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THE BEACH BOYS

By W. D. Vey and O. J. Elliott

I N T R O D U C T I O N

My purpose in compiling this history is twofold: first, to provide the surviving members of the battalion with a semi-documented history of their battle actions in WW II; and secondly, to place in the official archives of the United States Navy, a record of this, the granddaddy of all Beach Battalions, Atlantic and Pacific.

Insofar as it is possible to ascertain, there exists today virtually no record of the battalion and its accomplishments. Reference is made to its existence in different publications dealing with amphibious operations in the European theatre, but apparently no comprehensive documentation exists which acknowledges even the existence of our battalion, let alone any that lays down in black and white a record of its accomplishments during our participation in five major amphibious assaults on the beaches of the European-African-Mediterranean theatre.

The reason for this lack of documentation is unknown, and will in all probability remain so, although one possible explanation may be that in the rapid de­commissioning of the battalion in the little Mediterranean town of Arzew at the completion of our fifth amphibious assault, many documents that should have been saved were burned or destroyed in the shredder. It is possible that a record does exist somewhere, hidden under a "Task Force Designator", rather than under the official battalion name. Whatever the reason, the "non-existence" of the battalion in the official naval archives remains an unacceptable situation for those of us who have survived. For this reason, if for no other, we are determined that there shall indeed be a record of the First Naval Beach Battalion, revered by each of us, and documented to the best of our ability for all posterity.

Beach Battalions were a product of World War II. After Dunkirk, Crete and Corregidor, when it was determined that territory lost to the enemy could be regained only by storming the coasts of Europe and Africa, and the island beaches of the Pacific, concepts of modern warfare changed dramatically. High level planners concluded that they could put assault troops ashore from ships and planes, and that, landed in sufficient force, the infantry could fight its way inland. To stay there however, the infantry had to be supplied with food, weapons, clothing, ammunition, artillery, and tank support. Someone had to control the gigantic flow of material across the beaches while and after they had been assaulted, and to that end the concept of Naval Beach Battalions was born. Shore Parties were nothing new to the Navy. They had been around for years. Most were composed of members of the ship's company, picked to go ashore to put down revolts, fight fires, give aid in time of disaster, etc., but, during a conflict such as the sea-to-land assaults of World War I, ship's captains simply could not spare men from the crew for such duties. Accordingly, separate organizations, skilled in jobs related to amphibious warfare, were needed. And so, the Naval Beach Battalions were conceived and born, and so, specifically, was the First Naval Beach Battalion which still, 50 years later, generates a feeling of pride that brings us together annually to renew and share that feeling which remains strong in all of us who were there.

Records and documentation pertaining to the initial formation and organization of the battalion are few and far between. The North African invasion task forces for Morocco on the Atlantic and Algeria in the Mediterranean included "beach parties" added to ship's companies for the purpose of the early concept of combined navy-army beach parties. Some embarked from England, others from our east coast ports. The successful conclusion of these landings saw most of the troop transports brought back to the states for better re-fitting as assault transports. The officers and men of the newly created beach parties were detached and sent to various amphibious assembly pools to await assignment to the many branches of the rapidly expanding amphibious forces. From this witches cauldron of "veterans" of the African landings, and many newly allocated men and officers from all over the United States, the Beach Battalion, the FIRST NAVAL BEACH BATTALION, grew like Topsy from pieces of paper to a unit of three companies, nine platoons, and a headquarters group, a total of approximately 450 newly introduced strangers. As noted above, records and documentation of this helter-skelter transfer of so many men and officers into a newly formed unit remain obscure, very obscure.

It is entirely possible that records and documentation pertaining to the initial formation and organization of the battalion exist only in the few examples attached to this work as appendices. It is known, however, that initially and for the North African invasion, the units assigned to assault transports and which subsequently formed the nucleus of the battalion were officially known as "Beach Parties". The actual commissioning of the re-formed group as the First Naval Beach Battalion" took place in the Naval Base area of Norfolk, Virginia, which now included rapidly expanding amphibious facilities at Ocean View, Little Creek, and Camp Bradford.

Subsequent to, and to some extent during the North African landings, sailors ordered to Beach Battalion duty were normally assigned to one of four duty classifications; communications, hydrographics, boat repair, or medical. When a beach battalion went into action, it was organized along the lines of an Army battalion - three companies, with each company divided into three platoons whose interlocking duties embraced every phase of the battalion's task. Company and Battalion Headquarters personnel, as noted, brought the battalion, at full strength, to 450 officers and men.

Headed by a Beachmaster and his Assistant, each platoon of a Beach Battalion was assigned signalmen, radiomen, medical personnel, hydrographic specialists, and boat repair experts. In a typical beach assault, the personnel of the beach battalion went ashore in one or more of the first three or four assault waves, scattering their equipment over the beach so that a single bomb or artillery shell would not destroy all of it. Digging their own slit trenches and foxholes on the beach, the men prepared as best they could for possible enemy counterattack while still setting up the beach as a simulated port for the onslaught of supplies, equipment and men soon to be landed in support of the initial assault troops already headed inland to their assigned objectives.

Scheduled to be the first into action during a beach assault were the medical personnel, administering to assault troops cut down during the first waves, and evacuating casualties to naval ships lying to off the beaches. Emergency treatment was given, and a casualty section was augmented by hydrographic and boat repair personnel pressed into service as stretcher-bearers. Meanwhile, the Beachmaster and the men trained in hydrographic duties were locating the various beach sites, surveying the approaches and beach exits, locating and charting underwater obstacles, and determining the best passages for the armada of landing craft soon to come. Enemy gunfire and strafing runs were usually ignored in the early stages of beach operation. There was no place to go. Navy underwater demolition teams and army engineering personnel were called in when required to clear approach lanes and to blow beach and underwater obstacles. Boat repairmen, when released from stretcher-bearing duties, turned their attention to the problem of landing craft that had been damaged or broached in landing, in an attempt to get them back into service and returned to their parent ships.

Beach communications often decided the turn of a battle, and so the communications elements of the Beach Battalion were rapidly deployed and established, (normally in the first assault wave), to link the Beachmaster up with the fleet and the assault troops. Radios, signal lights, and the gyrating arms of battalion signalmen were put to immediate and effective use in the establishment of the overall beach operations.

From their own experiences, the men of the First Beach Battalion can tell you that there is no such thing as a perfect beach operation. Something always goes wrong. At Port Lyautey and Fedala on the North African Atlantic approaches, the gigantic pounding surf crumpled landing craft into tangles of twisted wood and metal; at Sicily, the combination of great swells and beaches poorly suited for landing craft, tossed landing craft around like corks, dumping them on the beaches like pieces of driftwood. At Salerno, the obstacles were the massed German Tiger Tanks with their dreaded 88mm cannon, picking off approaching landing craft like ducks in a shooting gallery. The condition of the British vehicles, fresh from Montgomery's desert campaign against the German forces under Rommel, required all the equipment and skill of the battalion’s drivers and mechanics to drag them off the beaches to make room for the following landing craft and their loads. At Anzio, after a surprisingly unopposed landing, the failure of the Army brass to take advantage of the German's occupation elsewhere created a siege condition on the beaches that lasted for more than four months, during which time the Beach Battalion and Army Shore Party Engineers were at the mercy of the pounding of the German artillery in the mountains behind the beach guarding the approaches to Rome. This included the famous "Anzio Annie" cannon mounted on rails, which provided an almost impregnable hiding place into a mountain tunnel between firing runs. Finally, the landing described as "nearly perfect” by the “big brass”, the invasion of Southern France. A few booby-trapped pine trees along the beaches, the usual nut-crusher mines in the sand, and a rather skimpy collection of underwater concrete tetrahedrons failed to deter the invasion forces even temporarily. If any of our overseas operations could be tagged as such, Southern France, our fifth and final landing, was a “piece of cake”. By and large, though, there was always something to cause part of the carefully laid plans and timing to be discarded. Our battalion personnel took a back seat to no one in this operational area. To some of the more ingenious members of the battalion it was fun.

But the landings were made and the beachheads established because the men of the “Immortal First” refused to accept temporary setbacks or defeat. When the first wave roared ashore and the boat ramps dropped our battalion was there. And got the job done. Not always according to the book. But done and done well.

The development of the First Naval Beach Battalion from an untried group of quickly formed experimental beach parties in 1942, to the crack unit that stormed the beaches of Southern France in 1944 in what has been described as the most nearly perfect amphibious operation of the entire war, perfectly illustrates the metamorphosis from beach parties into naval beach battalions. The FIRST was "first". For a long time it was unique. It set the style and standards for those that followed. The trials and tribulations and the exploits and accomplishments of the officers and men of the First Naval Beach Battalion are briefly touched on in the ensuing chapters of this short history.

Perhaps in the millennium to come, some young Galactic sailor, bored as we were with the interminable length of his voyages, will press the button on his star ship that will bring onto his view screen this, The History of the Immortal USN First Naval Beach Battalion.

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Tim White
Revised  October 21, 2008