a blanket and put them on a cooler to hold until we could get back to England.”
The LST 523 made three successful trips back and forth. Allen recalled transporting German prisoners, who seemed grateful they had been captured. On another trip, he ran into a boy whose leg was amputated due to injuries but awoke with a great attitude that he was still alive.
On the fourth trip, when the ship was about fives miles off Omaha Beach, the tide was too low and the boat hit the underwater mine.
“We were no competition for that mine. … It just pulverized everything,” said Allen, who was seated mid-ship in a transport truck on the deck when the explosion occurred. “Everybody began to jump, those that could. Many were hurt too bad to jump.”
The scene was horrific, he said, and the most indescribable sound he’d ever heard, even to this day.
Just as he’d resigned himself to his fate and was prepared to jump, he heard someone yell at him from the port side of the boat.
“It was another medic who got a life raft loose,” Allen said. “He hollered, ‘Bill, don’t jump, you can’t swim out here. … It’s too rough. I believe I can get it there to you.”
The life raft managed to get within 20 feet of Allen, and he jumped, swimming just a couple of strokes before he was safely hanging his arm around the side of the inflatable raft. The two men managed to pick up four others in the water. Two were able to hang on the side, while the other two were injured so badly they were hoisted inside the raft.
They floated along for less than 30 minutes when another small vessel rescued them, he said. Then a larger ship eventually came along and took the men on board.
“The skipper told us to go down to the galley and order whatever you want, so we did and couldn’t eat a bite,” Allen said.
Then the skipper came down to chat with Allen and his fellow survivor and told them he’d cleared a cabin for them, so they could rest. By 1 a.m., when their exhausted bodies should have been sound asleep, both men were wide awake.
“I rolled over and Jack said, ‘Bill, you asleep?’ I said, ‘Jack, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to sleep again.’ He said, ‘I can’t. Every time I close my eyes I relive it, and if I don’t close my eyes, I keep reliving what we’ve been through.”
So the men got up, went on deck, found a bench and sat in silence throughout the rest of the night, watching firefights in the distance.
“I began to wonder why my life had been spared. I thought about the boy that slept in the bunk over there. He was dead,” Allen said, pointing to the scene in his mind of the cabin where they lived. “The one that slept over there, he was married. He was dead. Another one was married and had a child. He was killed. I didn’t even have a serious girlfriend at the time. It was hard to really understand any justice as to who was killed and who wasn’t.
“I could have become atheist very easily that night. But every time I’d think of some reason, I’d also think of sometime that had happened. … Finally, I decided that luck, no way, could have carried me that far. There had to be a power far stronger than that.”
Out of the 145 Navy personnel on the LST 523, 117 lost their lives, leaving only 28 survivors.
Allen was shipped back to England for some rest and relaxation for nearly two months before getting orders that he’d be reassigned to be a Fleet Marine in the South Pacific. Allen was excited. But the next thing he knew he was sent to work in the Great Lakes area at a hospital.
“To make a long story short, (a doctor) blocked our orders and said we were unfit due to the blast of the ship … We were in no shape to go back out to sea,” Allen said.
Allen made his way back to Murfreesboro and began working for Woodfin Funeral Home. He did just about every job there, from embalming to door greeting to digging graves. Later he went to work for the Murfreesboro Electric Department, from which he retired, and then went back to work for Woodfin’s.
In 1955, he married Idalee, and they raised two daughters. Life was good, and Allen had no idea or any desire to return to that spot on the English Channel where nearly 130 of his shipmates died.
But a chance phone call from PBS documentary producer Doug Hamilton changed that, although Allen admitted he was skeptical of the phone call at first. But when Hamilton asked Allen if he was on the LST 523, the producer responded, “You’re the one I’m looking for.”
Hamilton queried Allen about his health, was he in a wheelchair, could he walk and was his wife able to walk. Then he asked the veteran if Allen would like to go on a little trip back as part of a documentary for the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
After talking with his wife, they accepted the invitation and took along their two daughters and some grandchildren.
“It was truly once in a lifetime (trip),” Idalee Allen said.
Eventually they reached Paris and later traveled three hours to Omaha Beach, where he ate in a seaside restaurant that overlooked a much more peaceful scene than Allen had seen when he was there.
They also visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, where more than 9,000 U.S. military personnel are buried in graves marked by white crosses. Allen was hoping to find the grave marker for his commanding officer, a young doctor. They found it and the film crew documented the emotional encounter.
Because they were there with a large film crew, others visiting the cemetery started to notice “something a little different was taking place.” Allen’s presence began to draw a crowd as visitors began to discover his story. He said the cemetery was opened 30 extra minutes as people lined up to thank the World War II veteran.
By the next day, they were on the English Channel searching for the wreckage of the LST 523. Computer imaging showed what they believed to be the sunken ship, including an obvious blast hole that engulfed the center of the ship hull. The imagery matched with Allen’s recount of the ship being blown in half.
Allen was sent down in a submersible to see the wreckage. His awe is recorded in the documentary as they floated atop the watery graveyard.
“There was what was left of our ship, the bow. … There were tanks still chained to the deck. … It was covered in algae and seaweed, you couldn’t see the number on the side, but I saw enough that I was convinced it was our ship,” Allen said.
The crew took Allen to see the ship from every possible angle. The mini-sub operator continued to talk to Allen the entire time, asking questions that kept “from concentrating on the bad memories,” Allen said, although admittedly it was an emotional journey.
By the time they resurfaced, what felt like a short trip was a nearly two-hour voyage.
Since then, Idalee Allen said her husband has opened up about his experiences in World War II more than ever. He’s told his story many times, and she said she never tires of hearing it.
“For years I didn’t really understand what he’d been through, but that trip it just sort of sealed what I had been able to put together from Bill and also the other Navy personnel (at the reunions),” Idalee Allen said.
While he’s struggled with survivor’s guilt over the years, Allen is thankful for “the great life I made.”
“Hitler had to be stopped, or else we wouldn’t have the freedom we have here today. He had taken over so many countries and was rolling. It was a case of trying to preserve and save our lives in this country,” Allen said. “I have no regrets with what I did to help save it. I came back, and I’ve lived 72 years now and … it would have never been if we hadn’t preserved it.
“Maybe I paid a price for it, but it was all worth what I’d done the way I’ve been rewarded in my life.”
Contact reporter Nancy De Gennaro at 615-278-5148 and follow her on Twitter @DNJMama