They built stone lookout towers high above our coastlines to search for German U-boats preying on U.S. ships during World War II – a concrete testament to our country’s resolve in defending a way of life. Today we walk those beaches, and the towers have melted into the natural landscape.
Robert Whaley joined the Navy at 17. At his first stop in Cape May, New Jersey, Bob and his fellow recruits marched through the days in basic training. But it was 1943 – a year of great urgency, so they worked overtime at night to remove debris washed ashore from sunken ships. They weren’t looking for a career in the military, just doing their part in the war effort.
After Boot Camp, Bob was assigned to a Tank Landing Ship (LST) in Evansville, Indiana. Times were tough. The ship had no name, only a number. LST 496 sailed south on the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico en route to Europe and real action. Whaley wrote in a memoir,
“Most of the men on board had never been to sea. I think it was a miracle we made it across the Atlantic. It was winter, seas were rough, the ship was loaded with men, tanks and vehicles, but the crew did their jobs, and we made it safely to England.”
In April of ‘44, Whaley and his mates practiced Exercise Tiger, a top-secret rehearsal for D-Day with eight LST’s carrying over 4,000 soldiers. Army and Navy on the same team. Unfortunately, German patrol boats discovered the convoy and started the bloodiest naval battle since Pearl Harbor. Two of our ships were lost, and 749 soldiers and sailors died.
General Eisenhower threatened to arrest anyone who leaked news of the incident. It would have been disastrous if the Germans discovered the plans. And any word of casualties could destroy troop morale right before D-Day. The order of silence was never lifted.
Bob followed his orders implicitly and in fact successfully descended on Normandy only to be injured by enemy fire, for which Whaley received the Purple Heart. In later years, he refused to talk about the war. Selflessly keeping it all inside, he would wake up from dreams with screams in the middle of the night. Today they call it PTSD.
After Exercise Tiger, the rookie crew kept steaming. They successfully delivered soldiers and supplies to support the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach. After five days of fighting, Number 496 hit a mine while attempting to avoid a torpedo, and they were forced to abandon ship. “We suffered seventy-five percent casualties, lost or wounded men and all vehicles,” he wrote. The survivors were quickly reassigned to keep fighting. Bob dodged more torpedoes on another LST, escorting ships and boats across the English Channel until the end of the war.
Seventy years later, it is easy to walk by memorials or lookout towers and not understand what our forefathers endured to protect what we take for granted today. We legitimately worry about the threat posed by terrorists, but that threat is nothing like the one the last great war posed for our citizens and soldiers.
I remember visiting Cape May with my father when I was a teenager. As we walked along the water, he pointed out the remains of a beached cement ship the Navy unsuccessfully tested during the war. Unbeknownst to me, on that same sand, Whaley had picked up parts of boats and bodies while Germans subs stalked our ships in dark waters just a few hundred yards away. A different kind of threat to our country, to our way of life, our hometowns, and our families; one that is hard to comprehend.
When I ask Bob about Exercise Tiger or D-Day, his voice is hoarse and deliberate. “I have that damned disease. Sometimes I forget who I am,” he says. At 90, he sits up straight in a black metal wheelchair with his wife Barbara by his side. His hair still has a little color hinting of his younger days and his eyes gaze widely like he wants to tell me something. I have scratched the surface of events he would rather forget, of memories sealed away, of times that molded his life and his values. He doesn’t remember much about the fight in the European Theatre, but he can’t forget the enemy being right there in our backyard. Only his generation truly understands the jeopardy our freedom was in.
When I ask him what he would say to kids today, the 17-year-olds, he responds, “The Germans were off the coast of Cape May.”