Fifty years ago, on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Company C of the 743rd Tank Battalion landed on Omaha Beach at H hour minus ten minutes. The invasion of Normandy was the first modern amphibious assault in which tanks went ashore first in order to provide fire power that would pro-tect the infantry and engineers who followed. AHungarian-born inventor living in England, Nicholas Straussler, made this extraordinary development possible, for he had found a way to float and move a 32-ton Sherman tank without reducing its armor or armaments.
As a nineteen-year-old gunner in Company C, Ifirst heard we might lead the invasion in waterborne tanks in January 1944, soon after our arrival in England. The idea seemed about as plausible as going to sea in a bathtub, even apart from the fact that German forces behind the Atlantic Wall would also be shooting at us. In the next six months of training, however, most of us became used to the idea; its logic and daring and our ignorance of military mishaps and invasion disasters sustained our optimism. To be singled out for such an apparently foolhardy attempt to gain tactical surprise probably fed our egotistical fantasies of some sort of glory, the military equivalent of fifteen minutes of fame. Besides, I’d grown up on the New England coast, so that being launched 5,000 yards off the French coast in a nine-foot-high canvas boat with a 32-ton keel and twin propellers running off the tank’s moving tracks was an innovation in seamanship I could admire.
As we learned how to use this novel assault weapon, our confidence increased. It did float, although with only three feet of the boat above water. It was launched from a 150-foot-long landing craft (LCT) far from shore and churned forward slowly but steadily. So far as safety and surprise were concerned, it seemed better for us to approach the shore this way than to come close to it while packed into large naval ships that would be easy targets. The German defenders, spotting dozens of small craft, would, or so it was supposed, hold their fire until the little boats discharged soldiers, who would then be obliterated with machine guns and mortars. Instead, as the canvas screen support dropped down in shallow water, the enemy would suddenly discover tanks charging up the beach.
Yet other more ominous dangers also loomed for us. “Should your tank start to sink,” we were told, “you have only twenty seconds to get out,” since the 32-ton keel would quickly reach a depth at which the water pressure would make escape impossible. The training included the same practice as submarine crews go through, and we learned how to quickly put on oxygen masks and swim to the surface.
In a practice maneuver in the English Channel, we saw how the waves could roll over the three feet of canvas that stayed above water and swamp us, and how the channel waters in springtime could drown anyone who …